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The grinding traffic and NASCAR-like driving habits of Atlanta-area motorists are enough to infuriate any motorist who uses the toll road Ga. 400.
Some drivers, though, were comforted by the thought they wouldn't have to pay the 50-cent toll much longer.
That changed Friday when the State Road and Tollway Authority voted to extend the toll to 2020. The toll was set to expire in 2011, when the bonds used to fund construction of the road extension are to be paid off. The authority's board has discussed briefly suspending the toll shortly after the bonds are paid off and then reinstating it. Some critics say temporarily suspending the toll is a sly attempt to avoid criticism that the authority reneged on an agreement to permanently stop collecting it.
So did the authority flip-flop?
Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said of the plan: "This is a political act to avoid being accused of going back on their word."
Let's look at how the authority got to this point.
Atlanta and state leaders began seriously looking in the late 1980s at a proposal aimed at improving traffic from the city's northern suburbs to downtown. The proposal was to create a 6.2-mile extension of Ga. 400 from the suburbs to I-85. Commuters would pay a 50-cent toll each way. Some neighborhood groups in Atlanta's Buckhead community strongly opposed the project. Robb Pitts, then an Atlanta city councilman, said he came up with a compromise that was included in Section 1(f) of a July 5, 1989, letter from the Georgia Department of Transportation to then-Mayor Andrew Young.
"That all tolls shall be discontinued upon full payment of all bonds which are issued to finance construction of the Georgia 400 Extension and the Buckhead Loop," the stipulation read. "The Georgia Department of Transportation agrees to this stipulation."
Pitts, now a Fulton County commissioner, said the Ga. 400 extension would not have passed if not for that agreement. The authority estimates nearly 120,000 people use the extension every day. State officials estimate they'll collect nearly $21 million from the toll in the 12-month period that began July 1.
Now, let's get in the fast lane and move to September 2010. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned some state leaders were considering plans to continue the toll, although the bonds for the extension construction were scheduled to be paid off in 2011. The authority came up with a wish list of road projects it would like to implement if it had more money from sources such as, say, a Ga. 400 toll. The list includes connector ramps at the interchange at I-85 in Buckhead and widening the road between McFarland Road and Ga. 20.
Pitts came to Friday's meeting but said he wasn't allowed to speak. The Fulton commissioner said he talked with Gov. Sonny Perdue, chairman of the authority board, and told him that extending the toll could hurt support for a 2012 voter referendum on a regional transportation funding plan that was passed by state leaders this year after years of debate.
"If [the voters] can't trust you on [ending the toll], how can we trust you in 2012?" Pitts said he asked Perdue.
Pitts suggested the authority stop the toll during a 30-day public comment period the authority allows to hear from state residents about items it has approved. The authority would look into stopping the toll at some point next year and charging motorists again as a "new" toll. When asked how long would the suspension be, the governor replied "brief," said AJC transportation reporter Ariel Hart, who covered the meeting.
How brief? Perdue said he didn't know and then seemingly half-jokingly added "hours."
Pitts said he supports the improvements on I-85.
"It's not my preference, but it's a fallback position," Pitts said. "You may get more support for [extending the toll]."
Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis has criticized the extension of the toll. If the toll must be continued, he would prefer using at least some of the money collected to fund regional transportation. Willis' proposal stems from the longtime lament among some leaders from Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties that they contribute money from a 1 percent sales tax on most goods to help pay for MARTA but other counties do not, although some of their residents use the rail and bus system.
Willis, a member of the council's transportation committee, calls extending the toll a "flip-flop."
"We should never go back on a promise we made to our citizenry," the councilman said.
Our Flip-o-Meter defines a Full Flop as "a complete change in position." This vote, we believe, falls into this category. This is a Full Flop if ever there was one.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Ga. 400 toll: A broken promise would mean new projects," Sept. 22, 2010
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Ga. 400 tolls to be extended to 2020," Sept. 24, 2010
AJC Political Insider, "Austin Scott: Lift the Toll on Ga. 400," March 23, 2010
Telephone interview with Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis, Sept. 24, 2010
Telephone interview with Kennesaw State University professor Kerwin Swint, Sept. 24, 2010
Telephone interview with Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, Sept. 27, 2010
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