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316 toll road steps closer to reality

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Toll road projects ride on guesses

By DUANE D. STANFORD

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For road engineers at least, it was a Kodak moment.

A truck backed up to the loading dock at state Department of Transportation headquarters in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday and off came six file boxes stuffed with a much-anticipated $1 billion proposal to turn Ga. 316 into a toll road. The engineers, all smiles, couldn't resist posing with the boxes for a few snapshots.

Now the work begins. Those same engineers will spend hundreds of hours in the coming months evaluating ridership studies, financial reports, construction design documents and much more, all in an effort to answer two fundamental questions: How much would the trip between Atlanta and Athens cost? And would enough commuters be willing to pay it?

John McCuskey, deputy director of Denver's E-470 -- a tollway similar to the one proposed in Georgia -- said evaluating a toll proposal is like peering into a crystal ball.

"That's why start-up toll roads are do difficult to finance," he said. "You're looking into the future. Who knows what's going to happen?"

Most of the details of the $1 billion proposal submitted Tuesday by the newly formed Parkway Group are secret. Commuters eager to know what's in store for their rush-hour drive won't get finer points of the pitch for months.

A new law allows the state Transportation Department to bypass competitive bidding requirements for certain road and transit projects. Officials don't have to fully disclose a deal until weeks before they sign a contract. The Ga. 316 proposal is the first under the law.

Parkway Group has volunteered limited details, saying it can't go further because of competitive pressure. The consortium is made up of engineering, construction and project management firm Washington Group International and three of Georgia's largest road builders -- Marietta-based C.W. Matthews, Snellville-based E.R. Snell and Kentucky-based APAC-Southeast.

The consortium estimates the Ga. 316 toll will cost roughly 12 cents per mile, or about $4.70 one-way for the 39-mile trip along the length of the road.

Some drivers say they will pay anything to ride on a safer version of the road, where 31 people died in crashes between 1995 and 2000. Others long to save a few minutes during rush-hour because of less traffic. In Gwinnett County, the road carries more than 86,000 cars a day.

Detractors, including some students at the University of Georgia, have said the nearly $10 round-trip would force them onto neighboring roads.

It will be up to Georgia officials to determine whether the proposed toll is excessive.

Critical guesses

Joan Peters, former executive director of the Connector 2000 Association, which developed the 16-mile Southern Connector tollway in Greenville, S.C., said careful evaluation of a proposed project's traffic and revenue forecast is essential.

"You really have to trust whoever does your study," Peters said. "Your revenue and your future success are riding on the projections in that toll revenue study. I mean, it's critical."

But even trustworthy projections are just best guesses. The Southern Connector was projected to attract more than 20,000 toll transactions a day at 75 cents each after the first full year of operation. When the road opened in February 2001, passage was free for two weeks, and drivers flocked to try it out , said Connector spokesman Tim Brett. But when the toll went into effect, the drivers went elsewhere.

"It was like a rock going to the bottom of the lake," he said.

Ridership initially stayed below 8,000 transactions a day. Officials blame the recent economic downturn for the poor performance of the road, which was built on the outskirts of town in large part to encourage economic development. Even now, ridership hasn't topped 13,500 transactions a day, but the steady growth has officials breathing easier.

In Denver, the E-470 tollway -- most of which was constructed by Washington Group -- missed its traffic projection for 2003 by 2 percent and its revenue projection by 5 percent, McCuskey said. In past years, those projections have been off by as much as 10 percent.

Peter Samuel, who produces the Web site Toll Roads News, said it's common for start-up projects to fall short of projections early on. The Dulles Greenway near Washington, for example, had a rough start during the late 1990s.

"For two or three years that was pathetic, and they defaulted on their loans and refinanced. And now it's doing fantastic," Samuel said.

McCuskey said toll forecasters are steadily getting better as more toll roads come online, providing more data to compare.

Whether the Ga. 316 toll proposal is truly a good deal for metro Atlanta commuters is uncertain, with so few details available.

"These are complicated projects financially," McCuskey said. "You really have to get to the structure of the organization and how it's set up."

Parkway Group spokesman Bill Berry, who runs Idaho-based Washington Group's Atlanta offices, said the toll road would be built using privately financed bond loans. Construction and project management fees would be paid using those loans. When the work ended -- by 2011 -- the loans would be repaid using toll revenue.

Taxpayers shielded

So what happens if too few people use the road, and revenues aren't enough to cover the loans? Berry said state taxpayers would be shielded, leaving only the investors at risk if ridership projections miss the mark. How? Citing competitive concerns, Berry declined to say.

In Virginia, Washington Group, in cooperation with the state, formed a nonprofit organization to issue bond loans for construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, an 8.8-mile tollway that crosses the James River. The project was the first under Virginia's 1995 public-private initiative law, which was used as a model for Georgia's statute.

If a similar arrangement is chosen for the Ga. 316 project, the deal might look something like this: Parkway Group creates a nonprofit with a board of directors, which sells bond loans to investors and then manages the debt. The board pays Washington Group and the other contract partners using proceeds from the bond loans.

When construction is completed, the improvements are turned over to the state to own, operate and maintain. In return, the state pledges the tolls to retire the bond debt.

By comparison, Ga. 400 was constructed with state revenue bonds, which are backed first by toll revenue and second by the state's general fund. If Ga. 400 ridership dipped and the loan obligations couldn't be met, state taxpayers would be forced to cover the loss and pay investors. So far, the road has far exceeded expectations.

Berry said Parkway Group also will guarantee the project cost and completion date. No budget or scheduling overruns would be allowed.

Greenville's Southern Connector used the same financial model, with bond holders shouldering all of the risk.

In fact, the Southern Connector's troubles have led to discounts for truckers and those who buy electronic debit devices.

Berry said, ultimately, the bond holders have too much at stake to leave anything in the Ga. 316 proposal to chance. "It's an impressive document," he said. "It has to be."- News researcher Alice Wertheim contributed to this article.

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Much rides on Ga. 316 upgrade

By JULIE B. HAIRSTON

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

There will be more than tolls riding on the new plan for converting Ga. 316 to a limited-access highway.

With visions of Ga. 400 -- north metro Atlanta's asphalt economic pipeline -- dancing in their heads, landowners and developers, many of them in Barrow County, have spawned a fury of land speculation along the highway and key intersections over the past five years. A prime commercial spot can now fetch $100,000 an acre or more.

Now, with the long-anticipated proposal on the table from a consortium of road builders called the Parkway Group, property owners are close to finding out whether a 316 tollway will be their road to riches or ruin.

Consider P.R. "Bobby" Smith, a farmer who was U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture under President Jimmy Carter. He's one of the largest landowners in the Ga. 316 corridor. Smith, his business interests and close family members own about 840 acres of land surrounding 316, according to a Journal-Constitution analysis of recent county property tax records.

Smith is a founding member of the University Parkway Alliance, which has been pushing for the conversion of Ga. 316 to limited access since it opened in 1994. Members of the alliance own about 3,200 of about 10,300 acres along the roadway. Those parcels span the entire length of the roadway, which stretches from Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County to Athens in Clarke County, but much of the land is in Barrow County.

"With the financial condition the state of Georgia is in today, for the foreseeable future [private financing with tolls] is probably the only way they're going to get it built in the next generation. It's just a matter of practicality," says Smith, who stands to be a big winner when the road is upgraded and development follows.

Smith says he loves his land, which is currently valued at $3.5 million, and has no plans to develop it anytime soon. His family has farmed it for more than 200 years. But he believes the highway will make the land more valuable to his children "when it comes time for them."

A riskier gamble

Nearly everyone buying, selling or holding land along the parkway is familiar with a set of designs prepared in 2000 by former Georgia Transportation Commissioner Tom Moreland's engineering firm, Moreland Altobelli, at the Barrow County Commission's request.

The maps show a redesigned parkway as an elaborate series of eight diamond interchanges in Barrow County and access roads running parallel to the highway for almost the entire length of its 17 miles through the county. Much of the land speculation to date has focused on those interchanges, which typically bring the first development and highest dollar.

But a road-building expert familiar with the design says the economics of highway construction, especially those likely now to come into play with 316, probably will change the design.

Given the largely rural nature of that part of Barrow County, installing and maintaining eight interchanges on that part of 316 could undermine the potential profitability of the road for private financiers.

With each intersection costing between $10 million and $12 million to build, finding the money to include all of the intersections envisioned in Moreland Altobelli's plan would be very difficult, said Daryl Fleming, an engineer with E-Trans Group. Fleming worked on the state Transportation Department 2002 feasibility study on upgrading University Parkway.

"I just don't see how that would ever pencil out," Fleming said. "You'd never get that by the banks."

While the locations of interchanges in the new proposal from the private Parkway Group are a closely guarded secret, only three interchanges are likely to be built as 316 traverses Barrow County -- most likely its three intersections with other state roads, Ga. 81, Ga. 53 and Ga. 11.

That makes what once seemed like a safe investment in land around the previously proposed exits a much riskier gamble.

The Georgia Club

Stan Coley, a former University of Georgia researcher turned businessman and chairman of the University Parkway Alliance, struck a deal in 1998 to develop 1,200 acres of gently rolling former farmland on the Barrow-Oconee County line into a high-end resort property with loose ties to the university's alumni association.

The Georgia Club began with an 18-hole golf course and a posh clubhouse with upscale amenities. The links to the university helped recruit an active membership. Additional plans called for development of a conference center, hotel and additional recreational facilities.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent economic slide hit hardest in the travel industry. Financing for the hotel and conference center vanished. The Georgia Club's contractors -- everybody from the architect to the brick mason -- filed liens on the property and construction ceased.

During the resulting redesign of the club, Coley sold his interests in the development to his Irish partners, and new management retooled the club's concept. Now the Georgia Club has been reinvented as an upscale residential community for retirees and second-home buyers. That got bulldozers rolling again.

Jim Vanden Berg, the Georgia Club's new chief executive, is confident that the planned upgrade of 316 will enhance the development's attractiveness with quick, safe access to Athens and Atlanta.

"We're 1,200 acres. Upon build-out and completion, we'll have 900 homes. We're going to have a pretty large community," Vanden Berg said. "It's pretty important to us."

But Vanden Berg's faith lies in a Craft Road exit off 316 -- an exit included on the Moreland Altobelli plan but the least likely exit in that plan to pay back its cost in toll revenue.

The club even erected a large pillar and fence at 316 and Craft identifying it as the entrance to the club.

But competition from other intersections may separate the pillared entrance from the artery the Georgia Club management is counting on to pump business its way.

Vanden Berg said getting direct access to the parkway is not a life-or-death issue for the club. But it clearly would be a factor in how he markets his properties.

"For most people, it's really more of a safety issue," Vanden Berg said. "Traffic is only going to get heavier on 316 as the university [of Georgia] continues to grow."

Others to profit, too

Other members of the University Parkway Alliance are in better position to profit from the parkway upgrade. Retired farmer Smith, People's Bank President Chris Maddox and his family, and auto dealer Brad Akins -- all members of the alliance -- are among the 10 largest Barrow County landholders at key intersections, with combined holdings of 781 acres valued at more than $7 million.

Akins, who owns a stock-car racing team and one of the largest Ford dealerships in the Southeast, is perfectly poised to take advantage of the parkway upgrade.

For almost four years, the Barrow County businessman has been trying to pull together all the necessary elements for a 115-acre commercial development at its intersection with Ga. 81. He bought the largest chunk, about 100 acres, for $1.5 million from bank executive Maddox and paid about $2.2. million for the entire parcel, significantly more than the county values the holdings at.

Akins also owns an additional 268 acres near the parkway's intersection with Ga. 53. There, he says, he envisions a retail center and a hotel.

Although he expressed some hesitation about the toll, Akins said knowing what the future holds for the road is better than the uncertainty that has hung over it for more than a decade. And he strongly favors the improved safety that comes with making the highway limited access.

Even though the original plan has now been superseded, one of the winners in this asphalt sweepstakes is likely to be Moreland's family. Moreland Altobelli will be a subcontractor for the private proposal team on the 316 conversion.

Moreland's son, Stephen Moreland, a part-owner of Moreland Altobelli, and daughter Vicki, listed with the Georgia secretary of state as the firm's chief financial officer, own a combined 42 acres on two key corners at 316 and Ga. 81. They bought the bulk of the land in 1986 from their uncle, Walter Stewart. Stewart and his wife own 110 acres near the same intersection, according to county records.

The financial fate of these and other property owners in the University Parkway corridor rests in the private plan now closely held by the state Transportation Department. Many will watch closely as the details are divulged.

Staff writer Maurice Tamman contributed database research for this article.

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I'm all in favor of making GA 316 a toll road. I drive that road every day, and it just doesn't cut it with the at-grade intersections. These are the improvements I'd make:

- Widen it to four lanes in each direction between I-85 and Lawrenceville Highway

- Widen it to three lanes in each direction between Lawrenceville Highway and GA 11, and between U.S. 78/Business U.S. 78 and the Athens Perimeter

- Raise the speed limit to 65 between I-85 and Lawrenceville Highway, and between U.S. 78/Business U.S. 78 and the Athens Perimeter, and to 70 between Lawrenceville Highway and U.S. 78/Business U.S. 78

- Rename it either I-585 or I-785

The following is my proposed exit guide for this new Interstate:

Exit 0 - Boggs Road

Exit 2 - Sugarloaf Parkway

Exit 3 - Riverside Drive

Exit 5 - GA 120: Lawrenceville/Duluth

Exit 6 - Collins Hill Road (no reentry eastbound)

(***ACCESS ROADS BETWEEN THESE TWO EXITS***)

Exit 7 - GA 20/GA 124: Lawrenceville/Buford (no reentry westbound)

Exit 9 - Cedars Road

Exit 10 - U.S. 29 West: Lawrenceville/Dacula

Exit 12 - Harbins Road

(GWINNETT COUNTY | BARROW COUNTY)

Exit 15 - Kilcrease Road

Exit 17 - Patrick Mill Road

Exit 20 - GA 81: Loganville/Winder

Exit 22 - GA 11: Monroe/Winder

Exit 26 - GA 53: Watkinsville/Winder

Exit 30 - Craft Road

(BARROW COUNTY | OCONEE COUNTY)

Exit 34 - U.S. 78 West/Business U.S. 78 East: Monroe/Athens

Exit 36 - Jimmy Daniel Road

Exit 38A - U.S. 29 North/U.S. 78 East/GA 10 Outer Loop/To U.S. 129/To U.S. 441/To GA 15: Watkinsville/University of Georgia

Exit 38B - GA 10 Inner Loop: Bogart

:)

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I definitely think they will upgrade it to a toll road. Even though there is some complaint, I think in the long run it's the only way to get it done in a timely fashion, and they will get the support of the state. I do agree it needs to be done though. Even though my business is off of 316, I would support having it as a toll road. It's a PIA to travel down just about any time of day and there never hesitates to be an accident.

I don't think however, that they will give it an interstate desgination though. I think it will remain GA 316 since it will be upgraded with public/private funds.

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