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Another toll road for Atlanta

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Politicians give toll idea good marks

By CHRISTOPHER QUINN

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 11/30/04

Leaders in Cobb and Cherokeee counties welcomed a private consortium's proposal to build express toll lanes along Interstates 75 and 575 years ahead of a state plan to add standard HOV lanes to the roadways.

The consortium of private contractors calling itself Georgia Transportation Partners wants to build 26 miles of barrier-separated toll lanes that would accommodate both cars and a new bus rapid transit system of trainlike express buses.

Under a 2-year-old law, companies can propose building state Department of Transportation projects outside the normal bidding process. They submit a sealed proposal and a price, including a plan for financing the construction.

The DOT had planned to build HOV lanes and launch bus rapid transit along the same corridor, but that project is not scheduled to begin until 2009.

The consortium believes it could be finished as early as 2011, shaving as much as seven years off the completion time.

The proposal calls for tolls of 10 cents per mile off peak to 40 cents per mile during peak travel periods, or from $1 to $4 for a 10-mile ride.

Cutting years off the project could be worth the projected toll costs, said state Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Canton). "I know only what I've seen in the newspaper, but being able to get it years in advance makes a huge difference," he said.

Still, Hill wants to know whether the private plan would require buying additional right of way along the interstates and whether the tolls would be discontinued once the project was paid off.

"I would have to look at that before coming up with a positive or negative response," he said.

Hill will have to wait before getting his questions answered, probably for months.

The process is secretive. After a proposal is submitted to the DOT, other companies have 90 days to produce competing proposals. None of the project plans has to be revealed to the public until the DOT board of directors and state House and Senate Transportation committees review and select a project.

The I-75 and I-575 proposal is only the second such project to be considered under the new legislation. The first was to improve and convert to a tollway 39 miles of Ga. 316 from Lawrenceville to Athens. That proposal was submitted in January and few details are known because the DOT is still mulling it over.

State Sen. Bill Stephens (R-Canton), who co-sponsored the legislation, said he thinks the process is working.

"I believe the private sector is more nimble and can move more quickly than the state does," he said.

While some commuters already have objected to the tolls, Stephens noted the existing lanes would continue to cost nothing. The express lanes would give drivers a pay-for-use alternative.

"I think it's up to the taxpayers and the voters of course to determine whether or not the pleasure is worth the pain," he said. "I personally think solving our problems now rather than later is a wise thing to do."

Others questioned the state's strategy of expanding highways while doing little to promote public mass transit.

Walter Biscardi, a video producer from Buford, noted that the HOV lanes along I-85 that opened three years ago have done little to ease congestion.

"How many lanes have we already added, and how much of our problem has it solved?" he asked. "We need light rail."

State Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville), who has questioned the tolls for the Ga. 316 proposal, noted that Ga. 400 opened as a toll road and is one of the most congested highways in metro Atlanta.

Instead of tolls, he would like the state to consider other options, like shifting transportation money from rural parts of the state to more traffic-plagued areas. "Why are so many projects going on around the state and 316 is not getting [the money]?'' he asks.

"We see the widening of highways in South and Middle Georgia, and they are not toll roads," he said.

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It seems to me that more people are in favor of a light rail system, as I highlighted in this article.

I can't see how a toll road would be beneficial. Politicians have got to know that if GA400 didn't work, then this wouldn't either. Perhaps they just want money? Apparently this is a good way to get it in Atlanta.

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