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Activists organize new campaign against GA 400 toll

6:11 PM, Jun 26, 2012   |    comments
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Toll lane approach on Ga. 400 (The Atlanta Business Chronicle)

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Jon Shirek Log for 6-25-12

Do you agree that the GA 400 toll should be eliminated immediately? 11Alive News wants to make sure your voices are heard by the people in power.  Let us know here, at the bottom of this article, and on 11Alive's Facebook page, and we will take your comments to the Governor and to the State Road and Tollway Authority. Check out the online petition that activists just posted. Contact the State Road and Tollway Authority Board of Directors, including Gov. Nathan Deal. Watch 11Alive News for more information as we hold our state officials, who promised to remove the toll after GA 400 was paid for last year, accountable.

ROSWELL, Ga. -- Activists opposed to the 50-cent toll on Georgia Highway 400 are initiating a new grassroots campaign to try to convince the state to remove the toll.

They are armed with what the organizer calls new information that he says proves the state did not need to keep the toll in place last year to pay for new road improvements along the GA 400 corridor. It is information the state says is false.

"If they can steal our money unchallenged, right from under our noses -- I mean, if they can can take $140 million out of our pockets, what else is there that they cannot do?" Garland Favorito said during a public meeting he hosted in Roswell Monday night.

The state had promised in the early 1990s to eliminate the toll after 20 years, after paying to construct the part of GA 400 that is inside the perimeter. That means the toll was supposed to go away last year.

But in September, 2010, the State Road and Tollway Authority and the Georgia DOT decided to keep the toll in place for up to 10 more years, in order to pay for road improvements such as the completion of the interchange connecting GA 400 and Interstate 85.

The toll currently yields about $59,000 every weekday, which equals more than $15 million a year, plus what the toll brings in on weekends and holidays.

Favorito is leading the charge to remove the toll immediately. He said Monday he has new financial information that proves that the state's reason for continuing the toll for up to ten more years -- to pay for more than a dozen road projects to improve GA 400 -- doesn't hold up.

"The bond money was not needed" in 2010, he said, "They already had $50 million" in cash and other assets such as receivables. "Therefore, they did not need to float the bond to begin with in order to extend the toll. They can actually cut the [GA 400] projects that have nothing to do with this segment of road and pay the bond off, now, and even including the interest ... They have actually surplus funds, they have a lot of surplus funds right now that can be used to pay off the bond and stop the toll."

It was in June, 2010, when then-gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal promised to end the toll if he won the election. And he won the election.

"I think that what we need to do is live up to our word," Deal told 11Alive News at the time. "We should simply take the money we have in hand, which is more than enough to pay off the remaining bonds, [and] take the tolls down."

RELATED | Deal doubtful about removing toll

Favorito counts three votes on the five-member board of the State Road and Tollway Authority in favor of eliminating the toll -- the governor and two others -- if only the board would hold another vote.

"So it really comes down just to a simple matter of convincing the governor, and he was the one who pledged to remove this toll in 2010 anyway," Favorito said. "He needs to honor his pledge. It's a matter of integrity to not rob Peter to pay Paul."

A spokeswoman for the State Road and Tollway Authority told 11Alive News Monday night that Favorito is wrong, there was not a surplus of money in 2010, and if the toll were eliminated now there would not be enough money to pay for all of the new road projects the state has begun ever since extending the toll. She promised to show 11Alive News the exact figures on Tuesday.

Governor Deal's spokesman said Monday night that the governor believes that SRTA's numbers are correct regarding the need for the toll to remain in place, and that the toll should come down as soon as the toll pays for those new projects -- projects initiated before he took office.

"Gov. Deal is committed to bringing down the tolls as soon as the state's obligations are met," spokesman Brian Robinson said Monday in an email to 11Alive News. "New bonds were sold before the governor took office. Gov. Deal believes we must keep faith with taxpayers and remove tolls when the projects are paid for."

Favorito has created a petition for drivers who are fed up with the GA 400 toll to sign. He plans to present the petition to the governor and other state and local officials.

In early 2010, the State Road and Tollway Authority released a study about what would happen to drivers if the toll were removed.

According to that research, removing the toll would cause traffic to increase by 18 percent on GA 400 inside the Perimeter, because more people would use that stretch of highway if there were no toll.

The result of more drivers, according to the study, is that traffic would slow down to 16 miles an hour at peak times, adding an extra nine minutes to the average commute.

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