ATLANTA -- What price freedom -- from the Georgia 400 toll?
Too high, for now, says the state.
Easily affordable, says a toll critic.
One day after activists announced a new, grassroots campaign aimed at taking down the toll booths that straddle GA 400 in Buckhead, the State Road and Tollway Authority countered with some hard numbers to show how much the state is depending on that 50-cent toll to pay for several improvement projects along the highway.
SRTA said Tuesday night that it currently owes $94 million, and has $68 million on hand.
Most of that $94 million is for the new projects that are underway; $34 million of it is the remaining principal and interest on bonds issued for the biggest of those projects, the completion of the GA 400/Interstate 85 interchange.
So SRTA is counting on the toll staying in place to make up that $26 million difference between $94 million and $68 million.
The spokesman for Governor Nathan Deal, Brian Robinson, told 11Alive's Duffie Dixon on Tuesday that the toll booths probably can't come down until 2017, at the earliest.
"We want to do it as soon as we can. We understand the frustration," he said. "We have been told that we can't pay off the bonds early. But the governor wants to make sure that as soon as we have the money in hand, to pay off the bonds, that the toll gates come down."
Robinson made it clear that it was the previous administration, just before Deal took office, that extended the toll past its original expiration date and added the projects to be funded by the toll. Deal opposed all of that, Robinson said, but could not, and cannot now, cancel contracts, committments and bond issues made by his predecessors.
Activists insist that their accounting shows a different picture of SRTA's current finances:
"They have actually surplus funds," Garland Favorito told 11Alive's Jon Shirek on Monday. "They have a lot of surplus funds right now that can be used to pay off the bond and stop the toll."
On Tuesday, after Favorito took a look at SRTA's numbers, he pointed out that about one-third of the $94 million the state owes is for 11 big projects along GA 400 outside the Perimeter, to widen lanes and improve interchanges. Those projects cost more than $30 million, in all, and, he said, are not all so far along that they couldn't be stopped, now -- one way, he said, that the state could rearrange its finances to keep a 20-year-old promise to take down the tolls, after all.
Here are the numbers, in an e-mail that Malika Reed Wilkins of SRTA sent to 11Alive News Tuesday night:
As of June 1, 2012, we have approximately $94 million in outstanding obligations and commitments which are offset by $68.4 million in committed but unexpended funds.
The difference in these commitments along with other operational and maintenance expenses will be funded from tolls. Here is the breakdown:
$94 Million (committed):
· $33.7 million - remaining principal and interest for GA 400 Toll Revenue Bond
· $29.4 million - I-85/GA400 Connector Ramps and Merge Modifications
· $30.9 million - GA 400 Corridor Projects [outside the Perimeter].
$68.4 Million (committed but unexpended):
· $33.5 million - unexpended bond proceeds
· $34.9 million - in toll reserve account
Therefore, ending the tolls today, would not allow for our present obligations to be met and much-needed corridor benefits to be realized.
Here is Garland Favorito's perspective on those numbers, which he e-mailed to 11Alive News Tuesday night:
"The key take away point is that these numbers support our claims. If you apply the $33.5 million in unexpended bond proceeds and the $34.9 million in the toll reserve account to the $33.7 million remaining principal and interest and the $29.4 million I-85/GA 400 Ramp project, you have $68 million in assets and $63 million in liabilities for a net surplus of $5 million..."
Also, Favorito believes that SRTA should not have undertaken the $30.9 million in projects outside the Perimeter because, he said, those projects "violate the principals of the agreements with the City of Atlanta and Fulton County" not to spend toll money outside the Perimeter, since the toll has always been collected in the City of Atlanta, and was originally collected to pay for the construction and maintenance of GA 400 in Fulton County and Atlanta inside the Perimeter.
"Those projects should be funded by normal means since they have nothing to do with the segment of GA 400 inside the Perimeter for which the toll booth was constructed."
Favorito, who has started an online petition drive to try to bring pressure on the state to end the toll, has other ideas for budgeting the toll out of existence immediately:
· The 17th St property that should have never been purchased with toll money could be sold for about $10 million to offset a third of the costs of the corridor projects
· The toll booth is taking in about $20 million a year and would net another $10 million by the end of this year
· If you add in the current $5 million excess surplus I mentioned, you have the $30 million needed for the projects by the end of this year
So why do we have to extend the toll until 2017 when we can pay for the project by the end of the year?
Malika Reed Wilkins said in her e-mail that SRTA's use of toll money outside the Perimeter is proper and legal, and SRTA went to the public with its plans to use toll money outside the Perimeter:
SRTA held a 30-day public comment period for the GA 400 Improvement Projects as well as a series of public information open houses. SRTA's policies expressly contemplated the use of toll revenues for transportation uses that benefit the Georgia 400 corridor. The GA 400 Corridor refers to the area within the Perimeter as well as the full length of State Route 400 and the corresponding interchanges, overpasses that directly impact GA 400 and parallel routes that would directly impact mobility on GA 400.
The Public Information Open Houses were held throughout the GA 400 Corridor in order to provide information to citizens about the projects and answer their questions. Those dates were:
Dec. 7, 2010 Forsyth County Commission
Dec. 8, 2010 Pinecrest Academy (SR 141)
Dec. 20, 2010 Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church
Jan. 5, 2011 North Fulton Chamber of Commerce
Jan. 6, 2011 Crowne Plaza at Ravinia