At long last, the Georgia 400 tolls will expire, 20 years after the toll road opened in 1993. The State Road and Tollway Authority has tentatively set the ending date for collecting tolls as Nov. 21, “weather permitting.” It will take about a year to remove the toll booths at a cost of $3.5 million.
The end is in sight because of a campaign promise made by Gov. Nathan Deal three years ago. Before the road opened, state officials had promised the tolls would end when the bonds were paid off, which they were in 2010 but Deal’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue, refused to honor the pledge. Deal, to his credit, has kept his word.
But for folks in Cobb and Cherokee, tolls are in your future. The board of the Georgia DOT has chosen a team to build what is now called “managed lanes” or “optional lanes,” previously planned as “high occupancy toll lanes” along I-75 and I-575.
Two new lanes will run between I-75 at Akers Mill Road and I-575 along the western side of the expressway. Both lanes will be southbound in the morning and northbound in the afternoon. The lanes will split and reduce to one lane at I-575 with one running in the median of that highway to Sixes Road, and the other in the median of I-75 to Hickory Grove Road.
To use these lanes, drivers will have to pay a fluctuating toll based on traffic volume. But there will be no free rides for multiple riders as is the case in Gwinnett County’s controversial HOT lanes (converted from existing non-toll lanes). If you want to ride in the planned optional lanes, you will pay, no matter if you’re solo or driving a van with a dozen passengers. Only transit buses will be allowed un-tolled travel in the new lanes.
The builders, barring an unforeseen snag in final negotiations, will be Northwest Express Roadbuilders, a joint venture between companies in Atlanta and Winter Park, Fla. The total cost is pegged at about $840 million. But the tolls probably will pay for less than half the cost. That would leave the balance to be paid from the state gasoline tax, meaning that all motorists buying gas in Georgia will get to help pay for the toll lanes. Call it double taxation.
All of this expense is supposed to ease traffic congestion, basically a major problem during the morning and afternoon commuting. Never mind that a little staggering of workdays by some major employers, particularly government agencies, plus some forward-looking expansion of working from remote offices might well achieve as much congestion relief especially during the time that construction will add to the congestion.
But the toll lanes — and probably new toll roads — are coming to an interstate near you. And this time there is no promise of ending them.