Board delays toll decision for Georgia Route 316; privatization law at heart of debate

| 1/28/2005

Georgia’s State Transportation Board has delayed a decision about whether to add tolls to state Route 316 near Atlanta.

The board voted to delay the decision by 60 days during a recent meeting in Atlanta, said David Spear, a media relations officer with the Georgia Department of Transportation. However, the board has not yet set a new meeting to vote on the project. Spear said the board was waiting for possible action by the Legislature to change portions of the law; a transportation board meeting on Route 316 could occur sometime by the end of March.

The route in question is a major corridor between the state capital and the university town of Athens, GA. The addition of tolls to pay for improvements on the highway has generated plenty of heat.

The plan involves roughly $800 million worth of interchange and other improvements that would be paid for and constructed by private companies on the limited-access road, which runs from Interstate 85 to Athens, about 29 miles. The private businesses would then collect tolls. If the board decides to move forward, the next step would involve the start of negotiations with a consortium of private companies.

However, Spear said how and where tolls would be charged has yet to be determined.

Spear said the decision was delayed for several reasons. In part, the board delayed “because both the commissioner of transportation and through him, in conversations, the governor, have decided they would like to have the legislature address the public private initiative concept which is behind this entire project.”

A bill passed three years ago in the state allowed for public-private partnerships to construct highways and use tolls to pay for them. However, Spear said state officials were concerned about how the bill requires such projects to move forward.

Strong public reaction in the area also played a role in the board’s decision to delay. The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionrecently described the reaction in that region as a “public outcry” against using tolls to pay for work on the road.

Spear said that reaction was due in part to “incomplete information,” including proposed toll rates – some reports said up to $5 for a one-way trip on the road. Those rates had not been approved or even discussed by the state’s transportation department.

“It aroused considerable concern,” he said. “It was difficult, given our inability to disclose a lot of information about the whole project, to convey to people that that was just an artificial number that was sort of pulled out the air … and it had not basis in fact.”

“A perception was created that there was going to be a toll that a few hundred people indicated was excessive.”

Spear said the law that allows the public-private partnerships prevents some information from being released to citizens. The governor would like to see that part of the law changed.

And there were other concerns with the law as well.

“What was determined in the course of this project was that the legislation wasn’t necessarily flawed in this context, but it didn’t allow enough time for competing firms to submit an alternative proposal,” Spear said. “A competing firm would have essentially 90 days to submit another proposal. Commissioners noted that on a project of this size, 90 days is insufficient.”

And the law does not allow the state to decide which projects tolls might be added to. Spears said it requires companies to submit proposals, and the state to evaluate them.

“The department would like to have the authority to solicit proposals,” he said. “As it is now, we can only accept unsolicited proposals. Obviously, we have no ability to control the parameters of those proposals, or set criteria or specifications, or even pick projects.”

– By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor