Ronald Reagan extension could be financed with tolls

LAWRENCEVILLE - Years ago, political pressure killed a proposal to use tolls to finance upgrades to Ga. Highway 316.

More recently, a proposal to use congestion pricing on Interstate 85 has stalled.

But local leaders say they may have found a project where tolls could be both feasible and politically justifiable: a proposed extension to link Ronald Reagan Parkway to I-85.

"Our board is looking at a way to deal with congestion in the community by looking outside of the box," Gwinnett Transportation Director Brian Allen said, noting the fiscal constraints of getting funding from the state and federal governments. "This is one that has a lot of feasibility."

Officials are seeking proposals for a public-private partnership for a three-mile extension of the parkway.

The link to I-85 has been on transportation planners' minds since the $60.5 million, seven-mile road opened in 1994, but no money has been allocated for the expensive connection.

Without a partnership, which could mean tolls are used to finance the construction, it would likely take years - even decades - before funds would be available, Allen said.

"This is a likely candidate because it provides a project people need in one of the most congested areas of the county," Allen said.

Even if a toll is charged to drive on the extension from Pleasant Hill Road to the interstate, people would still have the choice to exit at Pleasant Hill and drive to I-85 from there, he said.

"It gives people a choice. Nobody would have to pay tolls," he said. "The question people could ask is, is it worth paying a toll to be on 85 in three minutes as opposed to 30 minutes?"

While none of the details of the project have been decided - including the route or the financing - Allen said the county is not contemplating tolls on any portion of the existing road, which was the most controversial part of the Ga. 316 proposal years ago.

"Given the current fiscal state of the state DOT, we are forced to look as some creative and innovative ways to get our citizens moving. I believe this is one step in that direction," Commissioner Lorraine Green said.

Allen said the decision on a partner for the project likely won't come until October. At that point, county officials and the contractor would work for nine months to a year to consider the feasibility, the route and the possibility of tolls. Allen said public input would be a part of the process, and a decision on pursuing the project could be more than a year away.

"I don't like the idea of roads being financed by private interests," said Janet Tobin, who lives in a neighborhood near the current terminus for the parkway. She is concerned how the route would impact her home as well as her commute and her tax dollars.

"I commute to downtown Atlanta every day, so I fully understand the traffic congestion problems," she said. "I would like to be able to get on a MARTA train and commute that way. ... Perhaps we should be talking about mass transit instead of building more roads. I don't think it's worth destroying neighborhoods."

Commissioner Bert Nasuti said he is interested in building the extension, but he said the neighborhoods and environmental issues in the area are his first concerns.

"If we had a way to get people from 85 to Ronald Reagan, it would probably be a huge reliever to Pleasant Hill," he said. "I think it's something we've got to look at. ... I'm always a believer in trying to fund roads without tolls. Whether this should be a toll road, I don't know."

The state Department of Transportation has considered public-private ventures along Ga. Highway 400 and Interstates 75 and 285, in addition to Ga. 316. None have moved forward, but Allen said he has looked at projects in California, Virginia and Texas as examples.

"It's a matter of identifying the right project," he said of the success of a public-private partnership. "We think it's got enough potential benefit to make it worth looking at the option."

SideBar: Governor embraces pair of mass transit initiatives

By Shannon McCaffrey

The Associated Press

ATLANTA - With gas prices soaring, Gov. Sonny Perdue on Thursday threw his support behind a pair of mass transit initiatives that could get more Georgians out of their cars.

Perdue said he's directing $13 million in bonds to purchase 28 more express buses for metro Atlanta. The governor also embraced plans for a new commuter line south of Atlanta, which has already secured some federal funds. The line is slated to go to Lovejoy. Perdue suggested it should stretch all the way to Griffin, another 15 miles to the South.

'We need more transit options,' Perdue told a state Capitol news conference.

Perdue has been cool to commuter rail in the past. Two months ago his opposition to a local option sales tax plan for transportation helped kill it in the waning minutes of the legislative session. And he has said consistently that the budget troubles at the state Department of Transportation should be resolved before the state invests significant sums of money there.

There was a new sense of urgency in his words on Thursday, although he was short on specifics.

'We're on an airplane. The choice is not to land. We've got to fix it while we fly,' Perdue said.

Perdue said he wants a transportation package to move in next year's legislative session that would include additional 'resources.' The Republican governor declined to say where additional funds would come from and said that still needs to be worked out.

State Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, who sits on the state Senate's Transportation Committee, said the governor's remarks make it a priority.

'To me this isn't a partisan issue,' Stoner said. 'People sitting in traffic don't care what party you're in.'

Business leaders who had backed this year's failed transportation initiative in the state Legislature also praised the move.

Perdue appeared on Thursday with members of the state Department of Transportation board and the department's new commissioner, Gena Abraham.