ATLANTA — Looking to restore public confidence in state government spending ahead of the hard-fought campaign over the transportation tax referendum on the upcoming primary ballot, Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday announced the end of tolls on Ga. 400 by the end of next year.
Deal said the announcement makes good on a promise he made to voters.
"It should convey to the public that government should be trusted," Deal told reporters in a press conference at the Capitol. "For some, the argument against the TSPLOST is about trust. I want to remove that impression, and I think this is a good faith effort to do exactly that."
Opponents of the transportation tax proposal have blasted the plan as a losing strategy that does not address sprawl or smart growth. Georgia Tea Party Patriots State Coordinator Debbie Dooley said Thursday the governor's decision was "insulting."
"Desperation ... that's all this is," Dooley said. "If they keep doing this, it could help, but it does nothing to restore trust before the vote. It's a good thing, but his intentions are not to help the taxpayers. His intentions are to help with the passage of the largest tax increase in Georgia history. He must think voters are pretty shallow not to see past this obvious ploy."
Metro Atlanta, along with the rest of the state, is set to vote on the referendum on July 31. The outcome is expected to be close, and Deal — along with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and members of the region's business community — have expressed their support. Deal pointed to one of the larger items on the region's wish list, which would funnel $400 million into an infrastructure project at Ga. 400 and I-285, as a crucial project.
According to the State Road and Toll Authority, the Ga. 400 extension was completed in 1993 and was the first project of its kind in the U.S. Nearly 120,000 people use the 6.2-mile system every weekday and the state collects about $60,000 a day. The toll for most cars is 50 cents, which is used to pay down bond debt, operate and maintain the highway and fund the agency's operations.
The toll was originally scheduled to come down after 20 years, ending in 2011. But two years ago, the state voted to extend the toll for up to a decade to fund new transportation improvement projects on Ga. 400, and also issued $40 million in new bonds to pay for those projects.
State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, has called for the removal of the toll for three years.
"Although meant to be a temporary source of infrastructure revenue, the 400 toll has become a transportation barrier," said Albers.
The bonds were set to mature on June 1, 2017. Deal said the state will now pay them off four years ahead of schedule, in December of next year. The earlier payment is the soonest the state can act to avoid costly penalties, Deal said.
The governor's proposal requires the approval of the State Road and Toll Authority.