Toll closing expected to add congestion on Ga. 400

Ga. 400 toll set to come down — but traffic likely to go up

A bittersweet victory awaits drivers who finally stop paying the hated 50-cent toll on Ga. 400 this week.

New drivers attracted by the free ride are expected to add up to 18 percent more traffic on the road, according to the State Road and Tollway Authority.

“Oh no,” said Shirica Arnold, 26, a Sandy Springs resident who travels Ga. 400 inside the Perimeter several times a week. “There can’t be more traffic. It can’t be more traffic than it is now.”

There can.

Ga. 400 currently serves about 120,000 drivers each weekday at the toll plaza, according to the State Road and Tollway Authority.

The estimates for increased traffic range from 10 percent to 18 percent, said Bert Brantley, the tollway authority’s deputy executive director, though the figures are dated and don’t take into account the new ramps that are scheduled to open at I-85.

“It will be interesting to see what the true impact of removing the tolls is versus the what studies say,” Brantley wrote in an e-mail. “While 50 cents does not seem like it would be much of a deterrent to using Ga 400, the high number of customers that preferred to use cash certainly indicates that there is a group of drivers who would potentially avoid the road if they didn’t happen to have two quarters with them at the time.”

The Ga. 400 toll has been a thorn in the side of drivers and a political problem for state leaders. Drivers were outraged in 2010 when then-Gov. Sonny Perdue announced that the toll would remain in place, despite earlier promises that it would be removed once Ga. 400 was paid for.

Gov. Nathan Deal yielded to the backlash and reversed the decision in 2012. Preliminary work to remove the toll will begin this weekend, and the toll plaza will be demolished next year.

Before the toll officially goes away, tentatively scheduled for late next month, transportation workers will reroute the roadway’s three lanes through the Cruise Card lanes and lower the speed limit to 45 miles per hour near the plazas. Officials say the Cruise Card lanes are wide enough to accommodate three lanes and won’t significantly congest traffic.

When the tolls go dark, motorists can expect a basic principle of markets to take hold: As the price goes down, demand goes up.

The prospect of more traffic on Ga. 400 prompted mixed feelings among Ga. 400 drivers and businesspeople interviewed this week. Most were originally thrilled, or satisfied, to learn the state was lifting the toll. But none were thrilled now to hear about the additional traffic.

After years of railing against the toll and the broken promise to lift it in 2011, some of those same drivers are even re-thinking the unthinkable: Would a toll be better after all?

“It’s like you’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Arnold, who used to pay the toll every day when she was a student, until the traffic and the expense pushed her to MARTA. “It’s frustrating.”

Others echoed her dismay: “I’m not prepared for that,” rued events planner Tekoa Williams, 30, shaking her head.

“I think that’s horrible,” said Connie Morris, a retired nurse who lives in Sandy Springs and still has a Cruise Card.

When the state initially tried to keep the toll beyond its scheduled shutdown, Morris felt that “we were lied to.” But with the added traffic, she said, “It’ll be chaos, just more accidents.” In the end, she said, “I’m very ambivalent.”

Steven Nibur, a corporate lawyer, doesn’t hate the toll at all. Nibur would take that over heavier traffic any day. “I’m happy to pay a premium to have less people on the road,” he said, calling the traffic now “horrible.”

If there is one thing they can all be glad of, the off-and-on bottleneck caused by the toll plaza will go away. The toll plaza has made traffic congestion on Ga. 400 between the plaza and I-85 the most unpredictable in the nation, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. And who knows, said TTI scholar Tim Lomax, overall congestion might even get better.

There is another silver lining. Many of those new Ga. 400 trips are likely to be people who would have driven surface streets instead. “I think the alternate roads will heave a sigh of relief maybe,” said Debra Rasouliyan.

She grew so tired of traffic on one of those streets, Sidney Marcus Boulevard, that she developed alternatives to the alternative, taking Lavista Road instead.

Brantley noted that the Ga. 400 corridor has a wealth of commuting options, including the MARTA red line. He added that while keeping the toll up past its original due date, the state also paid for some interchange improvements including at I-85.

Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition and former Atlanta mayor, gave a big cheer for that project. And he’s looking on the bright side.

When congestion decreases on alternate routes such as Sidney Marcus, Buford Highway and Piedmont Road, Massell said, that will be good for business there as through drivers make space for destination customers. Plus, he added, traffic itself isn’t all bad.

“If we didn’t have traffic, we wouldn’t be a major city competing with the others of the world,” he said.

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