Bill would let state keep tolls after roads are paid off

The State Road and Tollway Authority would be allowed to continue tolls on express lanes in perpetuity under Senate Bill 183.

The State Road and Tollway Authority would be allowed to continue tolls on express lanes in perpetuity under Senate Bill 183.

State transportation officials are seeking the General Assembly’s blessing for their plan to use tolls as a permanent tool to regulate traffic on Georgia’s congested highways.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 183 by a vote of 50-1. The bill grants the State Road and Tollway Authority the power to collect tolls on road projects in perpetuity, rather than letting the tolls expire once road construction projects are paid for.

MORE: Who pays the tolls on I-75/I-85?

TRACK BILLS: AJC Legislative Navigator

In the past, the state has pledged revenue from tolls to help pay for construction projects, but promised to remove the tolls when the project is paid off. One example: Ga. 400, where — after a public outcry against plans to keep the tolls — state officials removed them in 2013.

Now, Georgia uses tolls to regulate traffic, as well as pay for road projects. Under a “dynamic pricing” strategy, tolls rise as traffic increases. The idea is to limit the number of vehicles in toll lanes to keep traffic in them moving at 45 mph or more. Drivers are essentially paying for the privilege of moving faster than those in the general purpose lanes.

It's a strategy SRTA uses on the new I-75 South Metro Express Lanes in Clayton and Henry counties and the I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett and plans to use on the Northwest Corridor in Cobb County.

SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson said the agency essentially is asking legislators to “formally recognize the strategy that the whole world knows we’re already doing.”

Not everyone is sold. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, cast the lone dissenting vote. He said the tolls should expire when a project is paid for.

“I don’t know if it’s keeping trust with the voters,” Fort said of the bill.

Senators passed an amendment to the bill that requires SRTA to report the amount of money it collects from tolls and how those dollars are used.

SB 183 also would grant SRTA the ability to extend credit or loans to private parties involved in road construction and to form nonprofit corporations to do the same. Tomlinson said that would encourage partnerships in which private companies could borrow money for public road projects at reduced rates while being responsible for repaying the debt.

He said SRTA would retain the authority to set and collect tolls on Georgia highways.

SB 183 now goes to the House of Representatives.