Ga. 400/I-85 to be rebuilt, but was new toll needed?

By  Ariel Hart for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
6:54 p.m. Monday, June 6, 2011

The Buckhead bottleneck that currently traps thousands of commuters and residents at Ga. 400 and I-85 each day is about to be rebuilt. The project has been awarded to a contractor, and should be finished by Dec. 31, 2013.
However, for Ga. 400 toll payers who once expected the toll to expire this year, the congestion relief will be bittersweet.  As they now continue paying the toll for another decade to fund the interchange project and others, there is a new kicker. The bid the state accepted Friday for the project is far lower than the state estimated it would be when it made the case that the toll had to be extended.
So low, it raises the question of whether the toll extension was necessary in the first place.
For Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, the main thing is that the interchange will now be fixed.
“It was a long time in coming,” Massell said.
Currently, southbound drivers on Ga. 400 who want to go north on I-85, and southbound drivers on I-85 who want to go north on Ga. 400, must leave the highway and take surface streets to re-enter the highway system.  Not only is it a mess for the highway drivers, but it places a crushing burden on local streets, say local advocates such as Massell.
“Equally if not more important, it will decrease the traffic and congestion on the surface streets around it like Sidney Marcus and Piedmont and Lenox and Buford Highway and others,” Massell said. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who led the decision to extend the toll last year, estimated that the gap throws 24,000 cars a day onto surface streets.
The contract awarded Friday by the state Department of Transportation should add two ramps to “finish” the interchange. The contract is both for designing and building the interchange, so drivers probably won’t see construction crews for about nine months, said DOT spokeswoman Jill Goldberg.
The contract went to Archer Western Contractors Ltd. for $21,423,500.
That’s far less than the $40 million estimated by the State Road and Tollway Authority last fall, when the authority made the case for extending the toll to 2020 — or the $30 million to $40 million estimated by a DOT official.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted at the time that the toll authority expected to have $42.5 million  in excess toll reserves at the conclusion of the original toll, meaning that the state did not need to extend the  toll to pay for the  I-85/Ga. 400 interchange. However, Perdue, who chaired the authority as governor, replied that not just those projects, but others  along the corridor needed to be done, too.
If bids on all 11 of those Ga. 400 projects — estimated by SRTA last fall at a total of $67 million — come in at the same low rate under the estimates, the state wouldn’t need the new toll to build any of them. It’s impossible to say, until all the projects to be paid for from toll revenue are put out to bid.
The state is in the process of initiating some of them.
One has come in way  under estimates.  A modification to the merge lanes at Ga. 400 and I-85  was estimated at $500,000. But after the state chose a cheaper version of that project, it cost $50,000 or less, Goldberg said.
A spokeswoman for the toll authority, Malika Reed Wilkins, wrote in an e-mail that the public was not misled, and “the bids for the connector ramps are very close to what we anticipated.” Of the five bids, one came in at $35.4 million, and the other four ranged from $21.4 million to $26.1 million.
Asked about the estimates, Massell said, “We were at the mercy of the state in its calculations.” The interchange “was our top priority, and if it meant continuing the toll, it meant it was a necessary evil.”However, he said, now that the state has good news about the cost of the projects, it can use the extra money to keep up Ga. 400, or reduce the toll.
Although bondholders have been promised income from the toll, Massell said it was legally possible to put aside the cash needed to pay them back.
Gena Evans, director of the toll authority, told a legislative panel earlier this year that eliminating the toll could impair the state’s bond rating as well as confidence with investors in public-private toll projects.

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