By John Schaffner

Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell made it very clear during a public forum about a Ga. 400 variable Pricing study Jan. 4 that his organization will oppose any attempt to extend the tolls on the state’s only toll road beyond 2011 and oppose any plan that would result in additional traffic being diverted off the road and into neighborhood streets.

The Georgia State Tollway Authority and its transportation consultants from Wilbur Smith Associates held the first public meeting for stakeholders regarding a recently started study into the possible use of variable pricing of tolls on Ga. 400 rather than the present fixed 50-cent toll.

The audience was mainly interested parties from Buckhead, but the meeting was held at the Sandy Springs city hall, 7840 Roswell Road, miles north of the 6.2-mile stretch of Ga. 400 being studied between I-285 on the north and I-85 to the south.

Patrick Vu, manager for the SRTA study project, explained that this is being looked at as a possible better way to manage the corridor. “It is not about raising money, it is about mobility,” he said. He also said it is about getting more people to use Cruise Cards, which lowers the operations cost to SRTA.

However, the toll would be used to pay for maintenance of the road system.

As part of the study, the project team is looking at ways the toll could be varied—method of payment, time of day and by level of congestion.

According to Wilbur Smith consultant Ed Regan, the study is really talking about “congestion pricing.” He said a 10 percent reduction in peak traffic can reduce congestion significantly.

Regan explained that it is designed to influence motorist behavior by reducing demand in peak periods, smooth out peak hours, encourage use of electronic toll collection to reduce delays at the toll plaza and improve overall efficiency of the transportation facilities. He compared it to the variable pricing of utilities and air and train fares.

He said the big challenge is to move traffic out of peak times while minimizing diversions to alternative routes. Three options highlighted were: (1) price differential between cash and cruise card, (2) price differential by time of day, and (3) combination of the two concepts.

Two survey forms were distributed at the end of November, 21,000 copies of one handed out at the Ga. 400 toll booth to cash customers and another 21,000 slightly different surveys mailed to Cruise Card customers. To date about 2,900 of those have been returned. The target completion date for the study is mid-March.

Massell told the study group, which included SRTA Executive Director Rosa C. Rountree, that there is a lot of opposition to extending tolls anywhere beyond 2011, when the bonds are to be fully paid off.

“The Buckhead Coalition will oppose anything that would divert Ga. 400 traffic to neighborhood streets and any extension of the toll after the original bonds are paid off, both of which were promised in the original Ga. 400 campaign 18 years ago,” Massell stated bluntly.

He suggested one possible option would be to have some lanes on the road for free travel after 2011 and others as toll lanes for people who want to pay to use them.

Denise Starling, executive director of the Buckhead Area Transportation Management Agency (BATMA), was curious as to why HOV versus single occupancy vehicles are not being considered in the survey, since Ga. 400 presently has no HOV lanes.

One of the lone Sandy Springs persons attending the meeting, City Council member Karen Meinzen McEnerny, questioned whether congestion is really an issue on the 6.2-mile stretch of Ga. 400 being studied.

Garth Peters, director of community development for the Buckhead Coalition, questioned why employers as well as commuters were not being surveyed if one of the goals is to alter the time of day at which commuters are using the road. He pointed out that providing workers with the option of flextime is something the employer decides, not the employee.

Also attending the meeting was Gordon Certain, president of the North Buckhead Civic Association, which represents neighborhoods that were split by the building of Ga. 400 years ago and still straddle the roadway.