Update on Friday: The toll plan passed, as expected. The AJC’s news story is available here. And here are a few comments of my own about what went down today:
1. From the news story: “In order to satisfy the original promise that the tolls would come down in 2011, [Gov. Sonny] Perdue said, SRTA will see if it can suspend the tolls briefly in 2011. When they went back online, he said, they would be a ‘new’ toll. That was suggested by one former Atlanta city councilman, he said, Robb Pitts.”
My comment: That’s just insulting. It may make even more of a mockery of the original promise to take down the toll, and it seems legally questionable since that’s not what the SRTA board voted on. But it also makes a mockery of SRTA’s alleged concern, voiced by a lawyer for the authority at this morning’s DOT board meeting, that it would be unsafe to have “cars trying to speed through there at full speed” if the toll-plaza structure were still in place but the toll was not being collected. So, that’s considered dangerous — but it would be safe enough to only do it for a brief period of time, if that counted as throwing a bone to barking citizens? Please.
2. The Political Insider, Jim Galloway, quoted the governor as saying today that “it’s easy to be a political populist and say ‘broken promises, no trust.’ ”
My comment: If demanding that government stick to its promises and respect the public’s trust now count as “political populism,” the pitchforks may be here sooner than we thought. If the governor truly thinks his plan is what’s best for Georgians, he ought to have the confidence to make his case to the people who pay the tolls — and not join other officials in hiding behind a time crunch that they created themselves in waiting until now to bring the issue up for a vote.
There was nothing stopping them from bringing this issue before the DOT, and then SRTA, a month or two ago. It’s not as if the end of the tolling period has sneaked up on anyone; we’ve known that the date was June 2011 since Perdue was still a Democrat.
3. I attended the DOT board meeting this morning. Now, I have covered any number of governmental meetings and hearings in my career, but this was by far the most embarrassing display I’ve ever seen.
The chairman of the DOT board was so obviously intent on arriving at the predetermined outcome (passage of the resolution to extend the lease of Ga. 400 to SRTA) that he was in constant danger of skipping procedural votes altogether, and didn’t even allow debate on the final motion to extend the lease. It was a spectacle to hear board members participating by teleconference, because they’d received such short notice of the special called meeting, complaining that they couldn’t even hear what was going on. Then, some of them tried to deny the board a quorum by hanging up their phones en masse (it didn’t work).
It was like watching the Keystone Cops conduct a Kabuki enactment of a kangaroo court. It was pathetic, even from a confirmed skeptic’s perspective.
In any case, here’s what I originally wrote Wednesday:
Politicians aren’t renowned for long-term thinking. In the quiet plan to extend the Georgia 400 toll, we’re witnessing a short-term mistake that may have lasting consequences.
As toll booths went up on Ga. 400 between I-285 and Lenox Road in Buckhead, they came with a promise that the levy would end in 20 years, when the bonds to pay for the highway’s southward extension were paid off. Next June marks the blessed anniversary.
Yet Friday, the boards of the Department of Transportation and the State Roads and Tollway Authority will review a plan to keep charging the toll for perhaps eight more years. Actually, it’s worse than that: For motorists without a prepaid “Cruise Card,” the standard toll could be doubled to $1.
If the AJC had not reported the arrangement last Friday, you may not have heard about it until after the votes were counted.
The plan apparently was to keep citizens in the dark about the toll extension. Details have been hard to come by. Before citizens can vet the proposals, the DOT board may vote to prolong its lease of Ga. 400 to SRTA, which in turn may vote to approve new bonds for construction on the highway and an extended period of tolling to pay for it.
It’s suspicious, not least because there’s a good chance that the public might actually favor some of the dozen projects on the list.
Here’s guessing that, for instance, those who pay the toll would favor a ramp to connect Ga. 400 with the northbound lanes of I-85. Improvements to other exits along the highway would also be welcome.
Commuters might even consider such projects worth a few more years of paying tolls. Eight years? Probably not, given that the toll booths collect some $20 million a year, and the projects are expected to cost far less than $160 million. Not to mention that toll revenues through June 2011 already were projected to exceed what is needed to pay off the bonds by tens of millions of dollars.
But state officials didn’t want to ask us. Why?
Maybe they think they know what’s best for us. Maybe they didn’t think they could win the argument. Maybe they think that, as long as they have the votes on the two agencies’ boards of directors, they don’t need the public’s input. Maybe there’s something within the plan that they wanted to keep out of sight as long as possible.
None of these are charitable explanations. But it’s hard to give state officials the benefit of the doubt here, given their reticence.
In any case, it’s a curious situation in which to find Gov. Sonny Perdue, who chairs the SRTA board.
One of the biggest knocks on Perdue’s tenure has been his failure, until his last legislative session, to produce a comprehensive plan to alleviate traffic gridlock in Atlanta and beyond. Now he’s leading a bum rush to fix up Ga. 400?
Even now, the next governor’s first term will be halfway over before we see any fruits from Perdue’s plan, a series of regional referendums in 2012 on a one-cent sales tax to fund transportation. And that’s assuming voters in at least one region approve the tax.
Speaking of the tax:
Every supporter of the sales tax for transportation with whom I’ve spoken emphasizes that the key issue is public trust: Which projects will be done? How can we be sure that the information we’re given about costs, benefits and so on is accurate? Do we trust our elected officials to keep the promises they make?
Atlantans might like the projects that end up in the sales-tax proposal, just as they might like the ones slated for an extended 400 toll. But the case for simply trusting our transportation planners may die in two board meetings Friday.