By John Schaffner

Before the Ga. 400 toll road opened in 1993, Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell and other Buckhead leaders extracted a promise from the state that the toll would be lifted in 2011 when the bonds were paid off—a promise made in exchange for cutting the road through north Buckhead.

Now that is not going to happen. On Sept. 24, the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) and the State Transportation Board voted to keep the 50 cent toll on Ga. 400 in order to finance $50 million in improvements to the highway corridor.

“I think user fees make sense,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos. “However, we have paid for the road we now have. I think we need a year holiday before we pay for new improvements. After the year, I think we can institute a new toll for a new set of improvements.”

But Massell and most of the same Buckhead leaders who demanded the toll end now agree with the extension, with one condition—that the interchange at Ga. 400 and I-85, which was in the original plans but never built, finally be constructed. The interchange is included among projects to be financed by the extended toll.

Massell, who in the past said he would lead a revolt against the state tollway authority if the toll was not removed in 2011, now accepts keeping the toll until 2020, but only if the state commits to building the I-85 interchange to take the commuter traffic pressure off the Buckhead streets.

“The number one priority of the Buckhead Coalition is to add a ramp that was originally planned for the interchange of Ga. 400 and I-85 but was never built,” Massell said. “More money could pay for that ramp.”

Some leaders still object to the state reneging on the promise made to Buckhead and Atlanta residents in the 1990s. One of those who objects is Buckhead resident and Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, who was a member of the Atlanta City Council at the time the promise was made.

Pitts came up with a compromise to satisfy the objections of some Buckhead neighborhoods to the 6.2-mile extension of Ga. 400 from the suburbs to I-85, which dissected the north Buckhead neighborhood.

The compromise, included in a July 5, 1989, letter from the Georgia Department of Transportation, stated: “All tolls shall be discontinued upon full payment of all bonds which are issued to finance construction of the Georgia 400 Extension and the Buckhead Loop.” Pitts and Massell agree that the extension would not have passed if not for that agreement.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said the state could consider “briefly” stopping the toll at some point next year.