Christopher Tomlinson has been the executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority since April. He spoke at the recent Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber of Commerce breakfast sat down with our sister publications, Reporter Newspapers, to discuss the removal of the tolls on Ga. 400. Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated that tolls will end on Nov. 21.
Are there other tolls you’ll oversee as well, in addition to Ga. 400?
We’re responsible for the I-85 express lanes, and we’re working with (the Georgia Department of Transportation) on two upcoming projects. Both have been recently awarded. One will be the Northwest Corridor, a 22-mile reversible express lane running from Cobb County all the way up to Cherokee County. On I-75 south, in Henry County, they’re doing a 12-mile reversible toll facility there, and that’s going to open in 2016. The Northwest Corridor is scheduled for 2018.
How does the closing of the toll road on Ga. 400 affect your office?
Currently we have 150 positions. When the toll goes away later this year, about 50 of those positions will be eliminated, essentially 47 to 50 people who are dedicated to working at the Ga. 400 toll plaza.
What’s the process for creating a toll road?
A lot of people don’t realize that the reason you have a Toll Authority and the DOT, and that they’re separate, is it’s actually a check and balance. Only the state Transportation Board, the head of DOT, can designate a road as a toll road. Once they do that, only the Toll Authority can operate it. That way no one entity has the power to unilaterally decide they want to set up a toll. It takes two separate boards to be in concurrence before you can have a toll project.
How did the defeat of Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) in metro Atlanta affect your office?
I think that not passing it continues to bring to the forefront of the discussion, “How are we going to fund our transportation needs?” The defeat of TSPLOST eliminated that potential revenue. We look at ourselves as a facilitator for the overall [transportation] programs, because we, unlike the Department of Transportation, also have the ability to sell toll revenue bonds as a potential financing option.
Do you think we’re going to see more toll roads around Georgia?
I think it’s a possibility for two reasons. All the projects that were slated in the future … have two key factors that make a difference. One: They’re all additional capacity. We’re not looking at any conversion projects. Two: Where we can use dynamically priced, congestion-based tolling to help ensure those lanes continue to flow, that’s key. We’re not just doing it for the sake of generating revenue.
What do you think the closing of the Ga. 400 toll will do to traffic patterns in Atlanta?
That remains to be seen. We have seen some studies that have predicted an increase in traffic. There are others that say without having that stop and go caused by the toll, it will get better. I think, overall, there will probably be an increase. The only reason it’s so hard to get a prediction is you have to remember, we’re taking down these tolls in November, and between December and January, the new I-85-Ga. 400 connecter ramps are going to come open. There are a lot of changes happening out there at the same time.