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Ga.'s first toll road has shaped North Fulton



February 12, 2013
Thank a guy named Michael Lomax if you live in North Fulton, have a high-tech job and kids in a great school. He is the reason we have the jobs, the schools, the great housing and brightest economic prospects in metro Atlanta.

It is an interesting story. If you lived in the North Fulton area in the 1970s or '80s, or if you ever had reason at that time to come up Ga. 400 to go to Dahlonega, Cashiers or Helen, then you will remember what everybody called Ga. 400 then.

The Road to Nowhere. It looked like one of those boondoggle government projects that lined a lot of pockets but did not really do anything. We all thought, what the heck is up there to get to? I lived in Sandy Springs in those days, and I knew Roswell lay up north that way. I had been lost at night a couple of times and stumbled upon the one traffic light in Alpharetta, but I didn't know I was still in Fulton County.

But they don't call Ga. 400 the Road to Nowhere anymore. And like it or not, 400 has been the catalyst for most of the changes that have created the economic engine that is North Fulton today.

And true, no one person can lay claim to all that has happened here. There has been a lot of vision by developers, communities – Alpharetta in particular – to wrest the high-tech companies, the high-end homes and the high-performing schools that dot the area.

But Ga. 400 is the spine of it all. It is the prime infrastructure piece that has done it all. But there was always one barrier to the region's success despite the millions spent on Ga. 400. And that barrier was Interstate 285. Ga. 400 southbound traffic hit a dead end. To get anywhere else people had to turn left or right on 285 to go anywhere. And it was a strange starting point for the northbound traffic.

It needed to punch through I-285 to let Ga. 400 realize its full potential. And we see it today. Now that it is done, we think nothing of hopping on a MARTA train to go to downtown Atlanta or Hartsfield-Jackson International.

But it took a man named Michael Lomax to muster the political will to make it happen. He was the Fulton County Commission chairman for 12 years, and they were critical years. Because it was largely through his leadership that 6.2-mile extension – through some of the toniest neighborhoods in Sandy Springs and Buckhead – finally was pushed through.

I don't take credit for the vision. It was developer Jim Cowart who opened my eyes to those contributions. Cowart has been building in these parts for 40 or 50 years, and he has seen it all and built most of it. Places like Country Club of the South and the Falls of Autrey Mill are here because he saw the potential of North Fulton.

"Without Michael Lomax, there wouldn't be the North Fulton we know today, because Ga. 400 would still be a logjam at I-285," Cowart told me.

And without Ga. 400 reaching the airport more or less unimpeded by the rest of Atlanta, we would not see the office buildings that loom over Alpharetta's business district. Most of us would not be here either.

We would live somewhere else that would have the jobs that support us in our endeavors.

Of course, we had to endure that cursed toll to pay for it. I know I cursed it, because I knew it was the first toll road in Georgia. I had been through New Jersey and New York just enough to know that – as I recall these 30 years hence – that you had to pay another toll about every 2 miles.

I did not want to see that come to Georgia. Well, it is coming, but that is another story.

Roswell Mayor Jere Wood doesn't mince words, either. He says the extension of the south end of Ga. 400 to reach downtown Atlanta and the airport is what has fueled the growth that transformed the whole area, and is transforming it yet.

There would be no Canton Street and posh restaurants, shops and galleries in Roswell. The reason is there would not be the posh clientele who patronize it and live in the homes behind Canton.

hurd
(click for larger version)
Same with the North Point Mall and the soon-to-be Avalon. They would not be here without Ga. 400 and its tolls.

Those tolls add up to about $60,000 a day from 120,000 vehicles on weekdays – I guess it slows some on the weekends. I think no one was surprised that Gov. Sonny Perdue extended those tolls after the bonds were paid off. Those tolls raise northwards of $21 million a year.

But newly elected Gov. Nathan Deal said he would make those tolls go away in December of this year just to show us we could trust the state to do what it says it will do.

Of course he said that just as he came out for the ill-fated TSPLOST. I called the Governor's Office and they said Deal was still going to uphold his end. The tolls go in December.

That pays off the bonds Perdue had financed with the toll revenue. But we have to ask ourselves, in these lean times, where is the money going to come from to maintain Ga. 400 and our other roads?

Well, it's been a wonderful ride up until now.

list visuals View images.
Managing Editor, Appen Newspapers Inc.
Ga. 400 Timeline

May 16, 1983: The proposal to build a 6.4-mile extension of Ga. 400 from I-285 through Buckhead to I-85 comes up for its first vote before the Atlanta City Council. Council deadlocks 9-9, effectively killing the proposal for the moment.

Oct. 17, 1988: City Council votes to ban all toll roads inside the city limits — a move aimed expressly at shutting down the Ga. 400 extension.

May 16, 1989: With strong support from then-Mayor Andrew Young, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Ga. 400 extension passes City Council. Council votes to allow tolls but limits them to 50 cents.

June 26, 1990: Federal appeals court in Atlanta rules against opponents of the project, clearing the way for the state DOT to begin construction. Contractors go to work that summer.

June 12, 1991: The State Road and Tollway Authority approves sale of $96.1 million in bonds to help pay for the Ga. 400 project. The bonds were to be paid off in June 2011 from toll revenue.

Aug. 1, 1993: After three years of construction, the Ga. 400 extension opens to traffic.

Sept. 24, 2010: SRTA board votes to extend toll to 2020.

July 19, 2012: Gov. Nathan Deal announces plans to end the tolls by the end of December 2013.

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