Parkway Group Submits $1 Billion Proposal for Georgia 316 Toll Road

Mon February 02, 2004 - Southeast Edition

ATHENS, GA (AP) Future University of Georgia students, commuters and football fans, start saving your spare change.

Georgia 316, the nearly 40-mi. highway connecting Athens and suburban Atlanta, is likely to become a limited access tollway by 2011, an effort some say will pave the way for a biotechnology corridor rivaling North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and make the road safer for drivers.

Parkway Group, which includes some of the state’s largest highway contractors, submitted a $1 billion proposal to the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) in mid-January. The road would include HOV lanes, new interchanges and overpasses, and miles of access roads.

Similar to Florida’s turnpike system, the tolls on the new road would be based on miles traveled. It is expected that commuters would pay $4.60 one-way for the entire length of road.

The Parkway Group proposal is the first submitted under the new state law that allows private developers to build roads and rail lines (see ’New Rules’ page 2).

It could take more than six months for GDOT to fully evaluate the proposal, and competitors are given 90 days to submit proposals.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

Commuter Mike Holliday, who travels on 316 from his home in Oconee County to his job at Georgia Power in downtown Atlanta on most weekdays, doubts he’d pay any toll. Instead, he said he would take an alternative route, such as going to Conyers and getting on Interstate 20.

“Economy is important to me. I’m not interested in spending any more money to get to work than I have to,” he said.

Making 316 a toll road with limited access is a key to the University Parkway Alliance’s vision of making the corridor a biotech hub. The alliance is a nonprofit organization made up of landowners, businesspeople, civic leaders and government officials in Gwinnett, Barrow and Oconee counties, which 316 runs through, plus Athens-Clarke County.

The road links UGA, Emory University and Georgia Tech –– an attraction for the biotech industry because of the availability of qualified workers. Yet, upgrades are necessary, said E.H. Culpepper of Athens, a founding member of the alliance.

“If we’re able to get ahead of the curve and provide the opportunity for the research and development parks, the development community will come along and develop those gaps,” said Culpepper, also a member of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, which wants to build a commuter rail from Athens to Atlanta with stops at universities. “If we don’t, the normal development patterns will create additional sprawl.”

Development along the corridor currently includes strip malls, gas stations and distribution warehouses for companies including retailer Chico’s. The land is less developed the closer drivers gets to Athens.

One sign of the technology focus: the University System of Georgia plans to build its Office of Information and Instructional Technology –– its new headquarters for running computer systems for the state’s 34 public colleges and universities –– on 316.

A 2002 study commissioned by GDOT recommended turning 316 –– defined as a major artery of one of Georgia’s fastest growing transportation corridors –– into a limited access tollway. Replacing existing intersections with overpasses and ramps would cost $750 million to $850 million, the study said, adding that changes would take up to 25 years under the current government funding schedule, but tolls would shorten that to five to 10 years.

Toll supporters also say that improvements are needed quickly to improve safety along the corridor, as drivers often reach speeds of up to 100 mph. The study said there were seven deaths in 2000, but there would have been just two without the intersections. Accidents with injuries would have numbered 17 rather than 255, they concluded.

State Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who voted for the bill enabling such public-private roadway partnerships, said having a private developer is a faster way to make the improvements.

“The negative is, and we’re not sure how negative it is, is it’s going to be a toll road,” said Balfour, who has not received calls from residents about the toll possibility.

“You can see what’s happening with the traffic, we need to make that road limited access. I don’t think there’s any major debate on that. The real debate would literally come down to how much are the tolls,” said Balfour, who would not say how much he would be willing to pay.

John Postnieks, who can see 316 from his Oconee County home, said he’d be willing to pay any amount for the roadway to be safer and less congested. He frequently travels 316 en route to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for business flights.

“It’d be safer, it’d be convenient, it would get done in my lifetime,” he said.