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11/19/01 - MAKING GA 316 A TOLL ROAD

 The Athens Banner-Herald
Sunday, November 18, 2001 Editorial

Saving lives worth price of making 316 a toll highway

For years people have been calling for upgrading Georgia Highway 316 to interstate standards. The highway's current configuration is fatally flawed with deadly accidents becoming all too familiar along the corridor.
The interstate upgrades are expected to cost as much as $ billion -- a price far exceeding what's currently available to pay for it. In fact, under the current funding formula, it will take 15 to 20 years to complete the conversion of the 37-mile highway into an interstate-quality road.
In order to speed the process along, people who use the highway may be forced to ask themselves a difficult question: Are the improvements important enough to pay for them at the tollbooth? Perhaps this is a better question: Are dramatic safety improvements to Ga. 316 worth a few bucks to each of the people who use the highway?
We believe they are.
In response to public concern about Ga. 316's accident rate, which is higher than the state average, the Georgia Department of Transportation hired a consulting firm to study improving the corridor's safety record. The firm
, PBS&J, is researching and asking for public input on a variety of changes, including making 316 a toll road.
Upgrading a highway to interstate standards requires replacing at-grade intersections -- some of which have traffic lights -- with overpasses and diamond-shaped interchanges. The entire project will cost from $00 million to $ billion, according to Jim Evans, PBS&J project manager.
Currently, each of the state's 11 congressional districts receives $00 million annually in federal road funds. The entire Ga. 316 corridor lies within the current 11th Congressional District.
The huge price tag and limited available funds are what prompted consideration to make the highway a toll road. If the idea is pursued, Evans said the state could sell toll bonds and use the money to complete the work in a matter of years rather than decades. Only after the upgrades are completed would toll collection begin. Revenue from the toll collections would then be used to pay off the bonds.
Evans said there are still many questions about how tolls would fit into Ga. 316. More research is needed to determine specifically how long tolls would have to be collected and how much the fees would be. However, he did estimate the amount of the tolls to be roughly 5 to 10 cents per mile. At 10 cents per mile, the cost of traveling the length of the corridor one way would be $.70.
''What we do know is that if we don't have tolls, making these improvements throughout the corridor would be a 15-(year) to 20-year process,'' Evans said in a recent interview.
So far, Evans said
the public's reaction to the toll road option has been mixed. Most people have said they would rather not have tolls along 316. However, Evans said most expressed a willingness to go along with the idea if it would guarantee the interstate upgrades would be completed in the not-too-distant future.
We concur. No one likes the idea of having to use a toll road
. Drivers don't want to stop several times along the corridor, scramble to find change and then wait in line to pay the toll. It's a time-consuming and irritating process. But, the fact is Ga. 316 is a dangerous road. Every year people die in accidents along that highway. In many cases, the crashes and deaths could have been prevented if the road was upgraded to interstate standards.
As unpleasant as tolls may be, we simply cannot afford the precious price of maintaining the status quo. Saving lives is worth more than just pocket change.