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Ga. 400 toll violators face stiffer penalty
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For the past 17 years, driving through the Ga. 400 toll in Atlanta without paying cost, eventually, $1.50.

Beginning today, however, it’ll cost $25.

Spokeswoman Malika Wilkins said the State Road and Tollway Authority began issuing insufficient toll tickets, or an IOU, not long after the toll road opened in 1993.

The practice was a courtesy to those who hadn’t paid the toll of 50 cents in the cash lanes. The IOUs were issued in lieu of a $25 violation fee, but Wilkins said only about one-third of those who received an IOU actually paid.

“We currently issue about 900 insufficient toll tickets a week,” she said. “It is (State Road and Tollway Authority’s) duty to attempt to recover this lost revenue.

“Those who habitually do not pay are abusing a service and it is not fair to those who consistently pay their tolls day in and day out.”

Despite the low IOU recovery rate, the authority has managed to pay down bond debt, operate and maintain the road and help finance the authority’s operations.

Even after obligations, there is money remaining. Nearly $30 million from toll funds sits in the authority’s reserve account.

Despite the surplus, the road will continue to carry the toll until 2011, as originally planned.

But plans beyond that have become a political issue for gubernatorial candidates.

Republican Nathan Deal, a former U.S. representative from Gainesville, has been perhaps the most vocal, saying he’ll “swing the sledgehammer to bring down the Buckhead Wall.”

“We are now using the tolls of Ga. 400 drivers to pay for other road projects,” Deal said in a statement. “That’s not fair to the commuters in north Fulton and Forsyth counties. They’ve carried more than their fair share.”

North Fulton Republican Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, has taken a different approach.

Handel spokesman Dan McLagan said Handel feels “the tolls should certainly be removed if the funds do not support improvements on 400 — like improving the 285 interchange or creating a real connection to I-85.”

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who is seeking the post he lost in 2002, has taken a stance similar to Handel’s.

Spokesman Chris Carpenter said Barnes “would support taking the tolls off on Ga. 400 after the bonds have been paid off, as long as all of the improvements are paid for, and there is not a need for additional improvements on that corridor.”

The views of Republican hopefuls John Oxendine and Otis Putnam align with Deal’s.

“We need to end the toll,” Putnam said. “We need to help ease the burden of our citizen(s) in economic hard times.”

Democratic candidates Carl Camon and David Poythress also are taking a hard approach.

Poythress spokesman Trevor Southerland said the candidate “is in favor of ending the toll on the date assigned, and not extending it past then.”

Republican candidate Eric Johnson has a unique perspective on the issue, having been in office as state senator when the state’s only other toll road was removed in 2006.

The causeway connecting Brunswick and St. Simons Island was in Johnson’s South Georgia district. He, too, said he wants to eliminate the Ga. 400 toll as quickly as possible.

“The only caution I put in there is to make sure there’s not any immediate improvements that need to be done to the 400 corridor,” he said.

“Because once the toll goes away, it’s going to be a long, long time before money is put back into it.”