Last week I joined U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, members of Congress, and officials from throughout the metro Atlanta region as the Secretary announced millions of dollars for 17 miles of managed lanes along Georgia 400. Just a few weeks before, Governor Deal also announced state funding for Bus Rapid Transit along this route.
Just a few years ago we could not have imagined a need for buses along this route. And going back further, when I was a young Atlanta City Councilman thirty years ago, the last few miles of Georgia 400 faced tremendous opposition. I could not imagine what the future would hold for this project.
As we listened to the Secretary of Transportation discuss future plans for this roadway, an old friend reminded me that we might not be sitting there discussing expansion and future transit on Georgia 400 had I not been able to pull together the votes for a key vote before the Atlanta City Council some thirty years earlier.
Today, Georgia 400 follows the same route as US 19 from Dahlonega in the North Georgia mountains, south into Fulton County, ending in the Lindbergh area of Atlanta. But for years, the road simply stopped at I-285. Drivers from north Fulton had to then make their way to I-75 or I-85 to travel into Atlanta, adding an hour or more to their daily commutes.
In the mid-1980s, the Georgia Department of Transportation proposed a plan to bring Georgia 400 an additional 6.2 miles into the city of Atlanta. Many in the city supported the idea of connecting Atlanta residents with a growing job market in the northern suburbs. Other residents and businesses were up in arms. Trees, houses, and businesses would have to come down to make way for the new road. There were strong arguments on both sides, and my colleagues and I on the City Council were deeply divided.
During a lengthy debate on the subject, I still remember scribbling notes on the original legislation. I was convinced that this project would ultimately benefit our residents, but I wanted to protect the interest of citizens. With that in mind, I proposed one important amendment — requiring that the tolls would end when the debts were repaid. My amendment ultimately led to the votes that passed the resolution and allowed the project to move forward.
The 400 extension opened in 1993 and an estimated 60,000 drivers used it on its very first day. Almost immediately, economic and community growth followed the route. But the fight was not yet over. Fast forward to 2010 – 17 years of tolls later – and the debt for the roadway had been repaid. The time had come to keep our promise to residents and end the toll.
I met privately with then Governor Sonny Perdue, who promised that the tolls would end. Just before the scheduled sunset date, there were additional financial concerns about the last leg of the project, connecting 400 and 85. I voiced my concerns, but more time went by and the tolls continued.
Finally, under the leadership of Governor Nathan Deal, the tolls ended in November 2013. Later, the 85 connection helped further improve mobility for GA 400’s daily commuters.
Now Fulton County will likely be the first home of bus rapid transit in the Southeast, with major investments along Georgia 400.
Looking back at my involvement in this project over the last three decades, I am looking forward to the next chapter in improving connectivity for our residents.