Ga. 400 tolls diverted to buy land
By JULIE B. HAIRSTON
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
State transportation officials spent more than $10 million of Ga. 400 toll collections to buy land in Midtown Atlanta, despite public pronouncements that they had no plans to divert any toll money to other projects.
Just weeks after quietly eliminating a long-standing prohibition against using Ga. 400 tolls for anything other than the highway, the State Road and Tollway Authority bought a 7-acre parcel of land near Atlantic Station with toll revenue.
The land will be part of the proposed Northwest Transit corridor from Midtown to Cobb County.
Both before and after the transaction, SRTA Executive Director Jim Croy was emphatic that none of the toll revenue would be used for anything other than maintenance of Ga. 400 and paying off its debt.
State Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta) said he was among a group of north metro legislators who asked Croy about his plans for Ga. 400 revenues in early January.
"We were assured that this money was not going to go anywhere but 400,"
Burkhalter said. "This violates the whole spirit of the collection of tolls."
Croy did not tell the legislators at that meeting that a long-standing agreement among the federal highway officials, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the state tollway authority restricting the use of Ga. 400 revenues had been changed early that same month. The policy change allows revenues from the toll road to be used for any other transportation project that qualifies for federal funding.
Croy said Thursday he could not recall the details of his conversations with state legislators about Ga. 400.
Documents obtained this week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a Georgia Open Records request indicate tollway authority officials intended as early as September 2001 to use toll money to buy the land. However, agreements that had been made when Ga. 400 was built prevented that. A series of negotiations took place through the fall, but transportation officials did not want to alter the agreement until after Atlanta's mayoral election.
The change in policy was signed on Jan. 2, enabling the authority to buy the Midtown property. Within weeks, the authority closed on the deal.
Croy said Thursday the change in the agreement was not prompted by the
negotiations for the Midtown property. "I'm not saying any one issue was the impetus for changing the agreement," he said.
In April, Croy publicly declared he had no plans to use toll money outside the project that generated the revenue.
In a guest editorial April 2 in the Journal-Constitution, Croy wrote: "Yes, the agreement was changed, but the sole reason was to bring it up to date with current federal law -- and there have been no changes, nor are there any currently planned, as to how Ga. 400 toll funds will be spent."
At the time, Croy said if the authority should decide to use Ga. 400 revenues for any other project, city leaders would be notified.
However, the Midtown property already had been purchased. State transportation officials and the governor's office, which directed the tollway authority to make the purchase, were aware of the source of the funding.
State Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta) said the authority's actions could undermine public faith in state government. [see note below]
"I think somebody should have known before they did these things," Ashe said. "If we want people to believe in government, we've got to make it more open and visible."
Croy said the money used for the Midtown purchase will be repaid to Ga. 400 accounts. Initially, authority officials planned to use funds from a proposed bond issue. But because the bond issue is mired in a legal challenge, Croy now says the money will be repaid as the transit project is developed. For example, he said, the land could be resold to another state agency or authority that would operate the transit line to recoup the $10 million paid from Ga. 400 tolls.
Documents show Gov. Roy Barnes' office initiated the deal.
In a Sept. 24, 2001, e-mail to Veronica Curvy James, the tollway authority's finance director, Deborah Brown, the authority's treasurer, relays a directive from Joe Young, Barnes' legislative counsel, to buy the property. The e-mail goes on to note the restriction on use of Ga. 400 funds that were in place at the time.
"If the funding is taken from the Ga. 400 pot, there may be a problem with the existing agreements with FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] and the city with regard to the use of excess toll revenue to purchase this parcel of land that is not along Ga. 400," Brown wrote.
A subsequent unsigned, handwritten memo to the authority's bond counsel indicates that authority officials feared political backlash from the move. "In process of amending Ga. 400 agreement, but must wait until after mayoral elections," the memo said.
Croy said he was unaware of the memo.
[note] State Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta) should not be surprised since she was one of King Roy's "girls" in his secret deals and corrupt stealing of the State Flag. Perhaps she should look up the definition of hypocrite!