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Coronavirus-driven economic slowdown sending Georgia highway tolls plunging
State Capitol
The Capitol building in Atlanta looms on “crossover” eve on March 12, 2020. - photo by Beau Evans
ATLANTA — The COVID-19 pandemic has sent revenues on Georgia’s network of toll roads plummeting despite a significant uptick in traffic since businesses began reopening, the head of the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) said Thursday.

Tolls paid by motorists traveling the toll lanes on interstates 75 and 85 in metro Atlanta declined by up to 90% during the last quarter, SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson told members of the state Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee during a budget hearing.

As a result, SRTA is projecting it will end the current fiscal year June 30 with only about $33 million of the $46 million the agency had expected to receive in fiscal 2020.

The outlook for the coming fiscal year is worse, with SRTA expected to bring in only $19.5 million in toll revenue, Tomlinson said.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented decline in toll revenues,” he said.

The plunging toll receipts seem to contradict the increase in traffic that has occurred since Gov. Brian Kemp began lifting the shelter-in-place restrictions he imposed to discourage the spread of COVID-19.

Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Russell McMurry told the subcommittee Thursday traffic on the state’s highways is back to within 20% of normal levels after bottoming out in early April. Truck traffic is at normal to slightly above-normal levels, he said.

But Tomlinson said the rise in traffic is not helping to boost toll revenues because of the nature of SRTA’s tolling system, which charges motorists willing to pay to travel in toll lanes rather than general-purpose lanes a toll based on the level of traffic at the time.

“Congestion is lighter and lasts a shorter period of time,” he said. “The average toll amount is going to decrease.”

For example, Tomlinson said the average toll for motorists on Interstate 85 has fallen from as high as $15 in February to just $4.

SRTA is forecasting declines in toll revenue of about 60% during the coming year on I-85 northeast of Atlanta and on the Northwest Corridor, which runs along I-75 and I-575  in Cobb and Cherokee counties. The forecast calls for a decline of 35% in toll receipts on I-75 south of Atlanta.

“We are looking at budget cuts in the order of 20% to 25% to deal with this issue,” Tomlinson said.

In the short run, SRTA plans to use about $10 million from the state Department of Transportation to help make ends meet, along with $3 million of SRTA’s $8 million in reserves.

But Tomlinson warned the agency must hold back some of its reserves to convince private lenders it depends on to finance future toll-lane projects that the agency’s finances are sustainable.

“We think [toll revenues] are going to come back,” he said. “Come the fall, we’ll have a better idea. [But], it’s going to be a lag.”

Kemp has instructed departments throughout state government to cut their fiscal 2021 budgets by 11% to help offset falling tax revenues resulting from the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19.

Starting with the Senate, the General Assembly will begin putting together a leaner state budget when lawmakers reconvene the suspended 2020 legislative session June 15.