Hard to Kill: Why Government Agencies Take on a Life of Their Own

[W]hen a program supplies particular benefits to an existing or newly created interest - public or private - it creates a set of political relationships that make it exceptionally difficult to further alter that program by coalitions of the majority. What was created in the name of the common good, is now sustained in the name of the particular interest.

-- James Q. Wilson, “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State”

Georgia State Route 400, commonly known to Atlantans as “Georgia 400,” is the state’s only toll road. The sole toll plaza on “400” was opened in 1993, on a new express extension running from the trendy Buckhead community up into the north-eastern suburbs. Like most toll roads, the pay-to-drive section of Georgia 400 was sold to taxpayers and commuters on the notion that the new stretch of highway would pay for itself, in this case at fifty cents a car.

State Route 400 quickly became one of Atlanta’s most trafficked highways, in a class with the dual interstates of I-75/I-85 and the infamous I-285 loop. All those pairs of quarters piled up, and by early 2009, the toll booths had raised funds well in excess of that required to retire the original bond issue. So in accordance with the original intent of the law that created them, the toll booths were removed around the last Fourth of July.

Whoops, sorry -- that’s not what actually happened. It’s what should have happened, but true to Wilson’s famous paper, the bureaucracy that grew around the Georgia 400 toll booths did not go quietly.

In fact, it didn’t go at all. The Georgia 400 toll plaza is still running, 24-7, despite the fact that by March of 2009, the state had banked over $32 million on an outstanding debt (including interest) of $26.6 million.

When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked State Road and Tollway Authority officials last year why the booths were still in operation, a spokesperson insisted that it would be impossible to pay off the debt early, since that would mean, er, shutting down the State Road and Tollway Authority.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Of the $22 million or so the state reaps from Ga. 400 drivers, about $7 million goes to running the toll authority and $9 million a year goes to paying down the debt.”

These figures bring up a very obvious point -- or at least one that’s obvious if you don’t work for the government. Georgia is in as much fiscal difficulty these days as any state not named California or Michigan, and nobody asked me, but, hey, state: you just admitted that you can save at least $7 million dollars a year -- forever -- just by shutting down a toll authority that’s not needed any more! That’s like getting free money!