The Glynn County Commission wants to lay some groundwork with state agencies before forging ahead on a toll on traffic traveling the F.J. Torras Causeway.
Assistant County Manager Kathryn Downs said she’s kept in communication with the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority on the matter.
State code allows local government to institute tolls on a number of transportation routes, including causeways, Downs said.
The Torras causeway is a state road, but state law specifically gives the Georgia Department of Transportation authority to allow local governments to collect parking fees on state roads leading to islands with public beaches, provided the money goes toward maintaining the beach, she said.
Instead of a toll booth, the county would install a metal gantry over the causeway, on which equipment would be mounted. The structure would cost an estimated $5 million, she said.
Toll collection, violation processing, customer service and account management would be handled by the tollway authority through the Peach Pass system.
Instead of stopping at a toll booth, equipment on the gantry would detect a signal emitted by a transponder in a car sticker and charge the toll to the driver’s account.
Moving forward, she recommended conducting a study on causeway traffic and potential revenue. The commission would also have to decide on whether or not to offer discounts, and to whom to offer them.
Downs said the tollway authority estimates a traffic and revenue study on the causeway would cost around $30,000 to $50,000.
The only questions she had that the tollway authority had not answered were whether or not toll revenue would have to be used to maintain the causeway and if there is a limit on the types of expenditures toll revenue can cover.
If the county is going to go through with this, Peter Murphy, commissioner for St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea islands, said the county will need to decide what it wants to use the money on in advance.
“I specifically believe that we can target this at transportation infrastructure,” Murphy said. “... The roads, whether you like it or not, sidewalks — some people transport themselves walking — and bike paths are becoming increasingly necessary around this area, particularly as the traffic on St. Simons and downtown increases.”
A $100 annual pass to use the causeway would amount to roughly 30 cents a day, Murphy said. If it chose to, the county could offer discounts to residents, he added. With somewhere around 15,000 people driving to and from St. Simons Island daily, that would amount to $1.5 million in annual revenue for infrastructure work.
Commissioner David O’Quinn said he’d need the blessing of both the GDOT and tollway authority in writing before voting to spend money on the proposed toll system. Commissioner Bill Brunson and commission Chairman Mike Browning echoed his sentiment.
Murphy didn’t disagree but said the county needs more money for infrastructure and a toll would be a good way to make that money.
“At the end of the day, I challenge anybody to give me some indication of what the alternative revenue source is here. If you don’t think we have an infrastructure problem of overwhelming magnitude, like the entire United States has, you’re fooling yourself. We’re not going to get any help from the federal government, or the state government, to fix county roads. This is for county road, sidewalk and bike path transportation, in my opinion, that would be a start,” Murphy said.
Despite agreeing with Murphy, Browning was skeptical the GDOT would allow the county to collect a toll on a state road.
Glynn County Attorney Aaron Mumford recommended the commission get the details straight with the tollway authority and the GDOT before doing anything.
“I think these details need to be fleshed out in a memorandum of understanding or agreement that basically says we’re all on the same page as to why we’re doing this and what we’re getting out of it,” Mumford said.
Murphy asked Browning if he’d put the toll study on next month’s commission work session. Browning said he would if Downs and Mumford have made any progress by then.
In other business, Recreation and Parks Director Lisa Gurganus requested the commission double the department’s budget in the next fiscal year to cover a wide-ranging beach safety and education program, stylized as the BEach SAFE program.
The program would be centered on improving safety along the roughly two-mile length East Beach on St. Simons Island, in particular the area around Gould’s Inlet.
Gurganus proposed adding four more lifeguard stands to cover the stretch of beach from the old Coast Guard station parking area to the beach access at the end of Bruce Drive.
Water rushing out of the inlet at low tide presents a significant safety threat. While the Glynn County Fire Department’s water rescue unit and the Glynn County Police Department have helped make the area safer, it needs proper lifeguard coverage, she said.
With increased coverage comes increased staff.
Regular daytime staff during tourist season would consist of 18 people: 12 lifeguards in stands, one patrolling the beach, one watching the tidal pool, two senior lifeguards at each end of the beach and two supervisors stationed at the Coast Guard parking area. One of the supervisors would be the manager of a new beach operations and program division.
In addition to new staff, the program called for new equipment. She said the radios lifeguards currently use may not be able to reach from one end of the beach to the other. She recommended upgrading them, as well as purchasing new binoculars, a rescue sled, a rescue surfboard, a new ATV and four-wheel drive truck along with training for new lifeguard recruits.
The program also took into account the Coast Guard Beach Park master plan, which includes a lifeguard station. It would take even more staff, but the station could be used to administer first aid, educate visitors and could include a communications center. A 35-foot tower would afford lifeguards a clear view of most of the beach.
The educational portion would cover programs at schools and youth organizations, promotional marketing and merchandise, updating beach signage, partnerships with other local organizations and new county-run recreational and strictly education activities on the beach, among other things.
All told, the program would require the Recreation and Parks Department’s annual budget to jump from $199,358 to $451,858 in the fiscal year 2019-2020. Kicking the program off this year would take $97,450 more than the department currently has in its budget.
Commissioner Allen Booker and Murphy were completely behind the program, saying Gould’s Inlet has become more dangerous as more tourists visit it. Murphy said Glynn County has fallen behind in looking out for visitors to Gould’s Inlet especially.
Other commissioners were noncommittal but asked County Manager Alan Ours — who supported the program — to look into the possibility of phasing the program in over a period of time and reallocating existing resources to cover some of the expenses.
Commissioners also gave the go-ahead for the county’s planning and zoning division to pursue a coalition grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The grant would pay for early assessments of Brownfield properties, as well as developing cleanup plans for any such properties. The city of Brunswick and other local organizations will team up to apply for the grant.