While some on the Glynn County Commission are looking forward at what a tollbooth on the F.J. Torras Causeway could do for the county, former elected officials wish they’d take a look back.
Former county commissioners Mark Bedner, who represented District 2, Cap Fendig, at-large, and Tommy Clark, District 1, and former mayor of Brunswick Brad Brown understand the need for infrastructure maintenance.
All four campaigned for the old tollbooth’s removal — which became a reality in 2003 — and all four oppose a new toll on the Torras causeway, which has been the subject of much discussion on the current Glynn County Commission.
If you look at what it took to get rid of the old booth, Bedner said it’s easy to see why someone would be opposed to a new toll, even one collected and spent entirely locally.
A contract signed in 1980 by the Federal Highway Authority, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Tollway Authority, Brunswick and Glynn County established the need for another toll-booth.
The GDOT was going to take ownership of and perform major renovations on the causeway, and in exchange, the city and county would cover 10 percent of those renovations. Per the agreement, the local share would be covered by a tollbooth on the causeway, which was built in 1982.
TAKING A TOLL ON THE TOLL
Efforts to have the booth removed began as early as 1999 when Fendig was an at-large county commissioner-elect preparing to enter office. While that toll was a state-imposed and state-run, he said the commission can take lessons from it when talking about a new toll.
“As a guy coming into office, I went on a fact-finding mission, like anyone would do, to find out what the issues were, what was going on. Nobody was asking about the toll, so I went to Atlanta and got a meeting with Dan Guimond (the tollway authority director at the time), and he gave the rundown on what it was and so forth,” Fendig said.
He didn’t provide much documentation on the toll, Fendig said. Both the Glynn County and Brunswick commissions would have to fight GDOT for full documentation of money collected and a copy of the 1980 contract.
“Tommy (Clark) and I went to Atlanta and met Tommy Williams, who was a (state) representative and went into the DOT office to have a meeting and ask for those records and talk about that. We went in there and the (GDOT) commissioner, I won’t say his name, came out with an entourage of attorneys,” Fendig said.
“I mean they filled up a table double this size,” Clark chimed in.
“We sat down,” Fendig continued, “and I just said ‘Commissioner, we’re here to do a little more discovery work on the arrangement for the toll on the causeway, and there are some documents being withheld.’ It was the most prolific political moment I ever experienced.”
The unnamed GDOT commission didn’t take kindly to their request, they explained.
“He dressed us down like ‘How dare you question us about anything about a toll,’” Clark said.
“And he said ‘Get out of my office. You have no standing in this matter, get out of my office,” Fendig added. “That’s OK, ‘We’re nothing but county commissioners,’ but that was Tommy Williams in the (state) House (of Representatives), who would become pro tem.”
Bedner said the early attempts to get copies of the original contract and documents detailing how the money was being spent was the hardest part.
“Getting the full set of documents was, I think, the most difficult. We threatened to file an open records act, and the DOT office sent us the final documents, which was that federal contract that specifically said ‘once the monies are raised, the road shall be paid off and there shall be no more toll,’” Bedner said.
When they eventually did get documentation, it was clear the toll had long outlived its purpose.
“We later got the paperwork that showed there was a federal contract with the local governments and the state, and that the local government would have to pay 10 percent when they built the causeway in 1982. That share of payment would come from collection of tolls. The keyword was ‘Once the monies were collected to pay off the local share, the toll must end,’” Fendig said.
Bedner said records showed $7 million in excess funds were going towards a variety of things, none of which were causeway maintenance. The GDOT had been using its general fund for causeway repairs.
“We really felt like the state had robbed Glynn County over the years because the surplus had been built up over the years and it really never came back,” Bedner said.
Seeing where the money was going, Clark said sentiment against the toll really began to turn, both among elected officials and the general public.
“Behind the scenes, we had grounds for a legitimate lawsuit to get redress from this situation because the toll was put on there specifically for certain things to maintain that causeway,” Clark said. “It was a money-making thing for the state, but ultimately they knew we were correct in our assessment that that causeway was already paid for, and they were taking money fraudulently from the citizens to do that.”
Despite the terms of the contract allowing for the tollbooth’s removal, the GDOT didn’t budge.
“The DOT was not interested in removing the toll or being a participant in the discussion at all. Period. At all,” Fendig said. “We as a group took this to our legislative delegation. ‘This is the contract, this is what it says, and you have to help enforce the contract,’ and they did.”
Sonny Perdue, Georgia governor from 2003 to 2011, signed an order to have the tollbooth removed by the end of 2003.
“We were the ones to throw the last toll money in,” Fendig said.
The city didn’t come into the picture until after the county commission had its first confrontation with the GDOT, but Brown said Brunswick was no less invested in getting the booth removed than the county.
“I was right on board with everyone else. The toll was there to pay off the debt, the debt funds had been collected and it should have gone away,” Brown said. “Another piece of the puzzle from my perspective is, when I was in office I worked hard to pull the community together. To pull Brunswick and St. Simons together, the relationship with the county and working together, and was successful at it.”
“A toll is a tax. That’s all it is, and the public frankly has no control over it. SPLOST, on the other hand, the public does have control of,” Clark said.
Bedner and Fendig agreed with him.
After the difficulty of getting that old booth removed, Clark said he adamantly opposes tolls on roads in general. He also pointed to the GDOT’s spending of toll money. As much as $500,000 of annual toll revenue went to paying salaries for employees at the tollway authority by 2000, and none was actually going towards causeway maintenance. The county could very well fall into the same trap.
“Eventually, the money is not absorbed doing what it was intended to do. It’s spread out on salaries and all kinds of nonsense,” Clark said.
Less of an issue than the money is the impact on the community itself, he added. Brown said he saw the tollbooth as a dividing factor in the community, and in a time of high political tension, he said he can’t support another dividing factor.
“To me, having a causeway somewhat creates a separation of our community. Regardless of what it funds, it just being there as a toll sort of tells folks ‘We’re different from you, we want you to have to pay to get in,’” Brown said.
As for whether it would be profitable, Brown said there’s little doubt.
“There’s some of the arguments for putting it back, that it’s an income generator. Yeah. I mean, there’s no doubt about that. It generates income. The whole reason why we were going to the DOT was to say ‘Hey, you’ve collected enough. Where the other monies are going, we don’t know,’” Brown said.
He also addressed Jekyll Island’s toll, saying it wouldn’t work for a much larger, more dynamic area like St. Simons Island.
“Jekyll’s a state park. It’s a whole ‘nother animal. It’s not an entity like St. Simons in the sense of a vibrant community. A limited number of people live there, limited number of commercial activities that go over there, strictly geared towards tourism,” Brown said. “Comparing a state park toll to a toll for St. Simons is comparing apples to oranges. Both fruit, but different fruit.”
“And it’s the only state park that has a mandate on it to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient,” Fendig added.
Even if a new toll were to gain popular support, Bender said he didn’t expect the city and county, if they were to work together on it, would be able to find the money easily. And that’s before considering pushback from the public and business community.
That cooperation likely had as large an impact on the outcome as anything, Fendig said.
“When you have a joint resolution between governing bodies, participating bodies, that’s a lot of weight,” Fendig said.
That cooperation is also something that’s lacking now, Brown said, and will hinder efforts to get the green light for a new toll.
“It appears that a lot of the positive things that had been done in the past to bring unity to get our community working together, to get our governments communicating and working together, it’s been 20 years now hasn’t it? I mean it’s amazing how it’s sort of gone backwards,” Brown said.
“I agree with Brad on unity. The reason I ran for at-large commissioner was to support unity. My family has been in this community and has its deep roots in downtown Brunswick since the 1860s,” Fendig added.
“I think we all agree the toll is not the route. Politically uniting, funding provided and legally standing,” Bedner said.
TAKING A CUT
Based on their dealings with GDOT, Brown said it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t want a cut of the pie. On the other hand, the agency could try to stick the county with the maintenance of the road in exchange.
“They could say ... ‘We’ll give you the road and you do what you want to.’ Then where do we stand? I would gather to say that that is not what this community needs. Just the upkeep and maintenance side of it would be astronomical,” Brown said. “... DOT does maintain the causeway. If you look at the work they have to do on those bridges, I guarantee you the price tag of doing that is not cheap.”
Added Clark: “To back up what Brad said, if you think in negotiating with DOT or the toll authority is going to result in them giving us the privilege of putting a toll on that road and they don’t get anything, you’re living on a different planet.”
Aside from the revenue split issue, Brown said it may not help GDOT in the long run if they did allow the county to impose a toll.
“I think, statewide, it would set a very bad precedent. Because this community got to do that, so when’s the next community come in, ‘I want to put in a toll to access our community to pay for things we should have been managing and paying for all along,’” Brown said.
DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER
“I think it’s important to preface, you’ve got to have a public debate on the needs of the community. And sometimes that debate can be raucous because of the profile of that particular need. It’s a healthy thing for our community to engage in, it doesn’t make the messenger the one out sync. I credit them with trying to do good, whatever that might be,” Fendig said. “I believe the heart of everyone on there is good and well intended, sometimes it becomes very high-profile and turns back hard on the person who brought it to the table.”
Clark seconded that, saying discussion is necessary to hash out ideas like this.
“The discussion we’re having now, and what they had at the commission meeting last week, and what they did previously at some of the planning commission meetings is not negative, it’s healthy to have those discussions,” Clark said.
Ultimately, it’s up to elected officials to serve the will of the public.
“One thing to say is, all of us having served, a lot of issues often become high profile. It’s healthy for elected leaders to put forth ideas and potential policy needs and put that on the table for the community to discuss. I don’t negate Commissioner (Allen) Booker or Commissioner (Peter) Murphy for wanting to come up with an idea and have that put before the community. We’ve all been a part of things that have had large public responses, good and bad, and it’s important for us as leaders to keep our collected wits and wisdom and listen to the community, but not be afraid to put things out there,” Fendig said.
Clark added in: “The whole question is, ‘What do the public want?’ They’re the boss. We’re not. We’re there to relay their message, and that’s what we hopefully did then and what’s being done today.”
In conclusion, Bedner said he’s glad the commission is taking the issue seriously.
“I believe Cap and Brad and Mark would appreciate the stand the present commission is taking in regards to finding out the background,” Bedner said.