Market forces will power state’s new transportation plan

Jan 22, 2016, 6:00am EST
Dave Williams / Atlanta Business Chronicle

Toll lanes across the entire top end of the Perimeter and on Georgia 400 north to Atlanta’s far suburbs.
Rebuilt interchanges at Interstate 285 and I-20 east and west of Atlanta. And new truck-only lanes on I-75
from Macon to McDonough.

All are part of an ambitious $10 billion, 10-year transportation plan Gov. Nathan Deal announced Jan. 12. After some initial experiments, the plan’s unprecedented scope shows the Georgia Department of Transportation is all-in not only on toll lanes but on tapping the private sector to help finance road improvements government can’t afford on its own. Indeed, the estimated price tag of $14.2 billion for the 10 interstate construction projects — only a portion of the overall plan — exceeds the $10 billion outlined
by the governor.

“By leveraging public-private partnerships, we can advance these critical projects,” DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said during a ceremony at the Capitol unveiling the plan. “It will be transformational for Georgia.”

The state began experimenting with toll lanes in 2011 by converting an existing lane north- and southbound on a 16-mile stretch of I-85 in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties to an optional toll lane. Tolls along the corridor, which vary according to the level of traffic, hit a record $12 last November. “It offers a choice,” said Meg Pirkle, the DOT’s chief engineer. “You can choose to pay a toll to go faster.”
Satisfied with that first foray into toll lanes, the DOT launched three additional projects, adding toll lanes to I-75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, along I-75 south of Atlanta in Clayton and Henry counties and extending the current toll lanes on I-85 into northern Gwinnett. All are due to open in 2018. Those toll lanes will become more efficient in moving traffic through the metro region as the new projects
announced by Deal go into service, said Bert Brantley, deputy director of the State Road and Tollway Authority. Bids will be out on all of the projects listed in the new plan by 2026, but the time line for construction remains uncertain.

“These projects only work better when they connect with other projects,” Brantley said. “You start getting a network.”

The toll lanes along I-285 and Georgia 400 are the most expensive on the project list, at $6 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively. Pirkle said both will require extensive right-of-way acquisition, driving up the cost. Next in price is an estimated $2.1 billion for truck-only lanes to be added to I-75 from Macon north to McDonough, a heavily traveled stretch of highway where trucks account for about 25 percent of the total traffic. While all of the work around metro Atlanta is aimed at relieving traffic congestion, the truck-only lanes are to ease the movement of freight.

Seth Millican, director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said improving the transport of freight came up repeatedly during a series of forums his organization held recently across the state.

“We heard two messages,” he said. “In Atlanta, it’s all about congestion relief. In the rest of the state, it’s about economic development. … They’re looking for ways to get more efficient connections to the port.” Millican said the need for truck-only lanes will become even greater after completion of a $706 million harbor-deepening project at the Port of Savannah, which will make room for a new generation of giant containerized cargo ships.

“There’s going to be a lot more containers coming into that port,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re ready to handle that.”

What’s making the $10 billion transportation plan possible is the transportation funding legislation the General Assembly passed last year, which is expected to add at least $900 million a year in tax revenue to the DOT’s coffers.

But state and federal funding alone won’t be enough for all of the work the plan envisions. The DOT will be counting on private financing to fill the gap. Pirkle said the DOT is getting more comfortable with public-private partnerships thanks to its success with
the planned overhaul of the interchange of I-285 and Georgia 400. Originally expected to cost $1.1 billion, the DOT reduced the price tag to $679 million in December when the State Transportation Board awarded a $460 million contract to North Perimeter Contractors to design, construct and help finance the work. “We got a great price,” she said.

Brantley said the savings expected from the I-285/Georgia 400 project shows the state has come a long way since it began experimenting with public-private partnerships for highway improvements a dozen years ago. “We’ve been at this since 2004, trying to figure out how to bring private investment to the table while protecting taxpayers and getting a good return on our investment,” he said. “We’re light-years from where we were. I think it will only get better.”

The new transportation plan has its critics. Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said its complete reliance on asphalt isn’t going to solve metro Atlanta’s traffic woes. “The governor’s plan assumes you can pave your way out of traffic congestion,” she said. “What the state should be doing is giving commuters alternatives by funding transit operations.”

But Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which advocates market solutions to public policy issues, said the current generation of fixed rail technology as represented by MARTA isn’t flexible enough to meet the needs of the Uber generation of millennials.

“We need transit that moves with the demographics,” she said. “When you look at the way technology is going, putting more buses in managed lanes would be far more cost-effective.” That’s where the new transportation plan comes in. Brantley said the new toll lanes not only will give commuters driving their cars a chance to get out of gridlocked traffic, but will offer the same time-saving opportunity to commuter buses.

The new toll lanes could help reverse a reduction in ridership the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority has suffered on its commuter buses, due in large part to falling gasoline prices, Brantley said. “When cost is your only benefit, bus ridership is more dependent on gas prices,” he said. “But when you start saving time as well, that’s more incentive to ride the bus.”