From 2009: Tunnel makes DOT's top list

Proposed east Atlanta toll road gets a boost. Neighbors have been against a Ga. 400/I-675 connector since '70s.

NOTE: This article originally published on Dec. 9, 2009 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The toll road tunnel proposal is for real.

A controversial concept to link Ga. 400 to I-675 by digging under east Atlanta has for a couple of years found its way onto some policy-makers' wish lists. But this month it found itself someplace better: Among the state Department of Transportation's top toll projects pitched to private investors and road-building companies.

The projects are part of the state's renewed Public-Private Partnership program, or P3. State leaders hope the program will relieve Atlanta congestion with a metro-wide network of new toll lanes.

"The tunnel is the one project that absolutely, head and shoulders above every other P3, moves the needle the most on congestion mitigation and mobility," said David Doss, who chairs the state Transportation Board's committee on such projects. The reason it wasn't listed at the very top of DOT's project list was because of the "unknowns" involved in creating a new urban road tunnel here, he said.

Even as a tunnel, the road is already reviving some of the neighborhood opposition that killed an above-ground project with similar outlines decades ago.

"I think it's crazy," said Mary Davis, who led the opposition in the 1970s.

Liz Coyle, another activist, said her neighborhood had killed the highway before and they'd kill it again. "My comments are not toothless," she said. "We know how to organize to stop bad policy."

Doss conceded that the highway's northern stretch would be a tunnel in order to avoid disrupting those "old, established" neighborhoods that stopped it before. He could not explain why the tunnel may become a surface road to the south of I-20, according to preliminary drawings, in an area where demographic data show the population is less wealthy and less white. A spokesman for DOT, David Spear, said that land there is also more vacant and industrial.

Both Spear and Doss stressed that nothing is settled about where or how the road would be built.

For now, five other projects come first: optional toll lanes on I-75/I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, I-285's western and northern quadrants, an adjacent part of I-20, and Ga. 400; and a new road in Gwinnett County. The I-75/I-575 project has the most preparatory work done, and DOT expects to enter the first stage of putting it out to market by Feb. 26.

Those projects made headlines when DOT announced them in November. At a conference last week for potential private investors, DOT distributed brochures about them, the tunnel, optional toll lanes on I-75 in south metro Atlanta and a connector for the Port of Savannah.

DOT is looking for private-sector innovation and funds to help build the projects. The tunnel's estimated cost is $3.7 billion. All lanes could be tolled, helping to pay back investors.

The road's great value would be as an alternative to the Downtown Connector. It would probably have an access point midway for people to exit to downtown Atlanta.

For people trying to get from the northern suburbs to downtown or across the metro area, it would be a boon — for a price.

"I'd be all for it, if it was all underground," said Donald Cox, who lives in Sandy Springs and used to commute on the Downtown Connector every day. "I'm willing to pay extra gas taxes for projects like that," in addition to a toll.

Larry Johnson, the DeKalb County commissioner who represents the area where the highway could be above ground, probably won't be pushing for it but, he said, he couldn't speak to the issue with certainty. DOT may have shared its plans with hundreds of private investors, Johnson said, but not with him. "Anything that's going to disrupt our neighborhoods, I wouldn't be for," he said.

It's far from a done deal. The chief of transportation planning at the Atlanta Regional Commission, Jane Hayse, said the project had not yet been approved by the ARC board, and it would have to be in order to proceed. Removal from the ARC project list can be the technical act that knocks out a project, as with the Northern Arc. In addition, a federally mandated study of the project's impacts will investigate its likely effect on the environment and social justice, and can lead to changes in the project or even a recommendation not to build it.

State transportation officials start two days of meetings, discussing optional toll lanes and other issues.