A sweeping plan to transform commuting in metro Atlanta by expanding the region’s toll lane network – including a multibillion-dollar expansion of I-285 and Ga. 400 – is on the fast track to reality.
Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday unveiled the 10-year plan which includes building new toll lanes along the top-end of I-285 and along Ga. 400 up to McGinnis Ferry Road. The added lanes will provide swifter rides for drivers willing to pay a per-mile price that will rise and fall based on the amount of congestion.
The lanes are part of a larger plan — bankrolled by an historic transportation bill (House Bill 170) passed by lawmakers last year — that includes $10 billion worth of new highway, bridge and road improvement projects statewide. The work will include reconstruction of the interchange of I-20 and I-285 on the east and west sides of Atlanta, and widening of a 17-mile stretch of I-85 in Gwinnett and Jackson counties.
In just the next 18 months, it will pay for the resurfacing of over 2,500 miles of state routes and interstates, the replacement of 118 bridges, the rehabilitation of 300 bridges, the widening of 36 roads, and the upgrading of 109 intersections.
“Many times state leaders of the past have put out very attractive-sounding proposals that led to unfilled promises about safer roads and shorter commute times,” Deal said.
“We promised the people of the state of Georgia that we would show them results, and that is what we are doing here today.”
Trucks only, please
Deal’s plan also includes several marquee projects near Savannah aimed at freeing up the flow of freight trucks hauling goods to and from the port. Those include reconstruction of the interchange of I-95 and I-16 and the widening of I-16.
The projects are also designed to improve safety on the accident-plagued interstate. Last year, there were two separate five-fatality accidents on I-16 in Southeast Georgia, including one that claimed the lives of five nursing students.
And, the governor touted a first for Georgia — the construction of dedicated lanes for freight trucks along the busy corridor from Macon into Henry County on I-75 North.
The truck lanes probably won’t be tolled, but the policy on their use has not been solidified, said Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation. Regular commuters will benefit from getting trucks out of their way, Dale said.
There’s no specific timeline yet for when construction would begin on the projects in the 10-year plan, or when they would open to traffic. State transportation officials said only that the projects would be put out to bid within that time frame. Typically, construction gets under way about 12 to 18 months after projects are advertised for bid.
The big-dollar projects will be built using a public-private financing model, similar to the one used to jump-start construction of optional toll lanes on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties and the new I-285/Ga. 400 interchange.
Politics at play
The landmark transportation funding legislation which took effect July 1 (HB 170) restructured Georgia’s gasoline tax and effectively raised the per-gallon cost by 6 cents. Rather than paying a combined 4 percent sales tax and 7.5-cent-per-gallon excise tax, drivers now pay a straight excise of 29 cents per gallon.
The legislation also revoked tax credits on jet fuel sales, erased a tax credit of up to $5,000 on electric vehicles and imposed a slew of new fees. They include a registration fee of $200 per year on noncommercial electric vehicles, a $5-per-night fee on hotel stays and a $50 to $100 “highway impact fee” on heavy trucks and big-rig owners depending on the weight of the vehicle.
So far, the state is on track to collect an additional $700 million in transportation funding this fiscal year because of the legislation, according to Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry. Next year, the funding will grow to about $830 million. And within a few years, revenues are expected to top $1 billion a year.
“It will be transformational for Georgia in the short term and the long term,” McMurry said during a press conference held Tuesday in conjunction with Deal and lawmakers who voted for the law at the Capitol.
The governor said the 10-year plan was drafted partly for political purposes. The transportation tax took droves of Republican votes to pass last year, and some of those GOP lawmakers could be threatened with primary challenges from anti-tax forces in May.
“I think it should be something they should be able to brag about,” he said of the vote. “This shows that they’re actually doing something to improve transportation and infrastructure.”
“Obsession with asphalt”
Still, some industry leaders and lawmakers remain critical of the tax.
“If I had voted for a $900 million tax increase, I would be very concerned about running in a Republican primary this year,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who voted against it. “The most significant thing this General Assembly has done so far is pass a tax increase. And that’s going to be a problem.”
The hospitality industry, in particular, seeks to soften the blow of the $5 nightly hotel tax by carving out more exemptions.
“We’re still in the early stages of seeing what kind of revenue is driven by it,” Deal said. “Hotels and motels have had the busiest and most productive year ever. So obviously it does not seem to have any detrimental effect on tourists in our state.”
Democrats took aim at the lack of significant transit funding in the long-term plan. Lawmakers agreed in 2015 to set aside $75 million for transit initiatives, but the 10-year plan focused solely on roads. Major capital improvements to MARTA or other transit programs weren’t in the picture.
“There’s no transit in it. Investing in infrastructure is very important. But a part of that infrastructure investment has to be transit,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who called last year’s commitment transit funding a “pittance.”
“This obsession with asphalt has got us into a crisis,” he added. “You just can’t build yourself out of a traffic problem.”