GDOT officials walk on the tallest bridge, 102 feet tall, at the I-75/I-285 interchange during a guided tour of the new Northwest Corridor express lanes. State transportation officials say the lanes will also save time for motorists in the regular lanes. And they’re just part of a system of toll lanes they say will transform commuting in metro Atlanta over the coming decade. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: PHIL SKINNER
Photo: PHIL SKINNER

Opinion: GDOT explains highway improvement timing changes

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is committed to improving statewide mobility. As the $11 billion Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP) has developed, we’ve reevaluated how to best deliver the program. As a result, GDOT recently announced an updated MMIP project plan and schedule. We at GDOT strive to deliver all of these projects as soon as is practically possible, using the best practices available.

The MMIP is among the largest programs of its size and scope in the country. It was developed to create additional capacity, decrease travel times, provide operational improvements, enhance safety and improve freight movement. The MMIP project plan adjustments are based on GDOT’s ongoing collaboration with local partners and contracting industries to deliver projects to the public in the most strategic and efficient way. As with any plan, adjustments are often necessary along the way to get the desired outcome. GDOT always seeks to provide the best value to the taxpayer and has worked hard to engage with industries that help us build and deliver projects like these to the public. In doing so we’ve learned it’s better to break up these massive projects into smaller construction packages and stagger them to ensure better competition.

This means certain MMIP projects will deliver sooner, some remain on the same schedule and some require more time. Certain express lanes projects are delivering on the same schedule as before. GDOT’s updated plan includes six smaller mobility improvement projects along I-285 built earlier than expected. Also, we are able to move the second phase of the current I-85 widening project ahead by four years and move the I-75 Commercial Vehicle Lanes between Atlanta and Macon up one year, all while keeping a competitive environment that helps control costs.

The MMIP projects are large and complex. They will be delivered through an accelerated alternative delivery model known as “design-build,” which speeds construction due to the potential for concurrent activities. But it still takes considerable work and time before construction can begin, and construction time on these large projects is lengthy. As projects advance, firm completion dates will be established. Efficiencies may be realized that can move projects faster. However it can take five or more years from the beginning of procurement to completion of any given project, depending on size and complexity.

In addition to other improvements, the MMIP will construct 168 new highway lane-miles. This comes at a cost. GDOT is employing a Public-Private Partnership (P3) approach to partially finance the express lanes projects, with the winning contracting team utilizing federal and/or private financing which is competitively bid. Since the contractor carries the financing, there’s incentive to complete projects as soon as is practically possible. Through the State Road and Tollway Authority, GDOT pays back the contractor over a term via toll revenue and traditional transportation funding sources. Think of this as a mortgage payment which allows the department to move forward sooner on much-needed major projects while utilizing currently available funding to perform other critical work throughout the state.

Our partners along the express lanes corridors SR 400 and I-285 are an important part of this process. They include: Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties and their respective cities; the consortium of mayors representing the communities along I-285; Community Improvement Districts; MARTA; The ATL; and SRTA. Coordination among these stakeholders has been exceptional as we plan for express lanes while ensuring we do not preclude future transit opportunities in these vital corridors. While this collaboration, in part, has caused us to revise the original schedules, it is absolutely vital. Meanwhile, the MMIP is moving full steam ahead. The SR 400 Express Lanes project officially starts the procurement process this month.

The express lanes projects will be transformative, just as we have seen with the resounding success of the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes, which opened in September 2018 on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee Counties and brought immediate relief, substantial time savings for motorists and transit users and greatly reduced rush hour congestion. For the many benefits provided by the MMIP, visit www.dot.ga.gov/MMIP.

I hope these insights explain GDOT’s need to update the MMIP projects and schedule. It remains GDOT’s goal to deliver the nation’s most innovative transportation solutions that improve our quality of life and keep Georgia the No. 1 state to do business.

Russell R. McMurry, P.E., is Georgia DOT Commissioner.

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