Opinion: What $1 billion looks like

What do we get for our money?

That may be the No. 1 question voiced by skeptics of a House plan to increase state transportation funding by about $1 billion a year. The plan deals only with how much should be raised, and by which means. It would be up to state DOT planners to decide how to spend it.

Much of the money would go to routine maintenance: repaving roads and repairing or replacing bridges. But as much as half of it would go to add lane capacity on interstates and other state routes, rebuild congested interchanges, or other new construction.

All of that can be found in long-range plans written by the DOT and metro planning agencies, such as the Atlanta Regional Commission. But another group has put forth a vision of what $1 billion a year of road building — and, yes, transit — could look like.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, in tandem with the Reason Foundation, has updated an earlier study of ways to reduce congestion in metro Atlanta and beyond. Importantly, the latest version of these free-marketeers’ plan underscores the state’s need to allocate more money for transportation in the ways found in the House bill, including: convert existing gas taxes to an excise tax and index it for inflation and fuel-efficiency improvements; ensure all gas-tax revenues are used for transportation; and add fees for alternative-fueled vehicles that use the roads but wouldn’t pay the excise tax.

Here’s some of what the bill’s revenues could bring about, according to study author Baruch Feigenbaum:

  • New capacity on every interstate in metro Atlanta as well as state routes 316 and 400. Some of this capacity would be in managed lanes that are tolled, and some would be untolled general-purpose lanes.
  • An enhanced series of arterial roads (what Feigenbaum calls "the critical backbone of the transportation network") encircling 285 and connecting other key parts of the region, such as a Woodstock-Alpharetta-Johns Creek-Duluth-Lawrenceville route.
  • A vast network of express buses and bus rapid transit on these improved highways and roads, part of a call for the state to spend $120 million a year on transit.
  • New freeways that would let passengers and freight bypass metro Atlanta altogether. Think of routes running alongside U.S. 27 from Chattanooga to I-85 near LaGrange to the west of Atlanta; a new road from near there across to I-16 at Macon to the south; to the east, from Macon along U.S. 129 and 441 to I-85 at Commerce; and a northern bypass running from there across to I-985 at Gainesville and I-75 near Cartersville.
  • Targeted capacity additions to interstates serving cities such as Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah.

Feigenbaum highlights the wisdom of using private financing tools to help leverage state dollars, from bonds to public-private partnerships. But his plan does not depend on private money for projects besides the managed lanes. Any use of these financing tools would allow DOT to expand its project list, perhaps to include some items on the agency’s list that Feigenbaum would defer.

Most, but not all, of these projects are in the plans already sitting on the shelves at the DOT and ARC. Altogether, they would expand access and mobility for drivers and transit users inside and outside metro Atlanta.