Ga. 400/I-285 interchange overhaul moves forward

Bainbridge, Ga. - The state’s highest priority road project – the reconstruction of the interchange at Ga. 400 and I-285 – is now nearer than ever to becoming a reality.

The State Transportation Board voted Thursday on a deal that will free up $130 million of previously authorized bonds and permit the use of $81.5 million in accrued state motor fuel funds for the project. That’s the biggest chunk of money set aside for the $950 million project to date.

The interchange is one of the most congested in the state, carrying about 365,000 vehicles a day, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The vote allows construction on the interchange to leapfrog forward by two years, from 2018 to 2016. The revamped interchange would likely be able to open by 2019, said GDOT Commissioner Keith Golden.

The bond sales won’t only create a windfall for the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange. They will allow the state to keep on schedule dozens of summer road projects that were at risk of being delayed indefinitely due to a federal transportation funding crisis.

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The General Assembly had already approved the $130 million bond sales in separate votes in 2010 and 2011, to be used in funding transportation projects. However, GDOT had not yet moved to sell the bonds because the department was trying to avoid taking on more debt, according to Golden. The bonds will be repaid over 20 years with motor fuel taxes.

The money is needed now as a stopgap way to fund a slate of about 70 summer transportation projects that were at risk of being pushed back because of the federal crisis, Golden said.

It stems from the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for a majority of states’ bridge, road and transit projects.

Trust fund revenue has been steadily declining because it is generated by an 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax that has not been raised since 1993. In the interim, cars have become more fuel-efficient, and Americans have spent less on gas. The fund is expected to go into the red by August if Congress doesn’t act to replenish it.

“This funding plan will provide a stop gap measure that will allow us to continue working on Georgia’s transportation priorities as we wait on Washington to reauthorize the federal transportation bill,” said Gov. Nathan Deal in a press release.

To complete funding for the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, GDOT will seek a public-private partnership similar to what was used to fund the toll lanes on I-75/I-575. That will allow the department to spread payments out over several years.

Deal, who faces a primary next Tuesday in his bid for re-election, has previously identified the interchange as his top priority road project in the state. He touted the delivery of the project in his press release Thursday as a way to grow business in Georgia — another key part of his platform.

“We are currently utilizing all the tools that the state has available — accrued motor fuel revenues, authorized bonds, Georgia’s AAA bond rating and an improving schedule of debt payments — to facilitate major transportation projects,” the release said. “This interchange is one of the most congested intersections in the United States, and the time has come to bring much needed relief to commuters and area businesses. Improvements to the interchange will provide important economic and quality of life benefits and will expand Georgia’s role as a major logistics hub for global commerce.”

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