Construction of Ga. 400 toll lanes may be delayed again

Plans for new toll lanes on one of metro Atlanta’s busiest highways suffered a setback Thursday when the State Transportation Board rejected the only remaining proposal to do the work.

The company’s price to build toll lanes along 16 miles of Ga. 400 in Fulton and Forsyth counties far exceeded the Georgia Department of Transportation’s $1.7 billion budget. The board accepted GDOT’s recommendation to reject the proposal and start the contracting process again.

That likely means a delay for the project, which was set to begin construction late next year and open in 2027. It’s not clear how long the Ga. 400 toll lanes will be delayed, but GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that contracting for similar projects typically takes 12 to 18 months.

McMurry stressed the project has not been canceled and is still important to Georgia and the region.

“These are taxpayer dollars,” McMurry said. “We want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

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It’s the second time GDOT has pushed back construction of the Ga. 400 lanes. The project was originally set to begin construction this year and open in 2024.

But two years ago the agency reshuffled the timeline for several major projects, including the Ga. 400 lanes. The agency said the extra time was needed to get the details of the complex public-private partnership right and to rebuild the Holcomb Bridge Road interchange as part of the project.

About 220,000 vehicles travel parts of Ga. 400 each day. Traffic often backs up, and it’s gotten worse during construction of the new I-285 interchange at Ga. 400.

To address traffic congestion, GDOT plans to build two new toll lanes in each direction from the North Springs MARTA station to McGinnis Ferry Road, plus one new toll lane in each direction from McGinnis Ferry to just north of McFarland Parkway. It’s part of GDOT’s plans for 120 miles of toll lanes on metro Atlanta highways.

GDOT sought a contractor to design, finance, build and maintain the Ga. 400 lanes. In exchange, the company would receive regular payments from GDOT for the 35-year term of the contract.

Last year GDOT narrowed a list of interested companies down to three contracting teams. In May two of them submitted detailed proposals. Only one proposal — submitted by MW 400 Partners, a consortium of five firms — was deemed to comply with GDOT’s specifications for the project.

In recent weeks GDOT has evaluated the proposal on financial, technical and other grounds. The proposal passed muster until GDOT got a look at the price.

GDOT Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle said procurement rules prevent her from divulging the company’s price because MW 400 Partners might bid again on the project. But she said the price “far exceeded our estimate.”

GDOT’s latest budget range for the project is $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion, including long-term maintenance costs.

Because of procurement rules, McMurry said GDOT can’t divulge all the reasons for the unexpected price. But he said companies offer different design proposals that come with different costs. And he said one factor in the sticker shock was the rising cost of construction materials during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are living in some unprecedented times as it relates to construction materials and commodities,” McMurry said. “Go buy a two-by-four at Home Depot.”

It’s possible the Ga. 400 delay could affect other major projects. Among other things, GDOT plans to build toll lanes along I-285. Pirkle told the State Transportation Board that GDOT intends to preserve the timing of projects “to the extent possible.”

GDOT will start a new Ga. 400 procurement process for the project soon. McMurry said it won’t start from scratch — a federal environmental review and other work is already done. And GDOT will continue to buy right of way for the lanes.

State Transportation Board member Kevin Abel said the decision to reject the proposal is “obviously a very upsetting point in the (procurement) cycle.” But he praised GDOT’s handling of the contract.

“It’s just going to be delayed as we reassess the procurement process and find a new way forward,” Abel said.

Ga. 400 toll lanes

Details: Sixteen miles of toll lanes stretching from the North Springs MARTA station to about 1 mile north of McFarland Parkway in Fulton and Forsyth counties.

Budget: $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion.

The latest: On Thursday the State Transportation Board rejected the lone responsive bid for the work because the price far exceeded the state’s budget for the project. The Georgia Department of Transportation plans to restart the contracting process soon.

Timeline: Construction was set to begin in 2022 and finish in 2027. That timeline may be pushed back because of the canceled procurement.

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