By choice or chance? Many transportation projects unveiled as July 31 sales tax vote nears

By David Pendered

Whether by choice or chance, state and regional transportation officials have announced a slew of new projects in the four months leading up to the July 31 vote on the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation.

The projects range from the regionally significant to locally symbolic – the Northwest Corridor tollway through Cobb and Cherokee counties, and the replacement of the scenic safety fence along the 17th Street Bridge in Midtown.

Two of the recently announced larger projects don’t have enough money for construction – the Northwest Corridor and MARTA’s expansion plan in DeKalb County.

Ga. 400 south, approaching I-285

Today, three months before the transportation sales tax vote, the state began allowing drivers to use a portion of a Ga. 400 emergency lane in hopes of shortening trip times. Photos: David Pendered

However, taken as a whole, the announced projects illustrate the potential power of the government and private sector to reduce the region’s overall traffic congestion and maintain the roadway system. As individual tasks, each project offers the promise of reminding drivers, i.e., voters, how their commute can be improved by having even one of their problem areas addressed – as is promised by advocates for the transportation sales tax.

Consider Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to open a portion of the Ga. 400 emergency lane to commuters. Deal announced the concept in January. Last week, the state unveiled details of how drivers can use a segment of the southbound emergency lane during the morning rush hour. Today was the first day the lane was open to commuters.

The timing of the Ga. 400 program would appear to support the persuasion campaign for the transportation sales tax, which has focused on the regional impact of fixing local problems one at a time.

Ga. 400 looking west to I-285, at evening rush hour

Vehicles traveling south on Ga. 400, including those that used the emergency lane, often encounter traffic at the I-285 intersection, which would be reconstructed if voters approve the sales tax.

MARTA was the first in this cycle to offer up a big project: A $3.5 billion plan for two new rail lines and enhanced bus service from stations in Downtown Atlanta and Buckhead to destinations near Emory University and in eastern DeKalb County.

The proposal sailed through the MARTA board on April 9 with little comment. The only question raised came from board member Noni Ellison-Southall, a Fulton County representative who’s a senior counsel with Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. She asked what will become of the $3.5 billion plan if voters reject the sales tax and MARTA doesn’t get nearly $1 billion now earmarked for MARTA expansion.

MARTA GM Beverly Scott responded that the board’s vote was the first step in what will be a long campaign for federal construction funds that Scott thinks will be successful.

“When we go on the march, we can be very successful in pulling down federal dollars,” Scott said.

In another effort involving the governor, Deal announced May 11 that the state will move forward on the Northwest Corridor. The idea is to tweak a previous plan, which was dumped last year, so that the private sector will have less control over the tollway system that’s envisioned.

The plan is to build reversible tolled managed lanes in the highway right-of-way. Two such lanes would be built along I-75 between  I-285 and the junction with I-575. From that point, one such lane would extend along I-75, to Hickory Grove Road; and one such lane would extend along I-575, to Sixes Road.

Here’s how the construction financing would unfold:

  • State: $500 million;
  • Loan backed by federal low-interest guarantee: $270 million;
  • Private sector investment: $95 million to $190 million.

The timing of the project also will keep the project in the news in June, when the sales tax campaign is expected to escalate its outreach. In June, the state intends to issue a request for qualifications from companies interested in participating in the Northwest Corridor project.

That effort likely will result in media coverage of the project, and how it would supplement the transit and road projects in Cobb and Cherokee counties that would be funded if voters approve the transportation sales tax.

Click here to see a project statement and map with project description from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The 17th Street Bridge safety fence is to be replaced by Dec. 31. The $1.4 million job will be completed by Massana Construction Co., of Tyrone.

Click here to read more about the 17th Street Bridge fence project. It’s part of a $73 million project list announced May 8 by GDOT. This document has a link to details of all projects.

The fence that fell off the bridge last year had been installed by C.W. Matthews Contracting Co., an experienced highway paving firm based in Marietta. A report by the state DOT found Matthews was not to blame for the failure, which was attributed to a type of epoxy glue used to help hold the structure together. The glue was considered safe at the time the bridge was built, but has since been red-flagged by the federal government.

Matthews was awarded about $20 million in projects state projects announced last week. One was a $3.7 million project to widen and repair bridge joints along seven miles of Buford Highway from Spring Street in Fulton county to the DeKalb County line, according to DOT’s award announcement, dated April 20.

 

 

About David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with nearly 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.
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4 comments
The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Opening up the right shoulders to traffic on GA 400 was an act of political expediency by Governor Deal, pure and simple.

 

Deal lost the GA 400 North Corridor (North Fulton and Forsyth counties) along with the I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor (Cobb and Cherokee and Paulding) counties to Karen Handel in the 2010 Republican Primary, hence the reason why we are seeing the emergency shoulders opened up to rush hour commuters on GA 400 and the push to build HOT lanes on Interstates 75 and 575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties.

 

It is the suburban rush hour commuters who may see some type of benefit from these projects who are the ones that vote heavily in Republican Primaries who are the voters that Deal needs to have the best shot at re-election, especially since the chances are highly likely that Governor Deal will face stiff challenges from the increasingly disgruntled ultraconservative far right wing and the Tea Party wing of his party in the 2014 Georgia GOP Gubernatorial Primary as the grumbles of a likely primary challenge began even before Deal was inaugurated into his first term in office.

 

There are also a lot of bad feelings left over from 2010 GOP Gubernatorial Primary in which Deal barely eked out a razor thin victory over Handel by just over 2,000 votes in a very close runoff. 

 

Also figuring into Deal's recent transportation moves in the I-75 NW and GA 400 N corridors is the very angry public backlash against the implementation of the HOT Lane concept on I-85 in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties that was converted out of the existing HOV-2 (two-person carpool) lanes.

 

It was Deal's victory among Republican voters in the heavily-populated I-85 Northeast Corridor (led by mega-suburb Gwinnett and Deal's home-county Hall) that carried him to an overall victory in the 2010 GOP Primary runoff, despite losing much of the rest of Metro Atlanta, including Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, Rockdale, Clayton, Forsyth, Cherokee, Paulding, Douglas, Fayette and Coweta counties, to the decidedly conservative, yet well-liked, Karen Handel.

 

It is because of the intense angry backlash and continuing outrage against the HOT Lane concept in the I-85 Northeast Corridor, a concept on that particular project that was set into motion well-before Deal even announced his run for the Governor's office, that Deal in 2014 cannot count on the I-85 NE Corridor that basically carried him to victory and propelled him into the Governor's Mansion in a tough, hard-fought primary and razor-thin runoff in 2010.

 

There is a lot of continuing and simmering anger over the ill-effects on traffic that the I-85 HOT Lane concept has had on traffic and most of those who are angry are going to look to take out their anger on Deal in the 2014 GOP Gubernatorial Primary.

 

Hence the critical need politically for Deal to at least look like he is busy trying to do something, anything, that may look like it is even remotely positive no matter how actually effective, to address the intense traffic congestion on the GA 400 and I-75/575 NW Corridors that he so critically needs to be re-elected.

Mason Hicks
Mason Hicks like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'm glad that you voting YES, but I strongly challenge your notion that opening the emergency lane to traffic on 400 was anything close to a step in the positive direction... Before, it was opened to buses in an effort to offer a time advantage to commuters taking transit along that corridor; but more importantly, it was an emergency lane for first responders, granting them critical minutes in potentially life-and-death situations. Now with the stroke of a pen we now have an additional lane of congestion to deal with, with no clear route for emergency responders... Of course, this was an easy decision for the Governor. He gets to pretend that he's doing something about the traffic situation that cost next to nothing. The work had already been done several years when the shouldered were strengthened as part of a transit project. All that GDOT had to do was swap-out some signs. This is how Georgia has dealt with its transport issues over the l ; three decades; on the cheap with smoke and mirrors... It comes as no surprise to many that traffic, so far has not improved at all with the change. I promise you, if improvement ever does appears, it will be very short-lived... This is an EPIC fail...

KellyWoods
KellyWoods

Opening up a portion of the GA 400 lane to commuters was one step in the right direction.   However, greater long term, permanent measures have to be taken to reduce the traffic in metro Atlanta.  The various projects set to begin with the passage of the Transportation Investment Act will start that process and I am definitely voting YES!

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @KellyWoods

 I may not necessarily agree that opening up the shoulders to traffic was the best way to proceed, primarily out of concern about the need to keep the shoulders clear so that first responders can have better access to one of the many frequency emergencies that tend to occur along that stretch of roadway during morning and evening rush hours.

 

However, I do wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that long-term, permanent measures must be taken to much more effectively manage and maybe even reduce the traffic to an extent in metro Atlanta.

 

Though, admittedly, in a very major perennially fast growing metro area like Atlanta, it will be hard to reduce the overall amount of traffic on the roads by a significant amount as overall population growth in the area under most circumstances does not remain static or decrease over extended periods of time.

 

It is the nearly constant population growth of the area that contributes to the sometimes increasingly heavy amount of traffic on the roads that better traffic management in the form of wisely investing in a multimodal transportation network that doesn't just increasingly depend heavily upon an increasingly outdated, outmoded and inadequate road network, but utilizes a MULTImodal transportation network that includes targeted, yet heavy elements of both roads and transit, elements that become increasingly required to function in a very MAJOR population center of just under six million people.