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.

 

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 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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