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GDOT looks to expand I-285 Express Lanes with greater role of private partners

By David Pendered

Georgia plans to expand its use of private funding for new toll roads along the top end of I-285. The result is to be a network of two-lane tollways in each direction all the way from near I-20 East to near I-20 West.

I-285 west

GDOT proposes to ease traffic congestion along I-285 near its interchanges with I-20, on both sides of town, by expanding the role of private partners that could build two Express Lanes instead of one in these areas. Credit: David Pendered

This plan, unveiled Wedneday with the support of GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, expands the existing tollway plan and role of the private sector. It would replace the planned one-lane Express Lane with two-lane Express Lanes for for portions of the I-285 from I-20 to I-85 on the east and I-20 to I-75 on the west. The segment in between these areas already was programmed at two lanes in each direction.

In addition, these new tollways, which GDOT has named Express Lanes, are to be very well maintained because the private partner will be responsible for maintenance. The incentive to maintain a state of good repair is the toll collected from drivers who choose to pay for the convenience of a less-congested trip than is available on the general roadway, according to Meg Pirkle, chief engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The major change to GDOT’s existing public private partnership program is the addition of maintenance to the duties of the private partner. In exchange for assuming the job of maintaining a road surface that’s likely to be heavily used, and thus subject to tremendous wear, the length of contract is to be extended from 35 years to 50 years. The extra 15 years is to provide time for the partners to recover costs and make a profit for investors.

The increased reliance on the private sector to fund roadway improvements arrives, coincidentally, as Congress appears to be locked in debate over funding the Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal. The Express Lane projects were already publicly funded so the decision to change models wasn’t tied to the infrastructure bill. Rather, the purpose to further leverage toll funding to pay for the toll lanes, Pirkel said.

“We have a unique opportunity in this heavily congested corridor,” Pirkel said. “With the volume and demand, present and projected, these projects have the strong potential to optimize private funding. The state needs to take advantage of that.”

Meg Pirkle

Pirkel presented the new concept Wednesday at a committee meeting of GDOT’s board. GDOT’s full board doesn’t need to act on the recommendation in order for the staff to pursue it. GDOT and SRTA are to work closely together to deliver the project using the existing authorities of each agency.

“At the end of the day, it’s more project, more value, for less public dollars,” Pirkle said as she closed her presentation.

GDOT boardmember Kevin Abel, who represents a district north and west of Sandy Springs, questioned the wisdom of signing a 50-year deal. The private partners may not flex their business model if GDOT wants to increase the use of transit and electric vehicles on the Express Lanes, he said.

“Incentivizing the use of transit on 285 would work against the [return on investment] calculations of the developer,” Abel said. “I want to make sure that, if we do want to see BRT increase transit usage, we stipulate that early on,” Abel said.

Abel endorsed the concepts of transit in the region in a guest column that appeared March 14 in SaportaReport.com.

Pirkle said the comments by Abel and other board members will be included in conversations with SRTA as the project moves forward.

Russell McMurry, GDOT commissioner

Russell McMurry

McMurry described his supports the proposal in a statement:

  • “Georgia has seen tremendous success and adoption of its established express lanes, and we continue to make significant strides in delivering projects included in our Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP).
  • “By updating the P3 delivery model we can deliver these multi-modal projects along one of the nation’s busiest and most congested corridors, ultimately delivering far more value to all users while lessening the financial responsibility for the state. We’ve seen the success of similarly delivered P3 projects in other states, including Texas and Virginia. This is an innovative means of delivering key infrastructure for Georgia.”

Drivers who use the new toll lanes will not notice any change in how they use ethe new lanes. The Peach Pass will continue be utilized for motorists and transit who choose to use the Express Lanes. The private partner, or partners, will collect fees on the I-285 Express Lanes from tolls that they set within contract limits established by GDOT and SRTA. The other express lanes in the region will collect fees that are to be set by GDOT and SRTA, the State Road and Tollway Authority.

The construction schedule and potential opening dates are to be discussed at an industry forum GDOT intends to convene later this year.

The proposal to expand the role of the private sector would enable two Express Lanes to be built in the segments of I-285 marked in green and purple on this map. Credit: GDOT

GDOT’s new plan is to build two-lane tollways all the way around Top End I-285, stretching from near I-20 West to I-20 East. The tollways will be new lanes in the existing highway corridor, possibly elevated in places, a GDOT official said. The Express Lanes will be separated by a barrier from the general travel lanes, Pirkle said. The barrier will improve safety in the Express Lanes and encourage higher speeds from drivers who tend to match their speed to the vehicles in the congested general lanes, she said.

The segments affected by the proposed expansion start near the I-20 interchanges on the east and west sides of town. The new plan is to install two-lane Express Lanes that are tolled in each direction of I-285 starting near I-20 and stretching from I-20 on the west side and I-20 on the east side.

GDOT’s approach of having the private sector design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new Express Lanes is intended to accomplish a number of objectives, including:

  • Improve long-term maintenance, which the American Society of Civil Engineers has identified as a significantly underfunded aspect of mobility all across the nation. ASCE rated Georgia’s road a “C+” in 2019, the latest report;
  • Increase the potential for future Express Lane access, including the frequently gridlocked Stone Mountain Freeway;
  • Ensure that transit lanes contemplated by MARTA and the ATL, the state authority that manages transit funding in the Atlanta region, are factored into the design.

 

 

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David Pendered

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.

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