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I-285 toll lanes: State to retain rate-setting authority, ensure transit compatibility

Two express lanes in each direction along I-285 are to ease traffic congestion. GDOT proposes to maintain the two lanes to near the I-20 interchanges, on the east and west sides of the region, rather than tapering the express lane to one lane apiece. Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Two important points emerge from Georgia’s plan for a greater role for private partners in future tollways along portions of top end I-285 – the state will set limits on rates a company can charge drivers to use the lanes; and the transit component comports with language by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux that’s been added to the nation’s pending transportation funding legislation.

Meg Pirkle

Meg Pirkle, chief engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation, presented the new plan June 16 to a committee of the State Transportation Board. GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurray supports the new approach and it does not require further approval to pursue negotiations with potential private partners.

Some reports of GDOT’s plan have noted the private partner is to set rates for using these express lanes. Some of these reports have not noted that the state retains authority to set the parameters of the rates. The authority to set toll rates rests with the State Road and Tollway Authority and that authority will not be abrogated, according to Pirkle.

In addition to describing SRTA’s role in setting toll rates, Pirkle noted that rates are to be influenced by traffic congestion: If drivers deem tolls too high in relation to the level of congestion, drivers will choose to travel in the free lanes until the rates are commensurate with the level of congestion. Market demand will have a function in setting rates under the boundaries determined by SRTA, under this scenario.

Pirkle observed:

  • “Toll rates will be determined within contract parameters established by SRTA. Remember, again, this is a partnership. The private sector partner will ultimately set the tolls that reflect market conditions, meaning variable toll rates with higher tolls during peak travel times, and they will be adjusted much more frequently.
  • “Keep in mind that having two lanes instead of one means less congestion. So that still would be lesser toll rates than if there was only one toll lane in each direction. In other words, it’s just reactionary to supply and demand. And that affects the toll rates.”

GDOT Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle (at microphone) described the new public private partnership model the state intends to implement for new tollways on the top end of I-285. Credit: GDOT virtual meeting, June 16, 2021

These conversations involve the state’s intent to build more tollways along I-285 in order to ease traffic congestion. The new plan also calls for shifting more costs of construction and maintenance to the private sector, and giving the partner a role in setting rates to recoup costs and provide returns to investors.

The new funding mechanism would enable the state to replace the planned one-lane express lane with two-lane express lanes for portions of 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.

Regarding transit operating in the tollways, Pirkle said the state will ensure adequate provisions are included in contracts to allow for evolution in mass transit. Board member Kevin Abel, who represents the north and northwest metro Atlanta area on the board, emphasized during Pirkle’s presentation his intent to ensure transit isn’t an afterthought as the lanes are built and operated. Pirkle said state officials would remain vigilant.

Pirkle said during her segment on transit:

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

  • “We’ve proven that transit operators will have more reliable and consistent trip times in express lanes if two lanes in each direction are provided. Under the new model, the potential for transit infrastructure investment will be explored with the private sector.
  • “There’s a strong support from the I-285 mayor’s working group, referring to express lane transit along I-285. MARTA has been discussing the funding and capital build-out of express lane transit in partnership with the ATL [regional transit authority] so they can bring in Cobb transit and Gwinnett transit.
  • “We want proposers to show us what they can do in this project to be responsive and supportive of those plans, and provide innovations with transit operations.”

Regarding Bourdeaux’s transit concept that would apply to the future express lanes under discussion, Pirkle said Bordeaux was able to add a definition to federal legislation that relates to the project. The notion is part of the “FutureFit the Suburbs” proposal unveiled May 5 by Bourdeaux (D-Suwanee).

Carolyn Bourdeaux

Carolyn Bourdeaux

“There’s a new definition for transit lane project put in by Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux,” Pirkle said before reading the definition that came straight of from the INVEST in America Act, which was approved last week by a committee on which Bourdeaux serves, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The full House is to consider the $548 billion bill the week of June 28.

Pirkle read from the legislation:

  • “Express lane transit is defined as: ‘An integrated combination of bus rapid transit and toll managed lanes that allows for limited access entry of toll-paying vehicles to restricted lanes while prioritizing transit’s need and use of avail cap in order to improve transit performance.’”

Pirkle didn’t read a previous part of the legislation, the money part. The legislation sets aside $1 billion in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 2022 for projects that fits its terms.

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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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