The Georgia Department of Transportation unveiled a proposal Wednesday to improve the capacity of planned toll lanes along Interstate 285 by asking the private sector to play a larger role in the $6.1 billion project.
The plan would add two barrier-separated toll lanes along 285 just north of its interchanges with I-20 east and west of Atlanta instead of the single lane envisioned when the project was first proposed in 2016. Two barrier-separated toll lanes already are planned along the “top end” of 285 stretching from Cobb County through Fulton and into DeKalb County.
To make that possible, the state would give the private roadbuilding consortium selected to finance and build the project the ability to set toll rates under a 50-year contract. As currently designed, the state would establish the tolls through a 35-year contract with a private partner.
The state would trade the longer contract time in exchange for the developer assuming greater risk, Meg Pirkle, the DOT’s chief engineer, told members of the State Transportation Board Wednesday.
“The state will have limited liability should the contractor not be successful,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’ll be getting more project, more value, for less public dollars.”
Georgia has built a history with toll lanes, starting in 2011 with the opening of toll lanes along I-85 in northern DeKalb and southern Gwinnett counties.
The concept expanded during the last decade with the Northwest Corridor along I-75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, the I-75 South toll lanes project in Clayton and Henry counties and the extension of the I-85 toll lanes into northern Gwinnett.
Pirkle said toll lanes have gained greater public acceptance by giving rush-hour commuters looking to save time a chance to get out of congested general-purpose lanes into less crowded toll lanes.
Within the first six months of opening in 2018, speeds inside the Northwest Corridor’s toll lanes were averaging 30 percent faster than in the general-purpose lanes of I-75, reducing rush-hour travel times by an hour.
Pirkle said the northern half of I-285 is home to four of the 20 worst traffic bottlenecks in the nation, and the need to increase the highway’s capacity will only grow over time. The highway is expected to carry 263,000 vehicles a day by 2032, up from the current 238,000, she said.
“With projected volumes and demands, this project has a strong potential for private funding,” Pirkle said. “The state needs to take advantage of that.”
Pirkle said the states of Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado already are financing and building highway projects through public-private partnerships.
Pirkle said the developer chosen to build the project will be incentivized to provide high-quality work because it will rely on a large volume of drivers to pay the tolls.
“No one has to use these lanes,” she said. “They have to provide excellent service to attract customers.”
Board member Tim Golden of Valdosta said the innovative proposal should help relieve traffic congestion on the busy highway.
“It’s getting to the point that anyone in South Georgia doesn’t want to come to Atlanta,” he said. “This is thinking outside the box.”
But board member Kevin Abel of Atlanta, who represents a congressional district that includes a large portion of I-285, urged DOT officials to carefully weigh the plan’s risks as well as benefits before committing to it.
Abel, who chairs the board committee with jurisdiction over projects built through public-private partnerships, said the board should consider putting a cap on the contractor’s return on investment.
He also argued the developer might be reluctant to pursue adding transit projects along 285 because transit service could cut into its revenue from the toll lanes.
“I want to be sure we stipulate [transit] as a requirement for the project early on,” Abel said.
Pirkle said the DOT plans to conduct an industry forum later this year to discuss the plan with potential bidders.
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