Highway Builders on a Roll


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 03/12/06



It’s not a bad time to be a highway developer in Georgia.

In the past three months:

•Work started on what is probably the biggest road contract in state history, a $147 million remake of the Ga. 316 and I-85 interchange.

•The state formally entered negotiations on a $1.8 billion job that could expand I-75 to as many as 23 lanes across and implemented for the first time a law that lets private companies propose and build toll road projects.

•And four state agencies adopted the Congestion Mitigation Task Force recommendations, mathematical calculations to rank what transportation projects are most pressing.

For the moment, it looks like those will be roads, the bigger the better.

We don’t have a choice, say state officials.

“Everything that we are doing is addressing immediate needs,” said Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl of the state Department of Transportation. He said while other needs would stay on the to-do list, what the state is planning to work on right now “does address the greatest need for today, the bang for the buck.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue concurred after leading a meeting Wednesday in which the task force recommendations got final approval. He said the notion that those guidelines favor big roads is a wrongheaded assessment, that they simply plan to prioritize bottlenecks – “worst first.”

“What it’s going to favor is getting people moving,” he said. “We’ve tried a shotgun solution in the past, everything everywhere, and it’s not been effective.”

Transit advocates say that’s short-term thinking.

“Clearly something is going on here,” said David Goldberg, a spokesman for Smart Growth America, a Washington-based environmental and planning group. “Without a whole lot of really public discussion and input, the state apparently has made a very far-reaching and long- lasting and fundamental change in how we’re addressing our future growth. The question that I have to ask, is, where does it end? How many lanes can we add? How many decks can we add to the freeway?”

One of the big long-term questions is what the task force recommendations will mean. They were adopted without thorough computer modeling, but the Atlanta Regional Commission’s cursory analysis showed a few big highway and arterial road projects beat out smaller projects and rail. For example, rapid-transit buses that will run on highways, like those proposed on I-75, might fare well.

But the $106 million commuter rail to Lovejoy, for which the federal government has committed $87 million, might not because it doesn’t offer much immediate relief to road congestion, according to John Orr at the ARC. ARC leaders insist their members can still set their own priorities by having final say over the project list.

Need outpaces money

The one thing everybody agrees on is there’s not enough money to go around. Populations across the country are exploding – Atlanta expects a population increase of 2.3 million by 2030 – all of them driving, riding, biking and walking. Funding to keep them moving isn’t keeping pace.

But big roads have found a friend in private investment. Georgia’s “public-private initiative” law finalized last year allows road contractors to propose megaprojects to be partially funded by their own investment and tolls. In December, the state Transportation Board voted to negotiate multimillion-dollar initial planning contracts with a private consortium on the I-75 public-private job, the first time a project has gotten that far.

Probably the biggest public-private project idea is the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, 4,000 miles of toll roads and transit that would be built across that state over 50 years. Under some versions of the plan, parts of the corridor take up land nearly a quarter-mile wide. Not every city can do that, said Ed Ellis, regional vice president with Kimley-Horn and Associates, an engineering consulting firm.

“A New York didn’t have automobiles in the 1800s” when its road system was being laid out, Ellis said. Older, dense cities developed a lot more smaller arteries closer together for walkers and horsemen.

Now they’ve got more roads, plus so much development on the land around them that land prices make road expansion too expensive.

That was less the case in places like Long Island, N.Y., and is still less the case in a state like Georgia or Texas.

Texas has just entered a contract for some preliminary planning work on one piece of the Corridor. Other states are crowding conferences dedicated to public-private projects, and the federal government is on board.

“What’s becoming self-evident is that the resources available for maintaining, let alone improving, what we have just aren’t there,”

said Neil Gray, director of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a national booster of tolls and public-private projects. “We’ve just had a new federal highway bill, which tried its best to provide all that it could, but no one wants to touch fuel tax increases, the traditional way of making it work.”

A green light to sprawl?

The shortage of road dollars may be having one salutary effect. With congestion worsening in Atlanta, a study released last year found Atlantans driving shorter distances on average. The study couldn’t say why, but those who have tried to check sprawl and push people to live closer to work and play hoped it meant that their efforts, combined with unbearable traffic jams, were paying off. Green- lighting record-breaking roads, they fear, will just free up people to sprawl again.

Furthermore, they argue, if you free a road, it will quickly fill up with drivers who wouldn’t have driven otherwise, creating more traffic.

Gray disagreed. “The old adage is you can’t build your way out of congestion,” he said. “Well, that’s not 100 percent true. There are logical ways,” including lanes like the truck-only toll lanes and HOV lanes where single drivers can ride, for a price.

Such lanes are a big part of the I-75/I-575 public-private project in Cobb and Cherokee counties, which would dwarf all previous Georgia road contracts if the negotiations pan out. If it is done, I-285 also would have to be expanded to handle the transfer traffic. In fact, planners acknowledge, what they’re hoping for is a whole system of added truck lanes to handle Atlanta’s place as the hub of the Southeast’s interstate freight network.

As news spread this week about the huge number of lanes proposed for I-75, Atlantans’ jaws dropped.

“Holy cow,” said Goldberg.

The ajc.com Web site flooded with comment. A writer named “Edge” said that “Considering the truck traffic, I can see the need for it.”

“Yeah more lanes will work,” countered “Justin.” “Just like it worked on 85…oh wait…just like it worked on 75…oh wait.”

“Let’s just pave over the entire metro,” he concluded.


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