Here’s something not many Georgians would have guessed several years ago: The new express tollways in metro Atlanta, once derided as “Lexus lanes” intended only for a fortunate few, are proving quite popular.
So popular, in fact, that a mere hint of doubt recently about plans to build more was enough to prompt a public outcry.
Just two weeks ago, on Oct. 7, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced it was delaying by a few years the delivery of new tolled express lanes on the top end of I-285 and on Ga. 400 north of the Perimeter. By this past Wednesday, when the State Transportation Board met, GDOT officials were at pains to clarify the projects aren’t being shelved.
“One thing we’ve learned over the last week is that metro Atlanta really likes express lanes,” said Meg Pirkle, the agency’s chief engineer, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are moving forward.”
It’s not only metro Atlanta that likes the lanes. Plenty of Georgians who travel to or through the metro area with any regularity have slapped a Peach Pass on their vehicles’ windshields. When traveling to Dalton, Rome, Athens, Macon, even Savannah, I routinely encounter people who use the lanes.
Far from favoring “the rich,” the lanes can be a lifesaver for the plumber trying to reach an emergency job during rush hour, or a parent racing to pick up the kids from daycare on time and avoid a late charge. They also yield benefits for those who don’t pay: The data so far show the lanes on I-75 have increased speeds and reduced the length of rush hour even for motorists on the untolled, general-purpose lanes.
The delays for adding the lanes to more highways is still disappointing. The addition of two tolled lanes in each direction on the northern arc of 285 would connect existing lanes stretching north of the Perimeter along I-75 and I-85. That would not only improve traffic on 285 but turbocharge the effects of those existing toll lanes: For now, motorists traveling toward Atlanta must still hit the brakes and merge with other traffic when they get to the Perimeter.
However, there may be a silver lining.
Delaying these projects will give GDOT an opportunity to finance these projects through public-private partnerships, often called “P3s.” The world is awash in private money earmarked for investment in public infrastructure. Private funds have raised hundreds of billions of dollars to be deployed in infrastructure projects, including highways. Investors recoup steady payments (from toll revenues, for example) in exchange for assuming risks traditionally borne by taxpayers.
But the rest of the world is seizing that opportunity better than the United States. Just one of the 10 largest P3 deals in 2018-19 was in our country, as were just four of the 52 deals that closed during that time period, according to the Reason Foundation. Turkey had the biggest and third-biggest of these projects, which together are receiving investments surpassing $5 billion. Developing nations such as Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso are also getting in on the action.
Georgia gave its roadbuilding budget an annual boost of nearly $1 billion in 2015, when legislators agreed to raise the gas tax and devote all of that levy and some other revenues to transportation. GDOT devoted $11 billion to its Major Mobility Investment Program, which includes the toll projects as well as widening I-85 between I-985 and Jefferson, adding truck-only lanes on I-75 between Macon and McDonough, widening a stretch of I-16 outside Savannah and rebuilding its intersection with I-95.
That $11 billion would go much farther if combined with private dollars. Maybe far enough to add tolled capacity around or through Atlanta itself, and untolled capacity in other parts of the state.
Once upon a time, Georgians would have scoffed at that idea. Now that they’ve seen what the express lanes can do for them, they’ll soon demand it.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.