The State Transportation Board’s decision to negotiate a “public-private initiative” agreement to add priced lanes to I-75 and I-575 should be welcomed by everyone concerned about Atlanta’s future. It’s a major step toward reducing the traffic congestion that could cripple the region’s attractiveness as a place to live and do business.
Atlanta is the fourth most-congested urban area in the nation, with a travel time index of 1.44 (meaning it takes 44 percent longer to get somewhere at rush hour than at other times). If the region’s current $53 billion long-range transportation plan is fully implemented, congestion won’t be reduced; instead, by 2030 the index will grow to 1.67. Rush-hour trips will take two-thirds longer than at other times, and being stuck in congestion will be routine.
Funding constraints mean the current long-range plan adds very little to the highway system’s capacity, despite the forecast of 2.5 million more people between now and 2030. Trying to squeeze 100 pounds of potatoes into a 50-pound sack is what transportation planners face with the highway system. But to expand the system, tens of billions in additional funding must be found and put to work promptly and efficiently.
And that is what the Legislature intended by creating the public-private initiative process. Investors with billions of dollars in private capital are ready, willing and able to increase U.S. highway capacity, as Texas and Virginia have been discovering in recent years. Adding priced lanes to congested freeways is proceeding full-speed ahead in these states, with close to $20 billion in projects under way. Some projects add specialized lanes for trucks only, increasing highway safety and speeding goods on their way. Others offer congestion relief to motorists, as well as faster, reliable Bus Rapid Transit service. All three options are being considered for the I-75/I-575 project.
Protecting the public interest is essential, which is why the projects are governed by detailed long-term concession agreements. Typically, agreements cover toll rates, future additions and various contingencies. For complex megaprojects, a major advantage of public-private initiatives is the ability to shift risks (such as schedule slips and construction cost overruns) from taxpayers to the private investors. And in the worst-case scenario of the private partner going bankrupt because of inadequate toll revenues, the agreements provide for the state to reclaim the new lanes and keep them in service to the public.
These negotiations will be complicated, but are well worth pursuing. Metro Atlanta ultimately will need a complete network of congestion-relief lanes, some for cars and some for trucks. The DOT’s embrace of the I-75/I-575 project is a promising start.
Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.