Accommodating one of the fastest growing state populations in the country since 2000 has been a challenge for Georgia’s transportation system. Due to aging infrastructure, poorly designed mass transit systems, and a low-density suburban population, traffic gridlock and delays are normal occurrences for many north Georgia commuters. As Georgia faces the prospect of 2.5 million new residents moving to metro Atlanta alone by 2040, the state desperately needs a long-term comprehensive plan to improve and expand its transportation system.
Over the past few years, Georgia’s General Assembly has made important progress towards creating a 21st-century transportation system. With the passage of two important pieces of legislation, Georgia has created a viable foundation for future development.
The Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (TFA) was the first piece of this structure. In overhauling the state’s funding mechanisms for transportation projects, the TFA raised nearly $1 billion in additional annual transportation funding. After phasing out the four percent sales tax on motor fuel, the law increased the excise tax on gasoline to $0.26 per gallon, all dedicated to transportation revenue. Importantly, the excise tax was indexed annually, rising or falling based on federal estimates of the cost of road construction and the state’s estimates of increases in fuel economy. Also, the TFA adjusted the definition of an alternative fuel vehicle to any vehicle that is fueled solely by electricity, natural gas, propane, bi-fuel or dual/flex fuel and any vehicle that utilizes plug-in hybrid-electric technology. This definition adjustment was significant because the law created a $200 annual fee for all alternative fuel vehicles. Overall, these changes created a more dependable transportation funding stream, reduced Georgia’s dependence on federal funds, and countered inflationary effects over time.
As a result, these changes generated an extra $5.4 billion for general transportation spending over a five-year period. The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) needed this money for repairing and maintaining the state’s aging infrastructure. Thus far, the funding has generated significant road, highway, and bridge repairs, safety improvements, as well as new capacity. Additionally, 11 megaprojects designed to improve travel times and trip reliability are underway or completed.
The second piece of the foundation for future transportation development was House Bill 930(HB 930) of 2018, which revamped mass transit. The cornerstone of the law is the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, or ATL. After aligning the region’s various transit systems – including the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), CobbLinc, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress service, and Gwinnett County Transit – under its brand, the ATL will coordinate transit expansion planning across a 13-county area. Should any county develop a transit expansion scheme outside of the ATL’s planning process, it would be required to seek approval from the ATL board before it can begin development.
The ATL will not have absolute control over the system though. In order to pay for any transit expansions across the region, voters in participating counties must approve a one percent increase in their local sales tax of up to one percent. Notably, the revenue raised from these taxes is restricted for use in the county in which it was collected.
This separation of power between the ATL and individual counties is intended to promote collaborative efforts between the two entities, rather than allowing one to dominate the other.
It is important to mention that the passage of the TFA and HB 930 only establish a capable arrangement for developing a long-term regional strategy. Decision makers in the Georgia General Assembly, GDOT, the ATL and county administrators must now create the plan.
A useful place to begin would be with recognizing the successful transportation projects constructed recently around the state.
One of the most successful infrastructure improvements in the Atlanta area over recent years has been the express toll lanes. Using automated toll collection, these lanes offer many advantages compared to simply building additional free lanes on the highway. The congestion pricing of the lanes guarantees a reliable trip time, semi-dedicated running ways for express bus service and financial self-sustainability.
Already constructed on I-75 in Henry County, I-85 in Gwinnett County and under construction on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee Counties, these lanes have had remarkable success in providing commuters with congestion-free alternatives. Between McDonough and I-675 in Henry County, travel times during high-congestion hours have decreased by as much as 80 percent for drivers in express lanes. GDOT appears to have recognized their utility and currently has plans to add lanes to SR 400 and the north side of I-285.
There are three other potential developments that could significantly improve Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure. The first is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service. In comparison to light rail transit, BRT is a low-cost transit alternative that can better serve the region’s widely distributed population.
Second, the region could utilize managed arterials to bypass congested intersections. Similar to express toll lanes, managed arterials include overpasses or underpasses that circumvent a busy intersection and that for a small toll offer drivers a route with uninterrupted traffic flow and reliable travel times.
Lastly, Atlanta has several missing links in its highway network that can be added. For example, a connection between I-85 in Brookhaven and I-285/I-675 interchange in Clayton County could help alleviate stress on the current highway system.
Overall, the development of a 21st-century transportation network will be essential in accommodating Georgia’s rapid population increase over the next two decades. The General Assembly’s passage of the TFA and HB 930 has dramatically improved the state’s funding mechanisms for transportation projects and created a regional transit administration capable of significantly improving Atlanta’s transportation system. Next up, regional decision makers and voters will need to make good choices capable of creating and building out an effective, comprehensive system.