I-285/GA 400 Interchange Reconstruction Needed

My good friends at Streetsblog highlighted an article by Darrin at Atlanta Urbanist stating that Georgia should build better neighborhoods, not bigger highways. The author explains that he is an urbanist and not an urban planner. It’s good he makes this distinction, since he lacks an understanding of Atlanta’s transportation system.

Georgia is planning to rebuild the I-285/SR 400 intersection in metro Atlanta, identified for years as one of the top transportation projects in Georgia. I-285 and SR 400 are the two freeways which provide access to the perimeter business area, home to the largest concentration of jobs in the Southeast U.S. Originally, GA 400 ended at I-285, but in the early 90’s the freeway was expanded south to I-85 in Atlanta. Since GDOT was working with two existing freeways several of the ramps for the 400 extension were shoehorned in to the interchange. Twenty years ago Atlanta was a much smaller metro area and this did not cause a big problem. Today the shoehorned ramps complete with the outdated design of the original interchange affect roads such as I-75, I-85 and numerous arterial roads as far as ten miles away. Fixing the interchange would reduce congestion on almost half of metro freeways, far beyond the interchange.

GDOT has wanted to fix this interchange for years but has lacked the resources. The interchange and collector distributor ramps on SR 400 (totaling a combined $700+ million dollars) were on the 1% transportation special purpose local option sales tax list in 2012. While the interchange had near unanimous support, other projects on the list were controversial causing the tax to fail. However, GDOT still needed to fix the interchange and because of worsening congestion in metro Atlanta it decided to add collector-distributor lanes to I-285 from Roswell Rd to Ashford-Dunwoody Rd in addition to the SR 400 ramps. This brought the total cost to $950 billion.

To fund the project the state is going to sell $130 million in bonds, use $81.5 million in gas tax revenue and use a design-build-finance approach with builder constributions to supplement other sources.

Let’s address all of the bogus claims in the Urbanist article.

First, the article claims that the interchange is something Atlanta does not need because new lanes lead to induced demand. But the interchange reconstruction project is not building new lanes; it is rebuilding a functionally obsolete interchange. Second, induced demand is only created when new non-priced lanes are added to growing areas. GDOT has an official policy, adopted in 2007, of adding only priced lanes to Atlanta freeways. The agency is planning on adding priced lanes to both corridors but the variable pricing will prevent induced demand.

Second, the article claims that Georgia has a pedestrian death rate 25% above the national average. This high rate is a problem but we have no idea what is causing the rate without researching the cause. Yet Atlanta Urbanist knows the cause without supplying any proof; it is because we do not spend enough money on pedestrian infrastructure so therefore we should spend the $950 million on pedestrians. The problem with this logic is that GDOT is using federal gas tax money collected from drivers and intended to be used on highways. Since this money comes from drivers it is only fair it is used on highways. Also, this federal funding is supposed to be used for interstate purposes. There are a large number of vehicles on I-285 and SR 400 from other states such as Florida and North Carolina. I doubt many folks in the metro Atlanta area walked here from another state. If lack of funding is the reason for pedestrian fatalities then more funding might solve the problem, but that funding should come from local government.

Third, according to the blog, metro Atlanta has a growing senior population and we need ways to better serve them including transit. I agree that Atlanta’s transit service is insufficient. But with most rail lines costing in excess of $2 billion, this is not enough funding to pay for a full line. The interchange rebuild that allows the addition of variably priced lanes will also provide a free virtual guideway for buses and vanpools. In fact, thanks to using managed lanes as a guideway, Atlanta could build and operate a comprehensive bus system for less than a third of the cost of building a comprehensive light rail system. Further, new technology such as the development of automated vehicles may allow seniors to drive longer. While such vehicles are not yet available, they will be in the future.

The article also argues we cannot afford to spend all our money on a single interchange given other pressing needs. We do need to rebuild this interchange and since $950 million is needed to fix the problem, we should spend $950 million. The article also claims we should raise the gas tax, but part of the Georgia gas tax is indexed to inflation, so saying we need to increase something that naturally increases is silly. I agree that Georgia has other transportation needs. And examining a mileage based user fee would be a great idea. But a MBUF is a long-term solution. Today the best approach is to ensure that all of Georgia’s gas tax supports transportation. And currently only 52% of gas tax funds support transportation. Dedicating the other 48% would be an effective way to stabilize transportation funding.

Finally, the article includes a petition addressed to GDOT and Governor Deal that demands the money be spent on non-highway uses. But given the fact that much of the money comes from the state gas tax, the petition is asking the state to violate its constitution. The GA 400/I-285 interchange is the most important transportation project in the state of Georgia. If $950 million will fix this outdated and congestion interchange it is a great investment.