Have Tolls, Will Travel

When it comes to transportation policy in Georgia, good – or at least, better – things often come to those who wait.
A decade ago, regional T-SPLOST referendums were pitched as the best way to fund new transportation infrastructure. But voters in 2012 rejected the idea in nine of 12 districts, including metro Atlanta; only one region, in South Georgia, has adopted it since.

Lawmakers pivoted in 2015 with legislation that, among other provisions, raised the motor-fuel tax and dedicated all of its revenues to road-building. Not only is the motor-fuel tax more of a user fee than the general sales tax, but the projects being funded by the proceeds are more likely to mitigate traffic congestion.

Those projects include express lanes, separate lanes on metro Atlanta interstates with tolls that rise and fall with traffic volumes. Motorists with Peach Pass transponders can use some 67 miles of lanes on I-85, I-75 and I-575 north of Atlanta, and I-75 south of the city. Plans call for expanding the network to a total of 120 miles stretching from I-20 west across the top end of I-285 to I-20 east, and up Ga. 400.

Those plans were put on hold in October 2019, when the Georgia Department of Transportation said it was delaying new construction. Although there was an outcry from motorists – who have come to embrace what were once panned as exclusive “Lexus Lanes” – there was a hint at the time that the wait might be worthwhile.
It appears that may turn out to be true.

State DOT officials recently said they will seek public-private partnerships to build and operate the I-285 express lanes. Doing so could help bring the full network to fruition while freeing up tax dollars for other transportation projects. The state would reduce its financial risk and benefit from private-sector efficiency.

As with any contract, the devil will be in the details. State negotiators must ensure the requirements for contractors, such as road maintenance standards, are tightly written.

If that sounds like a nigh-impossible task, consider how standard these arrangements are globally.

“Public-private partnerships (P3s) for complex multibillion-dollar highway projects have been used for half a century in Europe and for the last two decades in Australia, Latin America, and Canada,” Baruch Feigenbaum, a senior fellow for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, recently wrote for the Reason Foundation. “Over the past 20 years, nearly two-dozen long-term transportation P3s have been financed in the United States and P3 toll projects are under construction or already in operation in many states, including California, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Virginia.”

Bob Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, notes that private infrastructure investment funds “have raised over $600 billion in the last five years, nearly all of it planned for equity investment. If projects are financed with 25% equity and 75% debt, that $600 billion could finance $2.4 trillion of brownfield refurbishment and greenfield projects.”

The question for years has been whether Georgia would get a piece of this action.

Georgia has taken a couple of false steps here. Most recently, the state reversed course on a planned public-private partnership for the I-75 and I-575 Northwest Corridor toll lanes. There was also an issue with the contractor, which wanted to preclude major improvements to nearby U.S. 41 that might attract motorists away from the toll lanes.

That kind of concession should be scrutinized carefully in the proposed project on I-285. But it’s worth noting that the top end of the Perimeter has no similar, parallel highway; that’s part of the problem with east-west traffic in metro Atlanta.

Ideally, Georgians would end up with an expedited, better toll network shortening journeys for everyone from plumbers on emergency calls to daily commuters. In the general-purpose lanes, truckers should get faster trips between the Savannah and Brunswick ports and markets or manufacturers across the Southeast. We’ll also have more tax dollars available for needed roads and bridges elsewhere across the state.

That would be worth the wait.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.
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