Transportation Reform in Georgia

SELC is working to shift away from investing solely in highways that lead to more traffic toward a more diverse transportation system and robust non-driving options such as transit and rail.

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Amendment to Atlanta’s Regional Transportation Plan raises questions for city’s traffic trajectory More »

At a time when the Atlanta metro area is reflecting on a notorious overreliance on roads following several highway debacles, conversations at the city, regional, and state level have continued toward building out a more diverse transportation network.

Yet a proposed amendment to Atlanta’s Regional Transportation Plan seeks to sink a staggering amount of money into the construction of toll lanes around the region, locking up a substantial portion of the state’s transportation funding for decades.

The cost of these projects will be even larger because they will be paid for with long term debt financing. One example is the Revive 285 project, which would add toll lanes on the northern side of I-285. The project would be financed for over 40 years and would cost $11.8 billion with financing costs.

Many of the projects in the amendment, like Revive 285, have been discussed for years but this is the first time cost figures have been made public. The list of projects reflects those included by Governor Nathan Deal in his January 2016 Major Mobility Investment Program. This list was announced without prior discussion of why those particular projects were chosen, and how they compared to other potential projects that could be built with this money—a remarkably secretive process for plans to spend billions of public funds.

A report earlier this year by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts concludes that politics often plays a role in how the Georgia Department of Transportation selects projects, highlighting a $2 billion proposal to build truck-only lanes for I-75 (one of the projects included in the proposed amendment) as an example of a project that Georgia DOT is advancing without a clear analysis of its merits.

The scale of the investment also harkens back to the 2012 referendum on TSPLOST, a local sales tax to help fund transportation options. Leading up to that referendum, there was a robust public discussion about how the money could best be used and whether the projects matched the public’s vision for transportation in the region. 

Although the amount of money involved with the projects on the governor’s list is potentially nearly three times larger than the amount of money generated from the dedicated TSPLOST revenues, the public discussion about the merits of these projects has been minimal. And unlike the sales tax vote, these decisions will be advanced through a series of regulatory decisions (like amendments to the Regional Transportation Plan) rather than a public referendum.

 “This proposed amendment would be the next step in making a massive, generational investment in our transportation system through an arcane, bureaucratic process with little public involvement,” said SELC Senior Attorney Brian Gist. “The obvious question that hasn’t been addressed is: Should we be sinking billions of dollars into projects that may be obsolete by the time they are paid off and limit our ability to make better use of those funds in the future?”

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Decades of sprawling growth and an auto-centric culture have saddled metro Atlanta with some of the most congested roads, dirtiest air, and longest commutes in the country.

As part of our regional transportation reform work, SELC is working to steer Georgia away from asphalt-centered transportation policies and toward solutions that strengthen communities, reduce air and water pollution, protect sensitive ecosystems, and decrease global warming emissions.

Looking Beyond New Lanes

Facing congested roadways and limited transportation funds, metro Atlanta has seen a push toward construction of toll lanes on the region’s interstates. Among other problems, these toll lanes fail to provide a long term transportation solution, provide more space for solo drivers, and because of their price could be less accessible to low income drivers.

On smaller roads and in rural areas, freight traffic and economic development have been used to justify widening or rerouting existing roads. However, these road expansion projects often disrupt communities, impact natural resources, and further sprawling growth.

SELC is weighing in on these projects to ensure they provide transportation choices that encourage carpooling and transit use, minimize harmful environmental impacts, and avoid disrupting adjacent communities.

Supporting Investment in Transit

SELC is also working to advance legislative and policy efforts to support the growing demand for a more diverse transportation system and more robust non-driving options. SELC and our partners are striving for additional investments in transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects, safety improvements for drivers and non-drivers, and projects that allow for greater accessibility to job centers and transit stations.

For example, in November 2016 the City of Atlanta successfully passed two transportation funding initiatives. This funding will make a transformative investment in the City’s transportation infrastructure and will be the most significant expansion of MARTA since the mass transit system was initially built in the 1970s.

Building on this and other successes will continue to open access to a variety of transit choices, such as the expansion of MARTA into Clayton County, expanding transit service in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties, adding lines to the Atlanta streetcar, and expanding rail options for the Atlanta BeltLine―an urban redevelopment and mobility venture that ties together public parks, multi-use trails, and transit by re-using 22-miles of historic railroad corridors circling downtown neighborhoods.

Successful execution of these projects is helping to chart a new path for metro Atlanta. As other counties and cities look to Atlanta as a model of how to expand transportation options beyond building more roads, long-term planning will be critical to address the region’s steady population growth. SELC will continue working with local partner groups, city and state agencies, elected officials, and leaders in the business community to advocate for an inclusive public engagement and identify funding for projects that will expand Atlanta’s transportation choices in an unprecedented way.

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