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

Tolls are an increasingly common sight along Atlanta’s highways. (© Ron Sherman)

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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