University Parkway GA-316 Athens GA to get toll proposals v2

January 2, 2004
By Peter Samuel

Washington Group (WGI) and Fluor Corp are ready with proposals for Georgia DOT (GADOT) for toll financing a motorway standard road from Lawrenceville in the suburbs of Atlanta for 55km (35mi) along GA-316 east to Athens GA. GADOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl was quoted by AP Dec 29 as saying the department expects to receive a proposal from WGI in January: ''You've got a situation where somebody is saying, 'I'm going to use my money to build a road.'"

GDOT is ready to receive proposals the official in charge Paul Mullins, Chief Engineer at the department told us. Responding to a suggestion the rules need some work he emailed us: "I'm sure we will need to do some clarifying and revisions in response to what we encounter in the future but for now we are ready to receive proposals."

The official GDOT study of the corridor completed last summer said of tolling: "The preliminary results suggest that a substantial share, if not all, of the cost for the improvement could come from money generated by tolls. The study recommends that toll revenues, in combination with available fuiding from traditional federal and state sources by used to accelerate improvements to GA-316."

One company official said that matching likely costs of $800m against preliminary traffic and revenue data suggests GA-316 is "probably viable" as a pure toll project.

"It's OK, good enough for us to stick with it, but not such a great project we'd bust an arm to get it."

Traffic is presently decent, but not spectacular, and the road would be a gamble on strong growth continuing in the area.

Athens, a major university and research town with associated communities along GA-316 has a population of about 750k, forecast to grow to 1.5m in 2025. It is one of the few areas of such size without modern highway connections. it is set midway between I-85 to its north and I-20 to its south, each 40km (25mi) and as much as an hour's drive on crowded surface roads.

Athens is 112km (69mi) east of the center of Atlanta. The proposal is to upgrade University Parkway (GA-316) from its present condition as a 2x2-lane signalized arterial to a 2x3-lane motorway with full grade separation and access control.

Athens is presently reachable from Atlanta via either of two 4-lane surface arterials GA-316 and US-78. US-78 is slightly shorter but the quickest route is via I-85 to IC-106 26mi (42km) from downtown Atlanta where GA-316 begins. The first 9km (5.5mi) of GA-316 east is already full freeway, but in the northern part of Lawrenceville it drops to surface arterial standard. Here traffic is 85k veh/day and heavily congested. Moving further on east along the remaining 34mi (55km) to Athens the road has 42 at-grade intersections in 56kn (35mi). It has 2x2 12ft (3.65m) lanes with typically 14.6m (48ft) left edge line to left edge line (1.8m or 6ft is leftside paved shoulder and there is 9.8m (32ft) of grass median.) Traffic volume here drops away to the 20k to 30k range but there has rapid growth. In Barrow Co GA-316 traffic has doubled since 1991, and 5%/yr growth is forecast.

Overall corridor width is a minimum of 34m (112ft) so a 6-lane motorway can just about be accommodated without the need for extra real estate.

Cattleruns proposed

The official corridor study for GADOT completed last summer by PBS&J recommended reconstruction to motorway standard with 6-lanes - but an unusual, for a tollroad, 2/1/1/2 lane configuration with single managed lanes barriered off from the mixed traffic dual lane roadways. A matter of detail but the proposal provides no lefthand offset from a barrier in the left general purpose lane, only a 13ft (4m) lane in place of the normal 12ft (3.65m), an arrangement that could be uncomfortable for motorists. Normally an offset of at least 1.2m (4ft) is provided from a barrier. In the managed lanes however the PBS&J format is a 3m (10ft) rightside shoulder and a 1.5m (5ft) offset leftside of the single 3.65m (12ft) travel lane each direction. A full 18m (58ft) is needed for just two lanes because of the barriers, offsets and shoulders.

This arrangement is intended to give transit buses and high occupancy vehicles their own reserved lane and a time advantage over the mixed traffic lanes. The study doesn't make clear the rationale for this in a toll context. Since there are to be tolls on all lanes the mixed traffic lanes should be managed for rather free flow conditions by adjustment of toll rates - in which case the segregation loses its point.

WGI and Fluor will, we understand, likely be proposing alternatives to the preferred PBSJ format and its cattleruns. Getting rid of those barriers and the need for extra offset pavement and bridge decks could trim the costs substantially. And with variable tolls over the whole roadway it should be free flow for all traffic - and no need for the barrier segregation.

Local support strong

Major impetus for the project has been the University Parkway Alliance, a local group which has been quite effective in pushing the project - see www.universityparkway.org The area has no less than six university campuses including Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Emory University, and University of Georgia. The post-docs and faculty are heavily engaged in near-campuses businesses, and local government in the area is quite successful in developing it as the regional center for hightech and light indutry.

The University Parkway Alliance and local officials want tolls because there is no alternative financing.

Tolls averaging 10c to 12c/mile for cars are mentioned in study, or about $4 to the length of the pike.

In 1998 after lobbying by Jim Allen of UTS the state passed a law allowing counties and cities to negotiate toll projects with investors, but no projects have followed. In 2001 the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority was created and given power to do toll projects or organize them with investors. It has been plagued by fierce arguments over its constitutionality and has unwisely gotten involved in at least one rail projects without revenue. The state inspector-general has criticized it for buying 20 times the land it needed for one project on orders from the Governor's office - an apparent political payoff.

GARVEE debts strangling the state

The state is seriously into GARVEE bonds which raise loans by sequestering future gas tax revenues and federal grants for debt service. These bonds - a banana republic notion of the Clinton crowd - are a pernicious invitation to political irresponsibility since they lead to politicians delivering projects to constituents without any revenues to support them. Predictably after several years a situation arises where debt service on outstanding debt taps the great bulk of traditional highway revenues such that there is nothing left for actual expenditure on highways. In New Jersey a commission appointed by the governor reported last November that that state is within 18 months of using all its highway revenues for debt service thanks to GARVEE bond borrowings. Other states on the way down the same slippery path thanks to this Clinton-era legacy. This destruction of traditional gas tax funding by GARVEE debt is good news for tolling however. It makes tolling the only way new roads will be built. And regardless of the mess "innovative finance" has made of state DOT budgets good tollroad projects can still be financed with revenue bonds and private capital tied to prospective toll revenues.

GA-400 major success

Georgia has a very successful tollroad in GA-400 Extension, a northern spur off I-85 at IC-87 just 5mi (8km) north of downtown. It was built by GADOT and is operated by the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority (GSRTA). Opened in 1993 GA-400 Ext handles about 120k veh/day. Tolls are 50c for cars going up to $2.50 for tractor-trailers. 35% of tolls are paid for via transponders called Cruise Cards. GSRTA has authority to seek proposals and enter into agreements with investors, but the GA-316 project is being handled by the state DOT.

Northern Arc stranded on high ground

In the period 1998-2000 there was active work on a Northern Arc tollroad to go east-west across the northern part of the greater Atlanta area. The state invited proposals and got four solid schemes for a 94km (59mi) $1.5b to $2.5b pike. However congestion is not yet great enough to support an effective pro-road lobby and it was defeated by an environmentalist/NIMBY campaign making much anti-roads demagoguery with the usual shibboleths and slogans of "smart growth." The environimbies' big breakthrough came when they coopted the Republican challenger for the governorship who ran against the arrogant Democrat incumbent, Gov Roy Barnes who had been promoting the toll project. Controversy was never about toll financing, but over whether a major highway should be built at all. The Republican challenger Sonny Purdue saw an opportunity to get environimby votes and promised not to build the Northern Arc. Purdue surprised observers and won, and though as governor he has talked vaguely about building parts of the road, the project is probably on the shelf for 5 years or so until traffic congestion gets bad enough to generate a strong Build-the-Arc movement.

There has been considerable chaos in Georgia state government since Purdue came to power at the beginning of 2003. His is the first Republican administration since the immediate aftermath of the civil war, the period of Reconstruction so-called. You'd expect the party of Abe Lincoln to clean house, but the broom seems to have been handled erratically. Still Purdue supports the GA-316. Unlike the Northern Arc there is no serious opposition. TRnews 2004-01-02

see http://www.dot.state.ga.us/DOT/plan-prog/planning/studies/sr316corridor/index.shtml

EXTRA: Details of procedures for investor proposals are available at http://tomcat2.dot.state.ga.us/ppproposal/index.cfm They allow for a single or a two stage process, as determined by GADOT. In the 2-stager a conceptual proposal is received first and then competing proposals sought and a full proposal from the initiator. Intending competitors have to submit a letter of intent to submit a competing proposal within 30 days of public notice. There is then 90 days for the final proposals, 45 days for each phase of the 2-stage process. Then a contract may be negotiated around a selected proposal. The Department has to provide the opportunity for public State house and senate transport committees to review proposed contracts with proposers. The State Transportation Board has to approve the contract before it is final. The Department charges a $10k review fee. They won't accept proposals by email! TRnews 2004-01-05v2


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