The I-75 / 575 toll lane project is nearing finalization and actual construction.
This project will reduce traffic congestion for everybody, including those who pay no tolls, and continue to drive in the existing free general purpose lanes. Unlike the I-85 fiasco, they are not taking away or converting any existing lanes. This project will add new lanes.
Critics of the project complain that it is unfair for taxpayers to pay for this road and then pay for the road again via the tolls. This is a factually erroneous argument.
GDOT will only be paying for a portion of the cost with our tax dollars. The other portion will be paid with the tolls.
A separate issue is that the tolls will not end when the rest of the project is paid for. However, GDOT is not claiming that the only purpose of the toll is to pay for this road.
After the tolls finish paying for this project, the purpose of continuing the tolls is to provide GDOT with a permanent additional funding source for other needed projects.
Georgia’s population is growing faster than most states, but Georgia is next-to-the-last in per capita transportation funding. Most people don’t want to increase the gas tax or other taxes. GDOT says gas taxes will be producing a declining revenue stream in the future, and transportation needs are increasing.
Are future toll roads the best path for this funding? That may be a legitimate debate. But it is not correct that taxpayers are fully paying for this road, and then paying for it again with tolls.
Another legitimate debate is whether GDOT is using our transportation dollars for appropriate purposes. What percentage of their capital expenditures actually goes toward improving our mobility? This issue is complicated by the fact that different people define mobility differently.
Some people want more sidewalks, trails and bike paths. Others question whether these expenditures are disproportionate to our overall mobility needs. What percentage of GDOT’s capital expenditures go to these types of projects, and is it disproportionate to their current or future percentage of our total mobility needs?
Also, which needs should be prioritized? Should we emphasize spending on needs that address mobility for 90 percent of the population? Or should we prioritize social engineering so that in the future 10 percent of people might use facilities that are only utilized by 5 percent of us today?
Should GDOT spend our transportation dollars on streetscapes that may decorate our environment, but do nothing to improve our mobility?
Even worse, in their recent “Road Diets” article, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation demonstrates that some of our transportation dollars are being spent on projects that actually impede our mobility!
While all of the above are legitimate topics of debate, I would argue GDOT’s toll lane plan is fiscally responsible, and will significantly improve our mobility.
One argument in favor of new toll roads as a funding source is that the additional capacity is paid for by the people who use the additional capacity. But everyone will benefit from the additional capacity. If 5,000 people pay the toll, that is 5,000 fewer cars in the free general-purpose lanes.
The toll lanes will also result in faster trip times for express buses and will therefore increase ridership for express buses, further reducing traffic in the free general purpose lanes.
The reversible lane concept is another win for taxpayers. Along I-75 from I-575 to I-285, the reversible lanes concept allows taxpayers to get two additional southbound lanes in the morning and two additional northbound lanes in the evening, but GDOT is only paying to build two additional lanes, not four.
Some people worry about delays during construction. This is also an unfounded concern. This project will build a parallel roadway. Nearly all of the construction will not touch the existing lanes and will have no impact on traffic flow in the existing lanes during most of the construction.
The I-75 / I-575 project is a win-win for taxpayers and commuters.
Toll lanes may also be coming to I-285. Revive285 is the name of the study for the top end of I-285 from Cobb Parkway to Spaghetti Junction.
Either Alternative 4 or Alternative 6-A would dramatically improve traffic flow on the top end of I-285. GDOT will likely choose Alternative 6-A, as an integral part of the network of toll lanes that GDOT is clearly committed to building.
Adding new capacity via toll lanes may not be perfect, but it is clearly the most realistic, most cost-effective way for GDOT to obtain the funding to meet the transportation needs of the Atlanta region.
Ron Sifen is president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition.