Keith Golden, commissioner of the Georgia DOT, Todd Long, deputy commissioner, and Russell McMurry, chief engineer, spoke with the Marietta Daily Journal this week about the DOT’s new reversible express lanes project, the funding challenges the department faces and the impact the new Braves stadium will have on local roadways.
The $834 million reversible lanes project will add two additional lanes to run along the west side of Interstate 75, from I-285 to Interstate 575.
From that point, the two lanes will split: one will run north along I-75 to Hickory Grove road, and the other will run along I-575 from the I-75 interchange to Sixes Road in Cherokee County.
The 29.7 mile stretch of lanes would operate by running south during morning commute hours and north during the evening and are expected to open in spring 2018.
Golden, a Cobb native and member of the Osborne High School class of 1981, said the toll for the lanes would change based on traffic conditions; basically, the price of using the road would depend on demand. As a result, Golden said drivers have to make a decision on whether paying the toll is worth the reliable trip time.
“It’s not … something you use every day. It’s the day that you’ve got to get somewhere — A to B — in a quick timeframe. Maybe in the afternoon you’ve got to get home to your kid’s ballgame or an event or whatever. So it’s a value proposition: on that day, does it make sense?”
Cost of convenience
The DOT representatives wouldn’t commit to a range of possible tolls, however. The price of a reliable trip could be high if traffic is dense and you have a long way to go, Golden said.
“At the peak of the day, at the highest point, if you’re going the length of the trip — which on the 75 corridor is about 20 miles — in theory, you could probably pay $8 or $9 to go 20 miles with a guaranteed trip time. But … the intent is to give that reliable trip time.”
More realistically, Golden said the tolls would be comparable to tolls on Interstate 85’s express lanes.
“When you hear like on (Interstate) 85 — the hot lane — and you hear it’s eight dollars. That would be at the peak of the peak if you got on at the beginning of the project and went the entire distance. And that’s rarely the case. The average toll is $1.60 on the hot lane,” he said.
The project will also benefit drivers on I-75’s existing lanes, McMurry said, by displacing drivers who would have used the traditional interstate to the new reversible lanes.
Golden said the project’s main goal is reliability, which could not be achieved with more traditional road improvements.
“If we added four lanes in each direction, … any incident, any crash would break the system down. It would probably … bring more latent demand and fill that capacity up. And what people really want is that reliability. This is really trying to provide reliability when you need it.”
According to McMurry, the lanes will operate with a series of gates at each entrance and exit. When it’s time to reverse the lanes, he said, officials will close all gates and make sure no one has broken down somewhere on the route.
Safer than traditional lanes
Regarding safety along the route, McMurry said they may actually be safer than the traditional interstate lanes. If someone breaks down or gets in an accident, officials can close all gates to ensure traffic congestion doesn’t increase. Then emergency vehicles will enter the reversible lane somewhere “downstream” from the accident and drive against the “flow” to get to the site of the incident.
“Today, emergency response people are fighting the gridlock of the normal ramps in traffic — trying to get to a crash,” he said.
The entrance and exit points will also have signs showing what the current toll is. The idea is for drivers to use traffic information from television and radio, as well as a possible app from the DOT, to help them decide whether to use the lanes on a given day.
The lanes will be separated from the other lanes on I-75; they will run alongside the southbound lanes. This will prevent drivers from moving into and out of them, unlike the I-85 express lanes.
“I call it the chute,” Golden said. “Once you’re in the chute, you know how many cars are in the chute. On (Interstate) 85, you still have people that are getting in and out.”
Because the reversible lanes will be separate from the rest of the interstate, McMurry said he doesn’t expect much additional traffic during construction. There will be some disruption, he said, but it will mostly come from onlookers slowing down.
McMurry expects the project to officially break ground in September and construction to begin in October.
This project will be built differently than previous projects the DOT has worked on in the past, McMurry said. In an effort to reduce project time, some of the work traditionally done before the groundbreaking will still be incomplete when construction begins.
“All the plans won’t be done. All the right of way won’t be bought. And so, it’s really, instead of putting things nose to tail, you get that concurrency, which speeds things up,” McMurry said.
Golden said another reason the stages of the project are taking place concurrently is the state DOT simply doesn’t have the money to get it done in the traditional, linear way.
DOT officials recently met with members of the Georgia General Assembly as part of a special study on infrastructure funding. At the meeting, Golden highlighted several projects he considers necessary but are not being funded, such as widening I-85 from Gwinnett to the South Carolina line or finding a way to improve the northern edge of I-285.
“Look, our capital construction budget annually, including our federal money, is $800 million. I can’t do any of these projects. Because remember, we can’t go in debt, and so I have to have the money for every project we do,” he told the MDJ.
Golden said they tried to stay away from giving the members of the study committee a hard number they “need” because then the meeting becomes all about the price tag. Instead, he said DOT officials tried to describe projects to the state senators and representatives in an attempt to pique their interests.
“I don’t think the average legislator … understands transportation funding. And so we were really just trying to break it down to baby steps,” he said.
Golden said the state of Georgia has the tenth largest transportation system in the United States, but it is 49th in per capita spending on transportation.
Staffing is also an issue at the DOT. Long said the DOT had about 6,200 employees in 1990; at last count, the staff had shrunk to 4,100 employees.
“We’re doing less with less. But we’re doing our best with less,” Long said.
Golden said he doesn’t know what the solution to the DOT’s financial issue is, but he acknowledged the General Assembly knows there is a problem.
“They opened the meeting the other day saying that they recognize something has to be done,” Golden said.
Traffic around new stadium
While the new reversible lanes will have an exit near the site of the forthcoming Cobb County Atlanta Braves stadium, Golden said the project was in the works long before the team announced their intention to move to Cobb.
Additionally, he said the DOT hasn’t started any new projects related to the stadium.
“There’s nothing that we’ve added at this point to the program to be constructed for the Braves’ benefit that wasn’t already on the books,” he said.
After the project was announced, however, Golden said the DOT’s leadership had meetings with officials from both the team and the county.
Regarding the roads around the new stadium, Golden said there will be a “noticeable” increase in traffic, but it should not be overwhelming because the site’s location has several routes leading toward and away from it. Turner Field only has a couple of routes leading to it, he said, which causes congestion.
He also said the mixed-use development near the stadium could reduce traffic by encouraging fans to get the game early or stay after it ends, reducing the traffic spikes before first pitch and after the final out.