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Atlanta’s I-285 expansion for car commuters could be much costlier than we thought.

According to the AJC, a member of the Doraville City Council has signed a petition urging GDOT to stop the incredibly costly plans for expanding the top end of I-285 to add new capacity for toll lanes. And it’s easy to understand why. 

In fact, it’s stunning that in 2019 we’re still trying to “ease traffic” in Atlanta by adding the exact thing that’s inducing all the car trips: road capacity.

With the region’s population growing, it’s likely that this new road capacity will be filled in 5 years through induced demand. As a City Lab piece reported not long ago: “The danger of induced demand lurks in any sort of highway expansion, even one that makes use of toll lanes…many highway expansions in the U.S. are tolled expressways, yet exhibit the same problems that non-tolled expressways do:…more traffic.”

And that’s a very costly mistake to make – more costly, perhaps, than we’ve been led to believe. 

That $4.6 billion price tag may not even be half the amount the public is really spending for this. 

An insider with the state recently sent us a tip to check out the full spreadsheet of spending on this top-end 285 project. Local media (including this linked AJC article) keeps saying that the price tag is $4.6 billion. 

But if you look at the spreadsheet for spending and add up the rows for “Top end 285.” $4.6 bil only accounts for state spending. It appears that most of the public funding for the project is federal, and the grand total looks to be over $11 billion. We contacted an AJC reporter and he replied that he was using the $4.6 bil figure because that’s what’s listed on the GDOT press release and that he’s looking into it. (NOTE: see the edit at the bottom of this post for a correction on this.)

This number isn’t confirmed yet, but as of now it appears that the public is on the hook for over $11 billion with this effort to ease car commutes in the northern suburbs of Atlanta – an effort that will likely increase the number of car trips being made to job centers. 

With this 285 plan, we’re shifting car traffic to added lanes and bringing more cars into employment centers like Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Midtown, and Downtown that are served by transit. Instead, Georgia should be investing in a major expansion of commuter buses (and in local transit agencies) so that we can shift people to more efficient forms of mobility.

Georgia could stand to dedicate more funding annually to transit. 

Imagine if we spent those billions of dollars on transit for the region instead. According to an ARC report in 2017, Atlanta Regional Commission, the state spends about $14.5 million annually on transit – much of it for Xpress bus service in the metro area (the rest is used to match federal grants). 

This means that in 2017, Georgia ranked 37th in state spending per capita and 45th in spending per transit trip – significantly below the national average. Which is a shame for a state that houses one of the ten most populous regions in the U.S. 

Also, it appears that The ATL, the organization that now oversees transit in the region, has no funding beyond simple operations. That should change. And so should our general attitude about spending and planning for transportation.

It’s ridiculous that GDOT is able to use several billion public dollars to benefit car commuters in the wealthy northern suburbs — and generate more car trips in the process — with no referendum needed, and no local match needed. Meanwhile, transit projects that are helpful for meeting our climate goals and for supporting better land use have to jump through 100 hoops. It should be the other way around.

Here’s the petition against the I-285 expansion:

EDIT: Big thanks to David Wickert, an AJC reporter who’s been doing some research on the true cost of this toll lane project on the top end of I-285.

He writes to us in an email:
“I have an answer from GDOT. The $4.6 billion they’re using is the construction cost. The figures the ARC is using (including, by my math, the $11.2 billion figure in the update latest ARC transportation improvement plan spreadsheet you linked to) includes operating and maintenance costs over the first 20 years of the project.”

So…it looks like the tip that was sent to me was a bit faulty. The construction cost for the toll lanes is fact the lower $4.6 billion that the media has been using. The $11.2 billion cost is what the public will pay over a 20 year period for construction + operation + maintenance of the lanes.

The tip wasn’t completely wrong. The public is definitely on the hook for a ridiculous $11.2 billion for the top end of 285 for the sake of car commuters in the northern suburbs, it’s just happening over a 20 year period.