Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs have experienced a growth in population. The infrastructure has not kept up with the uptick in population, and the roads are not able to handle the increased in traffic. It's a story that has been told about a number of locations around the country. The Atlanta area is responding to the overburdened infrastructure with the Transform 285/400 improvement project. The project was designed to help reduce traffic congestion and enhance safety along both I-285 and SR 400.
The Transform 285/400 project includes a number of actions such as new flyover ramps, new collector distributor lanes, a bridge replacement, reconstruction of two bridges, and construction of a shared-use path to provide a connection through the interchange for planned bike/pedestrian facilities. Albert Welch is managing the $800 million project for the Georgia Department of Transportation (Georgia DOT). According to Welch, the project is being done at the behest of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. Welch describes the governor as proactive and said, “He wanted to help mitigate traffic congestion and moved forward on this project which was on the books for years.”
The I-285 and SR 400 interchange was built in the 1960s. While I-285 has been widened since it was built, the interchange has not received an upgrade despite massive growth in the area. Cities have cropped up since the interchange was built, and the area is also home to multiple major commercial areas. "The interchange is a linchpin in the Atlanta area,” said Welch. “Approximately, 400,000 cars go through the interchange daily.”
Finding the Funding
The project began in November of 2016, but it was two years earlier when the Georgia DOT and the Georgia government began considering how they could get the project done. The massive price tag made financing challenging. According to Welch, there was consideration into breaking the project down into smaller increments, but this was overruled. Ultimately, the price of the project, the limited funds, and the desire to do the project in one shot, led to the decision to utilize a Public-Private Partnership (P3) Design-Build-Finance (DBF) delivery model. This model enabled the Georgia DOT to transfer the project’s design, construction, and part of the initial financing responsibility to a private sector partner. It also allowed the Georgia DOT to spread out the payments, which meant they had more money to continue other necessary projects.
The Transform 285/400 project is the second major project in Georgia via the P3 model. Even though Georgia DOT is using P3, once the project is complete, it will be their responsibility to operate and maintain the road. Welch has seen a number of benefits by utilizing this method. “Because of P3, we've been able to transfer risk to the developer, incorporate public financing, and are getting a quicker delivery on the project,” said Welch.
Designing for Greater Efficiency
Because of the tremendous amount of traffic in the area, the design team went with flyover ramps. They are stacking four levels of bridges on top of each other. Welch said the contractor, North Perimeter Contractors (NPC), was chosen for its innovation, as others who bid wanted to have five levels. The multiple levels are necessary as current operational efficiency at the interchange is poor due to high volume. The traffic includes a good deal of regional traffic as well as a large number of trucks that use it as part of a corridor.
In addition, there is a significant amount of local traffic that is exiting to get to local business districts leading to large queuing. “The direct connect ramps will reduce conflict points allowing through traffic to stay on the main line and not be impacted by those trying to exit and enter the system,” said Welch. It will also reduce crash rates and rear end and sideswipes.
Challenges for Commuters
The work being done is typical construction work, “nothing fancy” according to Welch. However, the location makes the project far from standard. Welch describes working in the area as, "It's as if you’re changing your clothes in a phone booth with 400,000 ants [cars] there."
To help commuters deal with the inevitable challenges, the Georgia DOT and partners are engaging in an aggressive communication and outreach program. They are striving to reach locals, businesses, residents and other commuters who may come through the area whenever an issue arises. “We do everything we can to get the message out there. We make use of social media and various messaging systems,” said Welch. They also try to minimize issues to the best of their ability.
The Georgia DOT also works with NPC on traffic issues. Welch notes that they have come up with some innovative ideas about how to divert traffic. They also try to do off peak. Between the four contractors, work is being done around the clock.
As part of the Transform 285/400 project, PATH400 is being extended.PATH400 isabike/pedestrian route that will run 5.2 miles and be a greenway that connects a neighborhood (Buckhead) that SR 400 runs through. PATH400 will eventually join with the Atlanta BeltLine in the south and be a key link in a regional trail network. Recently, PATH400 won an American Transportation award in the Quality of Life/Community Development, Small Category.
The Transform 285/400 project is scheduled to be complete in late 2020. Welch is confident the project will be completed on schedule. He points to a few reasons for his confidence including the model transferring risk to the developer, responsible design, and scheduling. Welch, who manages the four contracts involved in getting the project done, also cites constant communication for his reasoning on why the project will be done on time. “One of my regular tasks is to work with the contractor, and we communicate daily about how we are moving forward,” said Welch. He adds they regularly come up with ideas and innovation. The goal is to provide a safe system that follows Georgia DOT standards and does so on budget.
Everyone being on-site also fosters collaboration. The team meets often to encourage a free exchange of ideas and clear communication. Welch frequently drives along the route to get a better understanding of the issues facing commuters. He shares his experiences with the team.
In just two more years, the Transform 285/400 project will make it easier to navigate around Atlanta and its suburbs. The project will enable commuters, businesses, and pedestrians to be safer and experience the positive effects of good infrastructure.
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