On the birthday of a GA Interstate

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Interstate 285 turned fifty years old this month.  The then two-lane highway opened in October 1969 allowing travelers to completely bypass Atlanta. 

Georgia hasn’t built many freeways since I-285, favoring instead to constantly add lanes to those we already have.  I-16 connected Macon to Savannah in 1978.  Other spur highways such as I-185 to Columbus, I-985 to Gainesville, and GA-400 filled local needs but were less ambitious.

It’s easy to sit back and count years since highways opened that have long since been taken for granted. It’s even more common to heap scorn upon them for their lack of ability to handle the traffic that couldn’t have possibly been dreamed of in 1969.  Some context is needed for then, and for today.

Construction first began on I-285 in 1957.  The first segment of I-16 opened in 1966.  Planning began years prior to any dirt being moved. 

These were projects that spanned decades from conception to completion.  Some were already in need of upgrades by the time they opened due to Georgia’s rapid population expansion. This has created somewhat of a vicious circle of pave and grow, grow and pave.

The attitudes toward growth and the willingness to make room for new roads has changed significantly in the last half century.  The extension of Georgia 400 through Atlanta became a years-long battle of neighborhoods versus the state, ultimately ending with a compromise of a shorter roadway and a separate, smaller Freedom Parkway.  Plans for an “outer perimeter” to loop around I-285 were scrapped altogether after becoming a campaign plank from then candidate for Governor Sonny Perdue.

Even today, relatively minor additions of managed lanes and interchange improvements to Georgia 400 and I-285’s northern sections meet with active neighborhood opposition.  It’s not just those living next to the roadways who fear eminent domain, but also those who know more traffic on freeways means more traffic on the side streets that lead to and from interchanges. 

The metro area now has roughly four times the population it did when I-285 opened.  We’re expected to welcome 3 million Georgians to the area in the next 30 years.  That’s two more times the population on hand to see the ribbon cutting on I-285 fifty years ago.

The immediate solution is to continue to add “managed” toll lanes to increase the capacity of the freeway, as well as to continue to look to elusive solutions for expanded regional transit.

Those are solutions to manage the congestion we have today. With a completion of the new lanes now targeted for 2032 and those on GA-400 pushed back until 2027, Atlanta will likely add another million residents before we have another major ribbon cutting.

I-285 was originally completed for $90 million.  The original project estimate to upgrade the interchange at I-285 and GA 400 was about ten times that.

Yes, Georgians began investing almost $1 billion additional funds per year in roads and bridges a few years ago. But, after decades of expansion while being among the last in the country in transportation spending, much of that money is dedicated to maintenance and upgrades over the next two decades.  New interstates would require new funds.

Inherent in the above statements are the reasons politicians aren’t proposing more rapid completions or alternative new road corridors.  Voters remain transfixed on the next immediate election, and are prone to ask “what have you done for me lately” in an increasingly demanding tone. 

There would be at least one more occupant of the Governor’s mansion, and possibly two or three, before any major new roadway corridor could be identified, planned, permitted, and constructed.  Any such undertaking would not be cheap, and would guarantee opposition from those in the path as well as those who would like to use the same funds elsewhere.

It’s quite worthy to celebrate the birthday of a relatively young I-285 and the other freeways in our state.  They’ve grown up quite a bit during their decades of service, but they’re also quite likely the only ones those of us that are the same age or older will drive upon in our lifetimes.


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