Three suitors courting the largest transportation project in state history are hoping their ideas will woo commuters at a series of public meetings this week.
Each contracting group has submitted detailed proposals outlining how they would design and construct 30 miles of reversible toll lanes along I-75/I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, a project called the “Northwest Corridor,” estimated to cost $950 million. The leading bid will be selected later this month, with construction to start next summer and the lanes to open in the spring of 2018, if all goes as planned.
The state has just awarded a contract for a smaller optional toll project on I-75 in Henry County, but the Northwest Corridor is the big one. When it comes to metro Atlanta interstate highways, state officials have placed all their hopes for congestion relief in optional toll lanes. Aside from fixing interchanges, they have given up on being able to fund traditional interstate highway widenings in the densely built-up urban area.
“The importance of these projects I think can’t be overstated,” Gov. Nathan Deal told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month in anticipation of the I-75/I-575 project. “They are essential to relieving congestion in the greater Atlanta area.”
Along I-75, the project would build two lanes from I-285 to I-575. Then north of the I-75/I-575 split, it would build one lane, on I-75 up to Hickory Grove Road, and on I-575 up to Sixes Road.
Drivers will have to pay a fee that rises and falls with congestion in order to drive in the toll lanes. The reversible lanes will be separated from the main road by barriers.
The cost of the road will be repaid by taxes as well as tolls, since toll revenue alone is rarely enough to repay the cost of building an optional toll lane. Although the road will not be privately leased as once planned, the state is calling it a “public-private partnership” because the contracting team will briefly finance a fraction of the road’s costs.
The tax subsidy may be hundreds of millions of dollars. However, the public won’t get to weigh the proposed cost before deciding whether Bachelor 1, 2 or 3 is most attractive. That’s because the state wants to evaluate the technical aspects of the proposals separately from the cost. They will then add the scores for the technical aspects to the bid price to decide what the best value is. (Translation: It’s not just about how much of the bill they can pay, but whether they’re trustworthy and a good match).
Public reaction from this week’s meetings will not factor into how the companies’ bids are scored, according to GDOT communications manager Jill Goldberg. However, a selection recommendation committee will summarize the public comments and present them July 23 to the GDOT board, which will consider them when voting for a bidder.
Three eligible teams that submitted bids have various strengths and weaknesses.
- C.W. Matthews is Georgia’s largest and perhaps most influential road contractor. It is based in Cobb County and knows the state and the project area. On the other hand, it has never built a project on this scale. It did build the $155 million interchange reconstruction at Ga. 316 and I-85. A company spokesman said Thursday that it will be capable of tackling the project because it will partner with local subcontractors to amp up the workforce.
- Northwest Express Roadbuilders is a joint venture between two of the largest transportation contractors in the Southeast, Archer-Western and Hubbard Construction, though historically they do less business in Georgia than C.W. Matthews. Archer-Western built the biggest road project so far in Georgia, the I-85 widening in Coweta County about five years ago, a $218 million contract. It also has worked on projects such as an $849 million managed-lane project on I-35 East in Dallas, Texas.
- Georgia Transportation Partners is composed of two global builders, Bechtel and Kiewit, who are not as well known in Georgia roadbuilding. However, the team has tackled huge projects before, including the $730 million Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Gig Harbor, Wash. The team has been through a roller-coaster ride on the Northwest Corridor project. They originally signed a deal to develop a bigger version of the toll road, and did preliminary work on it, but the state pulled back. So they’re trying again.
There’s no set agenda for the hearings, though DOT officials will be there to answer what questions they can. Representatives of the bidding companies will not be there. The public can come and go.
On display will be the densely written summaries of each proposal — the full proposals are being kept secret — a video animation of the project, and engineer’s drawings.
People can give feedback to a court reporter on-site or take information home and make comments later either via the website, www.nwcproject.com, or mail-in comment cards. The deadline to comment is July 19.
When asked what made his company’s proposal stand out from the others, Bob Thompson, vice president over the major projects division at C.W. Matthews, highlighted the company’s plan to work with a team of primarily local contractors and subcontractors. The company would also look to Georgia architecture and materials for inspiration on design.
Northwest Express Roadbuilders’ proposal highlights a minimum of traffic disruption.
Georgia Transportation Partners’ proposal anticipates temporary lane closures during off-peak hours.
All touted their ability to complete the project ahead of schedule.
The size of the project will present challenges. C.W. Matthews has never done a project approaching its size. But any contractor can be tripped up.
When Archer-Western built a median wall in Ga. 400, it had to redo the job when an inexperienced employee gave the wall inadequately joined seams and rebar too close to the surface. Archer-Western said at the time that it pointed out the problem itself.
As for Bechtel, it is a major global builder. But it was also one of two companies ordered to pay more than $400 million to the state of Massachusetts and the federal government in 2008 for the so-called “Big Dig” project in Boston after lapses in oversight caused leaky tunnels and a fatal ceiling collapse.
Representatives from Bechtel and Archer-Western did not respond to requests for comment on the proposals by press time.
The DOT is holding two public hearings this week where people can review and comment on three private contractors’ proposals for the design, construction and partial financing of the I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor project in Cobb and Cherokee counties.
When: 4 to 7 p.m. tonight
Where: Woodstock Public Library, 7738, South Main Street, Woodstock GA 30188
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, 2055 South Park Place, Atlanta GA
The state Department of Transportation is updating its plan for optional toll lanes around metro Atlanta. At the moment, these projects are likely the next up, each of them to add new lanes, with the date the state hopes they will open to traffic:
2016: I-75 in Henry and Clayton counties
2017: I-85 in Gwinnett County extended north from the current HOT lane
2018: I-75-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties