‘Philosophical’ U-turn killed Georgia road PPP

A leadership change in the US state prompted the December decision to terminate the $2.3bn managed lanes project. ‘West by Northwest’, as the project is known, is not dead, but its future as a public-private partnership is in doubt.

An about-face stemming from a change in state government felled the closely watched $2.3 billion ‘West by Northwest’ managed lanes public-private partnership (PPP) in Atlanta, Georgia, Infrastructure Investor has learned. 

“I am still somewhat at a loss for a comment,” admitted David Spear, Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) spokesman, to Infrastructure Investor. “I think the only thing I could say at this juncture is that the new administration and the Georgia State Board of Transportation have [undergone a change in] direction philosophically,” Spear added.

West by Northwest, conceived in 2009 after Georgia installed new PPP legislation and hailed as a major corridor improvement for Interstate 75 and Interstate 575 in Atlanta, marked a “historic” PPP for the Peach State, according to GDOT P3 director Gerald Ross.

In West by Northwest, as well as in an emergent privatisation programme, Georgia seemed poised to become a lodestar for public investment in private infrastructure, akin to Ohio or Virginia.

But in September, GDOT head Vance Smith was ousted on the eve of a request for proposals (RFP) for the project. Less than a month later, GDOT in a terse e-mail statement announced West by Northwest had been shelved.

Spear went on to explain his department has “remained committed to [West by Northwest] and is pursuing an alternative delivery method in that regard”. But, given the recent change in state leadership, privatising West by Northwest might no longer be perceived as a welcome solution.

Long-time governor Sonny Purdue, a Republican, installed the PPP programme under his regime. Purdue in 2011 left government. Current governor, Democrat Nathan Deal, nixed West by Northwest.

Meanwhile, staff turnover and changing leadership assailed GDOT itself. Smith, a former state representative, came onboard in 2009. Politically well-liked, his stint as commissioner dovetailed with the onset of the PPP effort.

But Smith, like Gena Evans and Harold Linnenkohl, who both served as commissioner prior to him, was dismissed under a cloud of criticism. Personnel reshuffling, understaffing and attrition, such as the resignation of Kate Pfirman as treasurer in May 2011, also hampered the department.

Spear said governor Deal is holding his “State of the State” address tonight and speculated he could address West by Northwest as well as the future of the PPP programme.