Posted on August 13, 2004

Spinning Our Wheels

Julie B. Hairston, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Aug. 13

Even an aggressive program of new public transit, expanded roadways and extensive bike and pedestrian lanes won’t keep metro Atlanta’s traffic gridlock from getting worse as the region adds another 2 million residents over the next 25 years.

Analysis provided Thursday by the Atlanta Regional Commission shows the planning agency’s long-range blueprint for transportation improvement will do nothing to make metro commutes faster.

Rush-hour drive times will continue to lengthen, as will gridlock regionwide. For example, an afternoon trip from Marietta to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is projected to grow from a 48-minute ride to a 70-minute odyssey.

Afternoon travel from downtown Atlanta to Town Center Mall in Cobb County, which now takes 53 minutes, will eat up 61 minutes even after $50 billion in new HOV lanes, public transit, intersection improvements and other transportation-related construction in the region.

The current commute between Cobb County and downtown Atlanta is enough to make Evelyn Johnson cringe.

“I find it hard to believe it can get worse than it already is,” she said. “If you try it at the wrong time, the expressway can look like a parking lot.”

Johnson, a pharmaceutical sales representative, has driven from her Kennesaw home to downtown Atlanta at least three times a week for the past three years. One day last summer, the trip took nearly two hours when an accident shut down part of I-75.

Even adjusting her schedule to avoid traffic hasn’t helped. “I tried leaving earlier [in the morning] and still ran into traffic,” she said.

Regional leaders who heard the ARC staff’s analysis of the plan, which has been developed over the last 18 months, seemed frustrated that gridlock would continue for decades despite a substantial investment in new and expanded transportation systems.

“What I’ve heard is that if we spend $50 billion, we’ll only be a little worse than if we do nothing. As a politician, I can’t take that back to my constituents,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood.

But executives of the regional agency defend the plan as a hedge against even greater congestion and delays stemming from rapid population growth.

“When you realize there’s not enough money, what [the plan] does is a lot,” said Charles “Chick” Krautler, Atlanta Regional Commission director.

Dream plan trimmed

The plan is a whittled-down version of a more ambitious $74.4 billion blueprint that regional leaders compiled last year knowing they couldn’t afford everything in it. The larger plan was drawn to show which transportation improvements could help ease congestion if all the money needed to create them could be found.

But $50 billion in local, state and federal money was all the ARC staff could reasonably predict would be available between now and 2030. To help convey the size of that pot, with $50 billion the region could install 649 interchanges like the one at I-75 and I-285.

In trimming the original plan, staffers cut bus rapid transit lines on I-20 west, Ga. 400 and I-75 south as well as capacity-increasing projects on the Downtown Connector, I-285 and I-75 south.

Still, Krautler said the plan would help ease some of the worst stretches of road while expanding the amount of available public transit and the number of Atlantans who use it.

A key is the addition of 10 routes of rapid transit buses that commuters can board and ride like trains. Routes will include a transit line from downtown Atlanta to the Town Center area of Cobb County, and one across the top end of I-285 that will operate in a lane of its own.

Express buses also would be deployed in the more than $5 billion of HOV lanes to be built.

But the most effective transit line planned for construction in the next 25 years is the one known as the Belt Line/C-Loop. ARC officials are calling it the Inner Core Transit, a line that would loop through many of Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods and link them to MARTA and each other.

“The Inner Core is an extremely important piece,” said ARC Transportation Planning Director Jane Hayse.

In response to criticism that the regional plan shortchanges pedestrian projects, officials note an unprecedented $900 million set aside for such improvements.

The reason the region has lagged in pedestrian amenities, said Planning Director Tom Weyandt, is that required local funding has been diverted to other projects, such as new roads.

Sprawl foes urge more

The long-range transportation plan has drawn fire from a wide spectrum of advocates for doing too little to ease gridlock and create new transportation options.

Bryan Hager, sprawl director for the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter, said the failure to make significant headway against gridlock cried out for a new approach to transportation.

“It’s amazing that the ARC will put out a plan that says things are going to continue to get worse,” Hager said.

But ARC officials counter that the plan meets federal air quality requirements and helps keep the growth of residents and cars from worsening gridlock even more. They concede that a number of “challenges” remain, such as generating more money to build and maintain an adequate urban transportation system.

“This is helping us keep track of growth, but this is not enough,” Hayse said.