Transportation Gridlock: Can Atlanta's Traffic Be Fixed?
Congestion on metro area roads and interstates is harming our health, our environment and our economy. It costs the region $2 billion every year and is taking a toll on our ability to attract new industry. Solving the problem will take time, leadersh
The typical Atlanta commuter spends a couple of hours each weekday tediously crawling the brittle asphalt gauntlet between home and livelihood, alone in his car, which becomes a gas chamber on wheels in the creeping sludge of traffic that is choking the metro region.
Traffic congestion in Metro Atlanta is a cliché, fodder for cubicle chitchat, something we accept wryly, like a mosquito bite. It is a byproduct of the city’s economic success and logistical magnetism, driven by the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson, as well as Georgia’s ports, which send an endless flow of freight through the region.
But Atlanta’s traffic also costs the region $2 billion annually in lost time and excess fuel and grows continually more boisterous each year, and it has caused at least two major industrial prospects to locate elsewhere. We have applied the occasional band-aid or salve – widened roads, added HOV lanes, synchronized traffic lights, even added bus transit options in the suburban counties that once feared and fought the very notion of public transportation.
And the traffic has gotten exponentially worse because in Atlanta, where 1.7 million drivers clog the roads during peak hours, if you build it they will drive.
“Let’s face it, Atlanta was built for the automobile,” says Jack Crowley, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of Georgia, former director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and a veteran real estate developer.
Atlanta’s traffic is old news and inevitable. But it has moved beyond critical mass. It is harming the health of people, the environment and the economy. The need has outgrown the capacity. The infrastructure is aging. Public funding has all but disappeared.
Georgia is the fourth fastest growing state, but fourth from the bottom in transportation funding. Metro Atlanta is facing a case of gridlock that has fueled a new sense of urgency among state and local leaders, who are scrambling to create solutions to make Atlanta’s traffic situation manageable, and maintain the region’s ability to grow in a healthy way. It’s going to take time, patience, innovation, teamwork, leadership, political willpower, the courage to make tough, long-range decisions – and a lot of money.
“I heard a state senator question the need for more money and I couldn’t believe my ears,” says Sam Olens, Cobb County Commission chairman, who also chairs the Atlanta Regional Com-mission (ARC), which released a draft of its Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) in June. “Metro Atlanta is at the point where, if we don’t get some relief, the golden goose for Georgia is gone.”
Atlanta’s infamous traffic places the city at or near the top of every national list ranking the worst commutes. We endure it because, even if we spend half our lives idling in a river of static metal, spanning the horizons on the north end of I-285, we take comfort in the fact that our region’s economy zips along like an express train. And of course, we take comfort in our cars.
“If you think about it, every time our commutes get longer because the traffic gets slower and we have to spend more time in our cars, the cars get better at accommodating us,” says Crowley, a proponent of alternative transportation modes who was a brakeman-switchman on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad while in college.
“We have a lot of creature comforts as we sit there in traffic in our Kias and BMWs, and the creature comfort technology is getting better. We’ve got Sirius satellite radio, and National Public Radio – NPR keeps us happy – and now we have TVs. The commute becomes longer, but more tolerable.”
The ARC’s $66.5 billion Envision6 (www.atlantaregional.com/envision6) includes both the 25-year long-range plan as well as a five-year short-term priority plan (Transportation Improvement Plan, or TIP). At this stage, 60 percent of the plan’s funding (conceptual in nature, because the money doesn’t yet exist) is for maintaining existing infrastructure. The rest is slated for system expansion – roads, transit, bike and pedestrian facilities, etc.
The new RTP is costlier, but leaner than the last RTP (Mobility 2030, released in 2004), and prioritized to address congestion. Projects are ranked based on recommendations from the Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force.
“We realized we had to cut back, so for the first time in the region’s history, we’re actually removing projects instead of adding them, which is the opposite of what we need to be doing,” says Olens, who points out glumly that the Federal Highway Trust Fund – the mechanism that pays to build and repair roads and bridges – will be drowning in red ink by 2009, mainly because the federal gas tax has not risen in 14 years and Congress is reluctant to increase it.
Meanwhile, Atlanta (where 94 percent of commuters use their cars) has the highest per-capita gasoline costs in the nation. During the city’s peak hour, idling commuters burn about 71 million gallons in excess fuel annually, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, which ranks Atlanta number 4 nationally in travel time index – the ratio of travel time during peak periods to the travel time in free-flow conditions. Atlanta’s travel time index is about 1.5, which means a 60 minute free-flow trip takes 90 minutes during peak times.
“If we want to reduce the travel time index, it’s going to take more federal dollars, and we’re just not getting that,” says the ARC’s Chief of Transportation Planning Jane Hayse, part of the team that devised a regional strategic transportation system.
“Georgia has the lowest gasoline tax in the country, but the funding shortfall isn’t just a local issue. It’s more exaggerated here, but this is a national issue and a question of political will. What are our priorities?
“This whole country, in my opinion, has got to come to grips with our transportation infrastructure.”
Hayse made her prophetic comments three weeks before a bridge on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis collapsed, taking lives and debris into the Mississippi River.
Transportation projects typically move slowly through a mind-boggling design process, and the agencies charged with getting them from A to Z don’t always see eye to eye, which can only add to the confusion in an 18-county metro region with 164 different units of government, each with its own priorities.
ARC’s Olens complains (as do plenty of others) that the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is too slow in implementing projects – only 44 percent of the projects in the ARC’s previous Transportation Improvement Plan progressed last year. “Georgia doesn’t have a process to timely move projects through design so you can actually construct them,” Olens says.
“I think we’re playing in the same sand box with the ARC, and we generally work well together,” says GDOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl, who is retiring Nov. 30. “But we do like to kick sand at each other every now and then. We do have the occasional difference in philosophy.”
Linnenkohl says his department is bound by federally mandated processes, such as environmental impact studies, which can take several years to complete. Olens and others describe GDOT’s environmental and design processes as “more bureaucratic than sensible.”
A recent efficiency study of the GDOT (done at GDOT’s request) recommended priority initiatives to help GDOT save time and money. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson requested a state audit of GDOT with the same goals in mind.
When Linnenkohl began his career with the state agency in 1968, it was called the Georgia Highway Department and it had about 9,500 employees. Today’s DOT has 5,744 employees and is facing a $7.7 billion funding shortfall in coming years, because the money it receives from the fuel tax is far less than the tab for projects currently in the works – a tab that increases every day.
“We know we can’t afford just to keep building, but our roads are getting pounded with more trucks and more cars every day, and we’ve got to take care of what we have; but there isn’t enough money to address everything that needs to be done. And that’s just today,” Linnenkohl says.
Construction costs have risen about 40 percent since 2004. From July 2005 to July 2006 they rose 28 percent and the price of asphalt doubled. Meanwhile, Georgia is a donor state in the fuel tax arena – for every dollar collected and sent to the feds, the state receives less than 89 cents.
“The bottom line is, we have got to look beyond the next election cycle and make some tough decisions that may not see results for another 10 or 20 years,” says State Sen. Doug Stoner, a Democrat from Smyrna, and a member of the Joint Study Committee on Transpor-tation Funding, a group formed to make legislation recommendations for the 2008 session. “It seems like there has to be a crisis before anyone is willing to sit down and make serious decisions.”
In the 2007 General Assembly, two transportation bills were introduced and carried over to 2008. HB 434 would allow two or more counties to create a regional tax by referendum, a sort of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), and HB 442 calls for a one-cent statewide sales tax for transportation.
“What’s important to me is that the collected funds go to relieve congestion, period,” Olens says. “If we’re going to ask the public for the money, we’ve got to use it to solve the need.”
Counties have been passing their own SPLOSTs for local road infrastructure for years, and property owners within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) tax themselves to get transportation projects done. About $400 million in transportation improvements have been lined up by the Perimeter CIDs, including the $35 million flyover bridge spanning I-285, which will be officially dedicated in November.
Public-private initiatives (PPIs) are the next evolution in moving public transportation projects forward, says UGA’s Jack Crowley.
State laws passed in 2003 and 2005 also are designed to help solve problems by allowing private companies to build public roads and get paid back by tolls. In July, the GDOT was poised to put its first public-private project (I-20, east of the Perimeter) out to bid.
And in August, Rosa Roun-tree, executive director of the State Road and Tollway Au-thority (SRTA), was poised for good news as she waited to hear whether or not Georgia would receive a portion of the $1.2 billion in the Urban Part-nership Agreement, a one-time federal grant, available only for plans making use of existing infrastructure.
Georgia wants the money to turn the HOV lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett County into electronically managed HOT lanes. Existing free HOV lanes (for vehicles with two or more occupants) are as clogged as general purpose lanes during peak hours. HOT lanes – sometimes referred to as “Lexus Lanes” for the high-priced fees during peak hours – are free for vehicles carrying three or more, motorcycles and alternative fuel vehicles, and available to any other vehicle for a fee that changes based on the time of day and flow of traffic.
“It’s open road tolling,” says Rountree. “A market demand system using new technology.”
Steve Stancil, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), believes managed HOT lanes are part of the congestion solution, but he’s also a rarity in Atlanta. He sees an upside to the funding shortfall.
“In a way it helps [GRTA], because it increases the demand for our bus service,” says Stancil, whose organization operates Xpress, a public transportation system serving Metro Atlanta.
Stancil, a one-time candidate for lieutenant governor from Cherokee County who served 13 years in the General Assembly, would seem an odd choice for his current job. As a legislator, he opposed creation of GRTA. But Stancil says his stint with GRTA has been an eye-opening experience.
“Admittedly, I didn’t think about transit a lot. The biggest surprise was seeing how well utilized MARTA is, carrying half a million people a day,” Stancil says. “It got me to thinking, God forbid something happens to MARTA and it shuts down and pushes everyone into an automobile. We couldn’t handle that traffic.”
Even with 500,000 daily riders, MARTA is somewhat underutilized and underfunded. Its 691 buses run 125 routes. Its 350 rail cars operate on less than 48 miles of track; but MARTA has finally moved beyond DeKalb and Fulton counties, now managing Clayton County’s bus system.
Each year, the river of traffic gets longer, thicker and slower on Atlanta’s interstates and arterial connectors. It’s the sad upshot of success.
“Our traffic situation is an unanticipated result of how well we’ve done,” says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. “And we grew faster than anyone imagined. Nobody dreamed 20 years ago that our population was going to grow by 2 million.
“Now the single biggest threat to our economic livelihood is transportation, and we’ve got 20 years of catching up to do.”
Williams has blamed Atlanta’s traffic for costing the region a Fortune 500 headquarters. MeadWestvaco, a $6.5 billion packaging company, narrowed its short list to Atlanta and Richmond, Va., for its $100 million headquarters (and up to 1,000 jobs). Last year, Richmond got the nod.
“I was involved in that discussion, and when Sam Williams says we lost MeadWestvaco to Richmond because of traffic, he’s 100 percent correct,” says Olens, who adds that another large prospect chose Pittsburgh over Atlanta for the same reason.
“Now, I never thought of ourselves as competing with Richmond,” Olens says. “But now, because of our traffic congestion, apparently we are. That’s abysmal.”
Word is out, and now it’s carrying more weight than all of those top 10 (or bottom 10) lists ever did before. Dennis Donovan, one of the principals at WDG Consulting, a corporate site selection firm based in New Jersey, says Atlanta is in danger of losing its place near the front of the line.
“Atlanta is one of the handful of global cities in the U.S. that has been seen as a good value proposition, but that viewpoint is diminishing, predominantly because of traffic,” says Donovan, who recently delivered that same message to the Metro Atlanta Chamber board.
“Atlanta’s impressive relocation resources are a rich, deep and diverse talent pool, fueled by the in-migration of more talent moving in; but that could erode because of the traffic situation, for two reasons.”
“First, there’s the truncated labor market because of congestion,” Donovan says. “A company starts out by assuming its target employees will be limited to a 40-minute one-way commute. But 40 minutes won’t take you very far in Atlanta. Congestion limits the capacity to hire people from across the metro market.
“The second thing is, people who relocate to an area place a high priority on quality of life, and sustainability. They don’t want to sit in traffic for hours on end, or breathe a significant quantity of pollution.”
A report at Forbes.com in July identified America’s most unhealthy commutes, a ranking based on year-round particle pollution levels, time spent in rush-hour traffic and the number of per-capita fatal car accidents. Another list: Atlanta was number two.
Our commuter, sitting alone in his internal combustion cocoon has little protection against the particle pollution that is almost certainly shortening his life span.
“Our survival as a state demands changes,” says Kevin Green, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign, based in Atlanta. “The solutions lie in the choices we’re going to make. But breathing is not optional, and sitting alone in traffic can be hazardous to your health.”
The Clean Air Campaign (CAC) works with employers to establish teleworking programs and alternative commute programs, such as van pools, transit options and flexible working hours to reduce peak demand.
“There’s a growing awareness that we can’t, as a state, supply enough asphalt for people to continue traveling the way they do. Even if our air can handle it, we can’t afford it,” Green says. “Federal dollars are shrinking, the cost for materials and right of way is going up. It’s a bad combination. We’re outgrowing the infrastructure. The Atlanta region is having an out-of-money experience.”