By Benita M. Dodd
“If you build it, they will come,” was the mantra for opponents of road-building in metro Atlanta, the economic engine of Georgia. So we didn’t build “it.” And still “they” came. Now “it” is almost too expensive. It still needs to be built – just somewhere else, so that those who don’t need to come won’t come.
That, in a nutshell, is what the region needs to do to add the necessary capacity for traffic in metro Atlanta. McKinsey and Co., consultants to the Governor’s IT3 transportation plan (Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today) pointed out the challenge recently: “Over the last 10-20 years, Georgia has undermanaged and underinvested in its assets. The lack of improvement to these assets has contributed to performance gaps on the transportation system and put Georgia’s future quality of life and economic growth at risk.”
Atlanta has the second-worst congestion in the nation, behind Los Angeles. Failing to keep up with the growth in traffic is one reason; another is a poorly functioning arterial road network, which causes overuse of freeways for local trips and does not allow for alternate routes around accidents and traffic jams. Atlanta’s failure to plan for growth by designing and building an effective grid of arterial roads should be a lesson for areas around the state that are not fully developed.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s “Agenda 2009: A Guide to the Issues,” outlines two ambitious opportunities to increase capacity in metro Atlanta – and distribute the economic impact statewide. Both are costly, but necessary for planning ahead in a growing Georgia economy and clearly less expensive than the alternative: gridlock that drives investment, industry and growth out of the state.
The first opportunity is to divert unnecessary traffic. The second is to physically add capacity to existing interstates.
Diverting unnecessary traffic:
U.S. 27: Tourist traffic between Florida and the Gulf and Tennessee can be routed around metro Atlanta if U.S. 27 along the western length of Georgia is developed as a limited-access highway. Truckers would also be able to avoid the metro area and choose U.S. 27 if it is developed and upgraded to be a viable alternative route.
Alternative to I-285 to I-85 north: Traffic headed down I-75 north up I-85 must take I-285 east or I-75 through metro Atlanta. As politically unpopular as the concept has been for decades, the need continues for a “northern arc” around the outer northern edge of Atlanta between I-75 and I-85 to avoid the need to travel through the metro area.
Alternative to I-75 between Macon and the Georgia-Tennessee border. The most heavily congested area of I-75 in Georgia, this convergence of truck and tourist traffic can be reduced by a new route around Atlanta on the west side.
The Fall Line Freeway: The corridor traverses the entire width of the state from the Alabama state line at Columbus to Macon then to Augusta at the South Carolina state line. Upon completion, the 215-mile, four-lane highway would eliminate the need for travelers to go through Atlanta (I-75, I-285 and I-85) to get between Columbus and Macon to Augusta or South Carolina and beyond.
Establishing an inland freight distribution center in the Macon area could provide more than half of existing trucks a way to avoid the metro Atlanta area, bringing needed traffic congestion relief. The convergence near Macon of a western “arc” around Atlanta and into Chattanooga on the U.S. 27 corridor, the Fall Line Freeway and I-16 from the ports of Savannah and Brunswick would provide access to I-85, I-75 and I-20 without going through metro Atlanta, reducing congestion in the metro area and expediting through traffic.
Adding capacity to existing interstates:
“Reducing Congestion in Atlanta: A Bold New Approach to Increasing Mobility,” a study published in 2007 by the Reason Foundation and Georgia Public Policy Foundation, recommended four essential projects, to be paid for largely by the private sector or toll revenues and not tax dollars.
1. A network of variably-priced toll lanes added to the entire freeway system, instead of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. These express toll lanes could be utilized free of charge by buses and vanpools, providing a congestion-free alternative that would speed up service and significantly upgrade the region’s mass transit system. This plan would convert the existing carpool lanes into toll lanes and build another 1,132 lane miles to form a seamless network of connecting toll lanes using advanced, hassle-free toll collection technology. Projected toll revenues suggest that toll revenue bonds could be issued to pay for it without tax dollars.
2. A double-decked tunnel linking the southern terminus of Georgia 400 with I-20 and later with the northern terminus of I-675. The tunnel would provide major relief to the Downtown Connector (I-75/85), the most congested portion of the freeway system. A tunnel is recommended because the high land values in the downtown area make above-ground expansion too costly. The study found that toll revenues would support nearly 40 percent of the project. The remaining construction expenses would need to come from surplus revenues from the express toll network or from conventional highway funds.
3. A new east-west link to relieve I-20, made up of the existing Lakewood freeway, extended to the east by a new toll tunnel and to the west by upgrading portions of Campbellton Road and Camp Creek Parkway. On this route, just 28 of the 111 lanes miles would be toll lanes.4. A separate toll truckway system, permitting heavy trucks to bypass Atlanta’s congestion in exchange for paying a toll; a portion of this system would be tunneled below downtown. (Diverting through truck traffic around the metro area, as mentioned earlier, is likely to eliminate the need for this.)
Congestion, while a sign of a thriving economy, reaches gridlock and drives away investors. Overcoming community opposition to added capacity is a challenge, but with delays impacting their quality of life, more Georgians are demanding that policy-makers “do something.” Time is short; money is even shorter. It’s critical to do the right thing. State officials must plan regionally, prioritize projects and partner with the private sector.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (November 21, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.