Metro Atlanta’s Congestion & Air Quality Conundrum: Shuttle-Vans to the Rescue?

By Laura Creasy

The Metropolitan Atlanta area continues to display one of the strongest and most diversified economies among major urban centers in the United States. Over the past few years, the Atlanta area has benefited from the growth of manufacturing headquarters, as well as the growth of technology-based industries. Indeed, Metro Atlanta’s high-tech workforce is one of the largest in the southeastern United States, which includes locally based companies such as BellSouth, MindSpring, and Scientific Atlanta, as well as internationally known firms such as Lucent Technologies.

However, the area’s vibrant economy has also come at a cost  a population explosion that outpaces roadway capacity. During the past decade, the 13-county Atlanta metro area has grown significantly.

More importantly, this population explosion has been coupled with an increasing percentage of workers living and working in different counties. In fact, Metro Atlanta citizens average over 34 miles driven daily – the highest value in the nation.

Unfortunately, our population growth has led to increased congestion  a key player in Metro Atlanta’s air quality conundrum. Cities throughout our nation are struggling to meet federal air quality standards, and Metro Atlanta is no exception. Although there are stationary- and mobile-source contributors to Metro Atlanta’s current ozone nonattainment status, our dependency on the automobile is the one mobile-source contributor with which we are all familiar. As a result, the state of Georgia has dedicated millions of dollars to the creation of HOV lanes, mass transit, and park and ride programs among others in hopes of luring people to alternative modes of transportation.

However, the cost-effectiveness of such programs is a real concern. The cost per ton of various Phoenix, AZ-based emission reduction policies that would also directly impact traffic congestion. Phoenix faces similar problems as the Atlanta area.

Atlanta already has extensive experience with the failure of traditional transit. Although Atlanta area transit passengers only pay 27 percent of the cost of their transportation (with the remainder paid by U.S. taxpayers), such a subsidy captures only 1.9 percent of travel in Metro Atlanta.

Overall, rideshare programs and mass transit expansion efforts do not represent viable alternatives to the car for the majority of Atlantans. A feasible alternative to solo commuting is an extensive network of private shuttle- van services flowing over a system of HOV/HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes. This approach is nearly equal to solo commuting in flexibility, safety, convenience, cost, and travel time. Moreover, many government agencies and businesses already take advantage of the convenience offered by shuttle-vans.

The following reforms are needed in order to support a shuttle-van transit market:

· Deregulating taxi services. Presently, the City of Atlanta exercises strict control over taxi services through the limitation of taxicabs and the setting of price controls.

· Converting HOV lanes into HOT lanes, in which three-person car or vanpools travel free, while solo commuters or two-person carpools might pay a toll and be allowed to use surplus capacity on the lane.

· Providing employees the incentive to surrender their parking privileges in exchange for the cash value of current employer parking subsidies.

· Implementation of an emissions pricing system whereby fees are paid based on a combination of the vehicle emission profile and vehicle miles driven over the course of a year.

The Atlanta area has enjoyed one of the strongest economies in the United States during the 1990s as evidenced by its explosive population growth and attractive job market. Such growth has allowed Metro Atlanta to attain a great deal of diversity within its economy. However, the area must address several growth-related challenges  traffic congestion and air quality are at the heart of the challenge. Governmental efforts at addressing these issues have generally been ineffective due to the inability of local leaders to agree on a course of action. Thankfully, Governor Barnes has recognized this impasse, and people have begun to consider the practicality of market-oriented transportation approaches. Hopefully, such modes of transportation will play a more pivotal role in tackling the Atlanta area’s congestion and air quality problems.

Laura Creasy is the vice president of research of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.

Nothing written here is to be construed 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 (March 16, 1999). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.