Road to Congestion Relief Paved with Common Sense

By Benita M. Dodd

When the Georgia Public Policy Foundation presented testimony to the State Board of Transportation’s Intermodal Committee in September opposing the proposed Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail line, the goal was not to sabotage a transportation alternative. The Foundation’s goal – a longstanding goal – was to urge the implementation of cost-effective, commonsense and viable transportation options that will actually relieve congestion in the metro Atlanta region. 

In that vein, during a public comment period that ended November 30, the Foundation commended the innovative promise in the Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force, representing a team of state and metro Atlanta agencies – and urged it to remain committed to its directive: providing a measure to prioritize congestion mitigation. 

Judging from the recommendations released on December 6, the Task Force appears to have come through for motorists. One recommendation is that the Atlanta Regional Commission should increase the weight given to congestion in its next update of the Regional Transportation Plan. Currently weighted at just 11 percent when projects are considered, the congestion factor would count for 70 percent.  Another is that a uniform cost-benefit measure to be implemented by the Georgia Department of Transportation, Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and State Road and Tollway Authority. Components would include such factors as person and truck delays, wasted fuel and total project cost.  

Judging by comments the task force received, the recommendations won’t please everyone. But the task force’s search for objective criteria is reinforced by a Brookings Institution analysis of 2000 census data, which found that 75 percent of the region’s workers commute from homes in the suburbs to jobs in the suburbs, and the core of the Atlanta region is losing ground as an employment destination. Focusing on Atlanta-centric options is unwise and shortsighted. 

Congestion mitigation lies in ensuring that the commuting patterns of the region are facilitated and travel complications are minimized. The adoption of an objective travel time index by which to assess the impact of transportation projects is a major step toward that goal. The task force’s third recommendation is a regional travel time index of 1.35 by 2030, meaning that a trip that takes 30 minutes in free-flow conditions would take about 40 minutes in peak traffic. “This improvement can be reached through a mix of cost effective strategies including increased highway and transit capacity, improved incident management, operational efficiency improvements, flexible work hours, telecommuting and prompting land development initiatives that reduce vehicular travel,” the task force suggests.

Clearly, congestion mitigation must remain a long-term goal for this economically vibrant region, which has drawn so many enterprising families, individuals and industries because of its affordability. Land use constraints that restrict residents’ choices are not the answer, however; facilitating choices in the marketplace is.

Accessibility will continue to draw newcomers and industry, and grow the metro area and state as an economic engine in the South. Pedestrian and bike paths, trains, higher-density communities and live-work-play communities, while attractive to some, assume that most residents choose their homes based upon their workplace and commute. The problem is that far more factors come into play, and a transient workforce is one.

The Walker Loyalty Report, a survey released in November by Walker Information of Indianapolis, found that just 34 percent of American workers are truly committed to their employers. Truly loyal employees are considered those who have made a firm commitment to their employers and plan to remain with those employers for at least two years. And that’s up from 31 percent in 2003 and 24 percent in 2001.

Community ties and quality of education are factors, too. Parents choose where to live based on accessibility of a high-quality of education for their children; families choose to live in familiar neighborhoods where they feel comfortable and safe. 

Multiple stops by commuters is another factor. From the morning dentist appointment to the dry cleaner to stopping for milk at the grocery store before heading to the day-care center on the way home, commuters do far more than travel from home to work every day. And they prize the flexibility of their personal vehicles.

Congestion, meanwhile, can worsen air quality and quality of life. And when transportation dollars are being diverted to projects with minimal impact instead of targeting required road improvements and flexible, cost-effective transit options that actually help those who need them – or relieve congestion – air quality and quality of life are impacted, too.

So, while offering alternatives, in an ideal world, is a commendable goal, the fact is that this task force was obliged to provide solutions to solve the problem at hand: traffic congestion on our roads. That the state is on a budget the federal government predicts will shrink as our transportation needs grow highlights the urgency of prioritizing transportation projects – objectively.

Motorists, workers and moms do not want to give up their cars. They want better roads and easier road trips. The ability of this state’s transportation-related agencies to cooperate and provide what taxpayers want is what is at stake. 

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 (December 9, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.