“Traffic, Trolleys and Density: A Commonsense Approach”

By Steve Stancil

(Excerpts from the transcript of the Sept. 14 speech by Steve Stancil, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation Policy Briefing Luncheon.)

This region has a traffic problem, and we don’t have enough money to fix it. With the $50 billion that will be available over the next 25 years for transportation improvements, we’re barely going to hold the line on congestion.

That’s not totally bad – because we sure aren’t holding the line on population. Our population is going to increase by 2.3 million over the next 25 years – about half from births and half moving in – and none of them are bringing transportation infrastructure with them.

But we can do a good job with the resources we have if we all work together to employ them wisely and get maximum use out of the infrastructure we have.

The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is part of the team that has responsibility for addressing the region’s mobility, air quality and land use issues. They are all closely related, and the challenge we face is finding the balance that respects our desire to get where we want to go, when we want to go, how we want to go without getting bogged down in traffic and acknowledges that we also want clean air to breathe and to live how and where we want to live.

These things aren’t mutually exclusive. We can get there. But if we want to have all of them we have to use a little common sense about how and when we’re going to get them.

We don’t have a lot of choice about air quality. The federal government sets the standards and we have to work to meet those standards. If we don’t, we don’t get to use our federal transportation dollars the way we want to. That happened once before; we don’t want it to happen again.

Happily, we’re making progress on air quality. We got pretty close on the one-hour standard for NOx (nitrogen oxides) last year, and it looks like we may meet it this year. But the one-hour standard is going away next June. The tougher eight-hour standard, which was implemented this year, we’re further away from, but if we keep working as we have we should get there by the 2007 target date.

And then there’s particulate matter, which we’ll all get very familiar with in December. That’s going to be a tough standard to meet as well. We’re waiting to hear how that standard will be applied and what our target will be.

We do have a choice about transportation and land use. First, we have to embrace the fact that the two are intimately related. What we build – roads, offices, malls, transit systems, factories – and where we build them, work together. If you don’t keep both in mind the whole time you get problems. We haven’t always kept both in mind.

Second, we have to get out of our own way. There are two points I want to make here.

Point A is how we work together in this region. We’ve made great strides over the last few years in the effort to work together as a region. But we can do an even better job, especially when it comes to accessing federal funds. When we go to our congressional delegation and others in Washington, it’s vital that we all have the same priorities and are working to support each other. There’s enough competition out there without us competing with each other for those limited federal funds.

Point B is how we deal with the higher densities that make mixed-use developments possible. With the population growth that’s coming, and continuing to develop the way we have, we could well have a metropolitan Atlanta that stretches from Chattanooga to Macon and Anniston to Augusta. Not all of us look forward to that day, and thus there is some demand in Atlanta and its suburbs for higher-density, mixed-use development.

Right now, though, it’s not easy to build it. In some cases, so many variances are needed that it’s just not worth the effort. Simply put, we’re not allowing the market to serve an existing demand. At the same time, we have to be sensitive to the needs and plans of the local governments for land use and development in their areas. As with many things I’m speaking about today, the goal is to find the proper balance.

Something is being done about finding that balance. GRTA is facilitating the Quality Growth Legal and Technical Committee – a group that has come out of the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber’s Quality Growth effort. They are looking at the impediments to these kinds of developments and the best practices of other areas so that we will know how to get out of our own way on this issue.

Third, we have to make the transportation network in metropolitan Atlanta work better.

Since new interstate-style highways aren’t in our immediate future, we’re going to have to rely on the limited amounts of capacity we can add to existing highways and arterial roads, and getting better use out of those facilities. Adding capacity to existing highways is happening – with HOV lanes and with the ARC’s grid plan for major arterials – but that may not be enough.

Public transit will be just as important. Running Bus Rapid Transit in the HOV lanes, expanding Xpress regional commuter services, adding shuttle services in the activity centers and local bus service where it doesn’t exist will all contribute. We’re also going to have to pay attention to MARTA, and help them improve their operations. The bottom line is that if we give people reasonable alternatives, alternatives that are safe, convenient and affordable, we can squeeze more use out of the infrastructure we have in place.

The Texas Transportation Institute last week rated Atlanta fifth worst in the nation for hours of delay in traffic. They also outlined what cities can do to reduce delay. Governor Perdue’s Fast Forward program addresses those things exactly.

The TTI recommends ramp meters; we’re adding them throughout the region.

Another recommendation for relieving congestion is traffic signal coordination – and we have the Regional Traffic Operations Task Force, which brings together transportation engineers from throughout the region to coordinate their activities and discuss best practices, as well as $10 million a year in the new TIP for coordinating signals.

Half of our region’s congestion is incident-related. The Traffic Incident Management Enhancement task force (TIME) is bringing together GDOT, the HERO units, police, fire, EMS, the State Patrol and others to better coordinate incident response and clear traffic lanes more quickly after an incident occurs.

In addition to operational issues, TTI recommends adding HOV lanes – and we have extensive additions planned and going in throughout the region – starting with I-75/I-575 through Cobb County.

Finally, TTI recommends enhancing public transit and, as I mentioned, Xpress has started, we’re actively working on BRT on I-75/I-575, and across the top of I-285, and more. 

None of this is cheap, either. But, given our air quality issues and our general preferences regarding where we live and where we work, it may well be our best option for making improvements in the near future.

Let me put it all together. First, we have to start putting transportation and land use together. Second, we have to get out of our own way – both in how we work with Congress and how we address the demand for mixed-use development. And third, we have to get better use out of our existing infrastructure. We have to improve the capacity of our roads and highways where we can and put more and better public transit in place so we can have an alternative when we don’t want to drive alone.

And that’s the big secret to traffic, trolleys and density – finding the balance that will serve our region well. We’ve got the leadership and the ability in this region to do that – now all we have to do is hunker down and get it done.

Reprinted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation with kind permission of Steve Stancil, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation AuthorityThe Foundation is 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 (September 17, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.