Atlanta’s traffic congestion costs commuters $1,120 per year and produces 462 pounds of excess carbon dioxide per driver. With the region expected to add another 2.6 million people over the next 25 years, reducing congestion is a critical component in ensuring the area’s economic and environmental health.
The challenge for the Atlanta Regional Commission is to prioritize projects that do the most to reduce congestion and improve regional mobility.
In its latest plan, the ARC has chosen several worthwhile projects, including $44 million to extend I-85 managed lanes from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road. The managed lanes are always free flowing and thus reduce congestion.
Enhancing Atlanta’s intelligent transportation systems is another valuable project. Today’s poor traffic light synchronization causes rapid acceleration and braking, leading to unnecessary traffic jams and increased pollution.
However, the ARC made the curious decision to fund replacing diesel buses with natural gas vehicles, which will not decrease congestion. The New York Times recently reported that research in the journal Science “concludes that switching buses and trucks from traditional diesel fuel to natural gas could actually harm the planet’s climate.”
The ARC’s long-range plan also has a few problems. Spending $3 million to add sidewalks and bike lanes in Paulding County, where 93 percent of commuters drive and only 0.5 percent walk and bike to work, isn’t going to meet the supposed criteria of cutting gridlock and air pollution. And the ARC’s plan to spend $600 million (in mostly federal funds) between 2014 and 2019 on non-motorized transportation improvements such as recreational trails won’t change commuting patterns.
There is community value in recreational trails. But they can, and should, be funded out of the parks budget. The limited federal transportation funding ARC receives should be directed at projects that do the most to reduce traffic and air pollution.
Key projects are missing from ARC’s priorities. Plan 2040 fails to upgrade metro Atlanta’s arterial network. The latest long-range plan removes the widening of Ga. 120 in Cobb and Ga. 141 in Fulton County from the from the list. Both projects would reduce congestion and pollution.
Similarly, the managed lanes on parts of I-285 and Ga. 400 are welcome, but the 2040 plan misses the opportunity to further reduce congestion by implementing managed lanes on busy sections of I-285 (north of I-20) and parts of I-20 itself. A network of toll lanes connecting the region’s highways would offer congestion-free options to commuters, emergency vehicles and buses.
But buses lose out to rail as the 2040 plan dedicates significant funding to right-of-way acquisition and construction for rail projects. For the cost of those limited rail projects, the region could build three to five times the amount of express bus and bus rapid transit service.
It’s vital the Atlanta Regional Commission prioritize projects that will make the biggest dents in pollution and traffic congestion.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (www.reason.org). This column was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution