Reducing Congestion in Atlanta

A Bold New Approach to Increasing Mobility

Executive Summary

Productive cities are mobile cities, and Atlanta’s productivity is seriously threatened by rising traffic congestion. Congestion is increasingly clogging the arteries of metro Atlanta and threatens to strangle the region over the longer term. The ability to move goods and services quickly and efficiently, combined with the need to provide a high quality of life for workers and families, should put eliminating traffic congestion at the top of Atlanta’s priorities. While the cost of eliminating traffic congestion will be significant, the consequences of ignoring this growing problem are dire.

The Atlanta metro area is already plagued by serious traffic congestion, whose direct cost is estimated at $1.75 billion per year. But if the current long-range transportation plan is implemented, by 2030 congestion will be much worse. A rush-hour trip that today takes 46 percent longer than at off-hours will take 67 percent longer in 2030 (defined as a travel-time index of 1.67), according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. (A recent Reason Foundation study found congestion in 2030 could be even worse than that, estimating that Atlanta's rush-hour trips will take 85 percent longer than at off hours - a level of gridlock worse than today's traffic in Los Angeles).

In December 2005, the Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force recommended a dramatic change in the focus of transportation planning, making congestion-reduction its principal focus. It set a goal of reducing Atlanta’s travel-time index from today’s 1.46 to 1.35 by 2030 (in sharp contrast to the current projected increase). While the leadership of all four principal transportation agencies signed on to these recommendations, no one has yet set forth the changes in transportation plans and investments needed to bring about this reduced congestion. That is the purpose of this report.

Our analysis concludes that Atlanta’s current plan, of investing heavily in mass transit, carpooling, and land-use changes to reduce the extent of driving, is not compatible with the congestionreduction goal. The current long-range plan, despite devoting the majority of its funding to transit and carpool lanes, would lead to no increase in the fraction of commute trips made by carpool, and a less than two percentage point increase in transit’s low market share—while overall congestion soars.

The new approach we recommend deals with both major sources of congestion. For the half that is caused by incidents (accidents, work zones, weather, etc.), Atlanta should continue worthwhile efforts under way such as quicker identification of, response to, and clearance of incidents. On arterial streets, improvements in traffic signal coordination and access management will also help.

But for the other half of congestion—the kind that occurs every day during rush hours because demand greatly exceeds roadway capacity—there is no alternative to increasing the capacity of the roadway system. This does not mean paving over the landscape with ever more freeways, nor does it mean ignoring air quality mandates. Our modeling (using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s traffic model) shows that a careful program of catch-up capacity additions over the next 25 years can substantially reduce congestion (vehicle hours of travel) without increasing total driving (vehicle miles of travel). Preliminary modeling suggests no adverse impacts on air quality. The result would be the elimination of the worst congestion (defined as Level of Service F) by 2030, and achievement of the Congestion Mitigation Task Force’s travel-time index goal.

We devoted considerable attention to figuring out where the needed amount of new freeway capacity might go. We recommend four major projects, as follows:

  • A network of express toll lanes added to the entire freeway system instead of the currently planned (but only partially funded) set of HOV lanes. These priced lanes would also function as the guideway for regionwide express bus service.
  • A double-decked tunnel linking the southern terminus of Georgia 400 with I-20 and later with the northern terminus of I-675, providing major relief to the Downtown Connector (I-75/85), the most congested portion of the freeway system.
  • Extension of the Lakewood Freeway eastward to I-20 as a tunnel, and westward to I-20 as a freeway, providing an additional east-west corridor and new access to the airport.
  • 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.

The estimated cost of these four mega-projects is $25 billion. By using value-priced tolling on nearly all of this new capacity, we estimate that more than 80 percent of the cost could be financed based on the projected toll revenues. And to reduce the risks inherent in such mega-projects, we recommend that they be carried out under long-term concession agreements in which the privatesector partners would bear the risks of cost overruns and revenue shortfalls. Projects of this scale are being done successfully under concession arrangements in Europe and Australia.

There would be large benefits from implementing this approach. Valuing the time saved at a conservative $12 per hour, the time savings over 20 years would be more than $98 billion. That means the time saving benefits alone would be nearly four times the $25 billion cost. But there would also be major economic benefits. Studies have shown that by allowing employers to recruit from a wider radius (and employees to seek jobs within a wider radius), better matches of skills with needs would occur, making Atlanta’s economy more productive.

Individual motorists would benefit every day, as average trip times would be shorter than today, rather than considerably longer. With a network of uncongested priced lanes on the whole freeway system, everyone who signed up for a windshield-mounted transponder would have the peace of mind of knowing that he or she had a time-saving option available, whenever it was really important to get somewhere on time. And the region’s transit providers would gain the virtual equivalent of a network of exclusive busways, since the priced lanes would permit reliable, uncongested bus operations at all times.

Atlanta, long known as the crossroads of the South, is at a crossroads in transportation policy. Continuing down the status-quo road leads to a future of costly transit and carpool-lane expansion- -but much worse congestion. The road suggested by the Congestion Mitigation Task Force, as interpreted in this report, accepts the reality that cars and trucks will continue to be the mainstays of transportation in Atlanta, and expands the highway infrastructure in smart, new ways to cope with that reality. This road promises a future of less congestion than today, and of new mobility options—for motorists, for bus users, and for trucking.

This report’s recommendations, covering the next 25 years, should constitute the first phase of a longer-term plan to eliminate congestion as an everyday occurrence. Atlanta will still be faced with considerable congestion after 2030, especially if the region continues to grow. A longer-term vision should aim at making the highway system work so well that everyday congestion is eliminated, and congestion due to incidents is reduced to a bare minimum. To implement such a vision will require a continued combination of technology, capacity, and pricing, building upon what is set forth in this report.

“Congestion results from poor policy choices and a failure to separate solutions that are effective from those that are not,” said former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in May 2006. We hope Atlanta will make wise policy choices for greatly increased mobility.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

This Study's Materials




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