Adding Road Capacity and Toll Roads Can Beat Congestion

Atlanta can overcome traffic woes by changing long-range plan

Many in Atlanta have given up on reducing traffic congestion. Not only do they say we are stuck with it, they are actually okay with letting traffic get worse. And it will. By 2030, an Atlanta trip that is supposed to take 30 minutes will take you 55. That’s worse than the infamous gridlock in today’s Los Angeles.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta recently said, “Congestion is not a scientific mystery, nor is it an uncontrollable force. Congestion results from poor policy choices and a failure to separate solutions that are effective from those that are not.”

He could’ve been talking about Atlanta, where you’ll often hear, “We can’t build our way out of congestion.”

Tell that to Paris, where a private firm is tunneling deep beneath historic Versailles to preserve the past while eliminating a huge traffic bottleneck. Or to Millau, France, home to the world’s tallest bridge, a private toll project only slightly shorter than the Empire State Building. Or to Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, where privately developed tollways and tunnels have greatly eased congestion.

While the rest of the world gets creative, Atlanta is stuck in traffic. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) long-range plan would spend $26 billion over the next 25 years on new transportation infrastructure—but admits that congestion will still be much worse in 2030.

Why? Priorities. The plan would invest $10 billion in mass transit—which they expect will deliver a miniscule 1.7 percent increase in transit’s single-digit market share. And what will its $5 billion on carpool lanes buy you? ARC says a smaller percentage of commuters will carpool after it spends the billions.

Congestion threatens to strangle Atlanta, destroying its viability as a place to live and work and its position as a major trucking and logistics center. More highway capacity is an essential part of an integrated congestion-reduction program. Reason Foundation and Georgia Public Policy Foundation have proposed an integrated approach, including improved incident response, improved system operations, value pricing, and four major toll road and tunnel projects.

These much-needed capacity additions would cut commute times and guarantee that drivers always have a congestion-free route to work, the airport, or their child’s soccer game.

The biggest project is a network of variably-priced toll lanes that would connect all of the metro area’s major freeways. The tolls would reflect traffic conditions, with the highest rates being charged at rush-hour and the lanes would always be moving at the maximum speed limit. A double-deck north-south tunnel would relieve congestion on the Downtown Connector, and an east-west tunnel would be part of a new route parallel to I-20. Finally, a separate toll truckway system would let trucks save an hour or more getting through Atlanta, saving time worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Our very preliminary estimate is that value-priced toll revenues, and not tax dollars, could fund up to $20 billion of these projects’ total cost of $25 billion. And the value of just the time they would save over 20 years is worth about $100 billion. That’s a benefit to cost ratio of about four to one—a winner in anybody’s book. Our proposal is a first look at the potential feasibility of this approach. But the numbers are robust enough to make these projects worth far more detailed study by Georgia’s transportation agencies.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. He has advised the last four presidential administrations and is author of a new report on how to reduce Atlanta’s traffic congestion online here. An archive of Poole’s work is available here and Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.