A new traffic light at Ga. 400 exit 7A and Eastbound Holcomb Bridge Road has left many drivers in North Fulton and beyond frustrated with increased delays on their daily commute this week.
But while angry drivers blamed the new light for 20 to 30 minute waits on the exit ramp, the Thursday morning backup is indicative of a bigger issue. Atlanta roads are simply taxed. Add a stalled car, a new traffic light or a construction project to the mix and your commute time can double or triple. Period.
"Holcomb Bridge Road has 70,000 cars a day and Ga. 400 has about 190,000, they are almost always at capacity," said Steve Acenbrak, Transportation Department Director for the City of Roswell. "With this ramp situation at Holcomb Bridge and 400, there was always a delay. That is nothing new. The signal is a new object for people to focus on and say that is the problem, but if you backed up two months ago and looked at a video of the ramp you would see the same cars.”
In this case, the new congestion is the result of the city's decision to remove a "trap lane" for drivers making a left turn onto Old Alabama Road from Holcomb Bridge Road. The inside left turn lane ends, forcing cars that expected to continue forward to merge. It resulted in preventable accidents, said Acenbrak.
Eliminating the need to merge meant shifting lanes and the traffic signal was installed to prevent the new flows of traffic from merging or worse, colliding. The city added a second lane on the ramp, but some drivers didn't seem to notice. They did notice that the traffic signal was poorly timed.
"They want more green time but that would back Holcomb Bridge up to Woodstock," Acenbrak said. When construction is complete or near complete, the signal will make timing adjustments (it doesn't now) and drivers will be able to make a right turn on red.
"When this is all said and done it will be a lot better than it is right now. There is no detour, no bypass, no magic bridge over 400 I can put out there," said Acenbrak. But he understands how drivers may be frustrated and on Wednesday the city posted a list of FAQs on Facebook to address driver concerns.
Before Ga. 400 went toll-free in 2013, commuters worried over estimates that traffic on the road would increase as much as 18 percent. The actual increase ranges from 10 - 15 percent, said Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, but she points out that road traffic has increased across the country as the economy continues to improve and people return to work.
The population of the metro area, currently 5.5 million, has also kept growing. By 2040, it will grow to 8 million according to recently updated estimates from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Most of that growth will be concentrated in the suburbs and to a lesser extent other neighborhoods inside 285 including downtown Atlanta, Midtown and Buckhead.
But population increases have a small, gradual impact on traffic patterns that often goes unnoticed until you are sitting idle on the exit ramp of Ga. 400 wondering what is going on.
A redesign of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange will give more options to drivers in one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the state. The redesign, which begins in late 2016, will feature flyover ramps and additional capacity, said Dale. The project is scheduled for completion in 2020.
Other projects over the next few years to address traffic concerns in other areas include the first reversible toll lanes in the state, said Dale. Drivers have probably seen construction on I-75 South where the toll lane will run down the median and shift direction with the flow of traffic. The fee will be determined by how many people use it, she said. Drivers will also see these lanes in the Northwest Corridor along I-75 and I-575, both in center and outer lane positions.
Until then, commuters will just have to find ways to manage.
Acenbrak's suggestion that drivers in Roswell find another route or avoid the area for a few months didn't go over so well, but the days of a carefree commute down 400 from Roswell to downtown Atlanta are long gone, he said.
It's not just time to look for alternate transportation such as mass transit, biking or walking, it's time to look for alternate ways of living and working including living closer to where you work, telecommuting or working outside the traditional nine to five shift.
"We have to embrace all of these things," Acenbrak said. "The industry has come to realize that we cannot build our way out of congestion."