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A $59B plan to ease metro Atlantans’ transportation pain

By Andria Simmons - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The newest blueprint for helping to unsnarl metro Atlanta’s traffic problems includes nearly $59 billion worth of transportation projects over the next 26 years, a sum so huge it could finance a new Falcon’s stadium 49 times over.

Three-quarters of that money will go toward maintaining the existing roads, bridges and transit systems, but a fourth — about $15 billion — will bankroll projects aimed at relieving traffic congestion and providing alternatives to commuting by car. The public can go to www.atlantaregional.com/rtpupdate to weigh in on the plan.

Transportation planners acknowledge that a $15 billion investment won’t be enough to keep pace with the expected increase in traffic congestion. The average commuter’s time spent stuck in traffic is expected to worsen as the predicted 3 million people and 1.3 million jobs take root in metro Atlanta by 2040, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“The best thing that happened to congestion in the past five years was the economic collapse,” said David Haynes, a senior planner at the ARC.

“That’s not a good way to solve it,” he hastened to add.

The average yearly cost of congestion is $1,860 in wasted fuel and work hours. By 2040, that is expected to more than double to $3,900.

Without the planned investments, the cost would be significantly higher — more than $5,000 per person each year.

So regional leaders have prioritized transportation spending on projects that will unclog the major bottleneck points, ease congestion on heavily traveled arterial roads and add tolled express lanes to interstates for commuters who are willing to pay for a speedier trip. There is also a $1.4 billion list of pedestrian and bicycle improvements aimed at making it easier for people to get around without a car.

The region’s long-term transportation plan is updated every few years in response to updated population and employment forecasts and changing local priorities that cause projects to be delayed or fast-tracked. It was last updated in 2011. And it will have to be updated again in 2016.

    More money would have been available for transportation improvements if voters last year had approved a 10-year sales tax of one penny on every dollar. The tax would have brought in $7.2 billion ($8.5 billion with inflation factored in). About half of that would have gone toward transit. However, voters sent a resounding message that the government should make do with what it already had when they overwhelmingly rejected the plan in July 2012.

    “All our communities in the state and the ARC has to deal with the economic realities,” said Kerry Armstrong, the ARC’s newly elected chairman. “There is never going to be enough (money) to do what we want to do. So it’s going to take prudent management and good collective thinking to accomplish what we need to do.”

    More than 71 percent of people who responded to a recent public opinion survey by the ARC, “Metro Atlanta Speaks,” about the major issues and opportunities facing the region, said improved public transportation was “very important” for the future. And 41 percent said improvements in public transportation would be the best way to fix traffic, as opposed to 30 percent who said better roads and highways were the solution.

    But given the current funding environment, most of the major transit expansion projects in the long-range plan aren’t slated to be built until between 2030 and 2040. Those projects include a bus-rapid transit system to connect Northwest Atlanta to Kennesaw, and MARTA expansion along the I-20 East, Ga. 400 North and the Clifton Corridor near Emory.

    David Emory, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, said one problem is that state law mandates that motor fuel taxes be spent on roads and bridges. Another is that the sales tax collected in DeKalb and Fulton to fund MARTA operations isn’t enough to expand train and bus service.

    Bringing in a private investor is one option to speed up some transit projects in the pipeline. A large federal grant could also put a project on the fast track.

    But “I think we are going to need in some additional large-scale public investment if we want to see these projects move forward sooner,” Emory said.

    Baruch Feigenbaum, a Reason Foundation policy analyst and a Libertarian who tends to favor roads over transit, said he believes the $4.2 billion designated for express toll lanes in the plan will benefit transit riders because Xpress buses will travel in the lanes for free.

    “I do think they need to spend a little more on managed lanes (express toll lanes), because those projects are so expensive and so large,” Feigenbaum said.

    Feigenbaum said it’s appropriate that fuel taxes go toward road and bridge projects because drivers are the ones paying them.

    The Atlanta Regional Commission is expected to vote on the updated long-range plan in March. Then it will go before the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) for final approval.

    Following is a breakdown of some of the other big-impact projects. (As a rule of thumb, each project takes two to three years to complete.)

    Unclogging bottlenecks

    • Ga. 400: Four collector-distributor lanes will be constructed along the highway from the vicinity of Hammond Drive and Abernathy Road to north of Spalding Drive at a cost of $240.7 million. Construction should begin in 2017.
    • I-20/ Panola Road interchange: Turn lanes on and off the interstate will be extended and more lanes added to the off-ramps. An additional left-turn lane will be constructed on the bridge. The cost is $28.1 million, with construction to begin in 2017.
    • I-75 South: Two collector-distributor lanes will be constructed between I-285 and Forest Parkway (Ga. 331) at a cost of $89 million. Construction of northbound collector-distributor lanes is slated to start in 2017. The southbound side will be addressed sometime between 2020 and 2030.
    • I-85 at Ga. 74 (Senoia Road) interchange: Additional turn lanes will be built on the bridge and the exit ramps. Price tag is $21.7 million, with construction to begin between 2020 and 2030.



    • Ga. 92: realignment and underpass at railroad crossing in Douglasville, $65.5 million. Construction begins sometime this year.
    • Old Covington Highway: adding an underpass where it currently intersects with Ga. 138 from Green Street to Walnut Grove Road (Ga. 138/Ga. 20) in Conyers, $3 million. Construction begins sometime this year.


    Express toll lanes

    • I-75 South, from Charles W. Grant Parkway to 2.1 miles south of Ga. 155, $557.8 million. Construction on first phase begins sometime this year.
    • I-75 North/ I-575 (also known as the Northwest Corridor), from Akers Mill Road to Hickory Grove Road on I-75 and from I-75 to Sixes Road on I-575, $935 million. Construction to begin sometime this year.
    • I-85 North, one lane in each direction from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road, plus a southbound and northbound auxiliary lane, $112 million. Construction to begin in 2015.
    • I-285 North between I-75 and I-85, $1.65 billion, to be built between 2020 and 2030.


    Pedestrian/Bicycle access

    • Juniper Street in Atlanta, bicycle and pedestrian facilities from Ponce De Leon Avenue to 14th Street, $4.2 million. Construction to begin in 2015.
    • Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta, retrofit with added bike lane and Atlanta Beltline connection, $4.5 million. Improvements already underway.
    • Franklin Road in Cobb County, pedestrian improvements, $3.2 million. Construction to begin in 2015.
    • Buford Highway (U.S. 23/Ga. 13) in Gwinnett County, medians from Jimmy Carter Boulevard to Beaver Ruin Road, $1.7 million, to be constructed in 2016. Additionally, bicycle and pedestrian access will be added from McGinnis Ferry Road to the entrance of George Pierce Park in Suwanee for $3.7 million in 2016. The following year, pedestrian and bicycle improvements will be added to the stretch from Simpson Circle to North Berkeley Lake Road.



    • Atlanta Streetcar operation support provides $15.2 million for the first years of operation of the system, which is expected to begin gliding through downtown streets in May.
    • MARTA rail frequency improvements, provides $11.4 million to reduce train headways from 15 to 10 minutes during peak travel periods beginning this year.


    Economic competitiveness

    • Ga. 6/Thornton Road in Douglas/Cobb counties to extend left-turn lanes at major intersections, improve the traffic signal system and add a truck rollover warning system at the intersection of Ga. 6 at Garrett Road for freight traffic departing the Whitaker Intermodal Terminal, the largest freight intermodal facility in the southeastern United States. Improve the freight network. $1.6 million, to begin in 2015.

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