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Opinion: I-85 collapse should get candidates’ attention


As Atlanta’s firefighters raced Thursday toward the blaze on I-85, just a step slower was the way that word of the unfolding disaster spread around the state Capitol during the final hours of this year’s session.

I playfully asked the House transportation chairman, Rep. Kevin Tanner, if he and his colleagues were furiously rewriting the budget to rebuild the highway, and his played-straight answer had me going for a second. But the reality here is no joke. The entire Southeast will feel repercussions as this crucial segment of 85 remains closed for several months.

And once again, Georgians both inside the Perimeter and well OTP face an unpleasant truth about our inadequate highway system.

Your high school English teacher told you redundancy is a bad thing, but she wasn’t a transportation planner. In the world of concrete and asphalt, redundancy — of north-south routes, east-west routes and bypasses — is a tonic for many of the emergencies and routine problems that arise.

Cities like Dallas and Houston have it. We don’t.

Many a motorist has cursed the wiseheads who funneled 85, 75 and 20 into a single point south of the Capitol. But equally frustrating is the lack of alternatives parallel to those interstates.

Parallel highways through Atlanta were proposed decades ago, but they were halted by the same NIMBYism that killed the Northern Arc. Those who seek relief from the city’s surface streets are mocked by an incoherent string of traffic lights. (Dear Mayor Kasim Reed: Please make the long-promised, now-funded synchronization of those traffic lights a top priority in your final months in office. “Complete streets” can wait.)

And now I mention the state Capitol one more time.

We will elect a new governor next year. Transportation already stood to be at least a minor theme, as legislators slowly coalesce around ideas for a truly regional transit network across metro Atlanta and perhaps beyond.

It should be a major issue now.

Transit must be part of the conversation, but Georgians also deserve a real debate among the candidates about whether we should try to build some redundancy into our highway system while we still can.

Outer perimeters. Bypasses of Atlanta to the north, west and/or east. New interstates that connect Georgia’s other main cities without coming to sniffing distance of I-285. Perhaps, the kind of parallel routes through Atlanta we long ago dismissed, such as the western downtown bypass above U.S. 41 I floated last fall.

These kinds of ideas — and how to pay for them — must be hashed out in a statewide debate. The goal: Starting the one(s) with the most support during the next governor’s first term.

Transit would be helpful, but insufficient. Self-driving cars would not deal with a disaster like the I-85 collapse much better than we humans will. Redundancy could ease some of our daily traffic congestion, but mostly because about half of our daily traffic congestion comes from one-time incidents that block all or part of the only viable routes we currently have (see: car wrecks, livestock on the loose, Snowpocalypse, etc.).

We won’t get out of the road-building business with technology, only with complacency and resignation.



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