Census: Atlanta region among the worst for traffic as poverty grows

If the hours you spend idling on the Atlanta region’s congested highways aren’t enough evidence, a new U.S. Census Bureau report confirms the metro area has some of the nation’s worst traffic.

To be released Thursday, the new American Community Survey’s five-year estimates show residents in the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell metropolitan area last year spent an average of 31 minutes each day commuting one way to work, up slightly from recent years.

The 2012-2016 survey also shows poverty rising in parts of America. Eighteen percent of the nation’s counties have seen poverty rate increases, while just over 5 percent have experienced declines. The census estimates come as Congress is preparing to dramatically overhaul the tax code, a move critics say would bestow the biggest benefits on corporations and the wealthy. Stewart County in South Georgia is singled out in the new census report as having one of the lowest median household incomes in the nation at $20,882 a year. A small rural county with about 5,700 residents, Stewart also has one of the highest percentages of families living in poverty at 38.4 percent.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s average commute time is worse than some other major metro areas, including Miami (30.6 minutes one way) and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale (30.4 minutes). But Atlanta’s traffic misery isn’t as bad as the likes of New York-Jersey City-White Plains (37.1 minutes) and the Washington area (34.4 minutes). The nation’s worst commute, according to the Census Bureau: East Stroudsburg, Pa., where a one-way trip averages 38.6 minutes. That eastern Pennsylvania community sits about 75 miles northwest of New York City.

The census survey is just the latest evidence that Atlanta has some of the world’s worst traffic. Experts say the region must diversify its car-centric transportation network if it hopes to alleviate congestion. And elected officials appear to be listening.

After decades of resistance, suburban counties are now looking to expand mass transit services. And Georgia officials are making the case for more state funding of public transportation. They have also embarked on a 10-year, $10 billion plan to improve roads and bridges. A big part of that plan: completing a 120-mile system of express toll lanes that will allow metro Atlanta motorists to travel at least 45 mph if they’re willing to pay by the mile.

Those lanes have been controversial. Residents such as Andy Mitchell like them. He commutes from Henry County to Buckhead and sometimes uses the new I-75 South Metro Express Lanes.

“I can’t say I’ve had a bad experience at all,” Mitchell said.

Others can’t stand them, including Dianne Rose of Duluth, who sometimes uses the I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett County.

“Everyone pays for building and maintaining our highways,” she said, “and everyone should have equal access.”

In Georgia’s Stewart County, all of the county’s 515 public school students receive free breakfasts and lunches. Free dinners for the students could be next if the county is approved for federal grants.

“The school is the hub of everything for the children and their families,” Stewart Schools Superintendent Valerie Roberts said.

The county faces many of the same challenges plaguing rural America. Among them are its remote location and declining population, said Jim Livingston, the community and economic development director for the River Valley Regional Commission.

“You need to continue to have the investment and reinvestment,” he said. “And it is happening, but it is happening at a slower pace than I think Stewart County would like to see.”

Beginning decades ago, the county started transitioning to a tourism economy with hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities serving as magnets, Stewart County Manager Mac Moye said. The county’s largest employer has long been the Stewart Detention Center, a privately operated immigration detention center in Lumpkin. But there are other investments happening elsewhere in Stewart, Moye said.

“We’ve got new energy in small business and tourism with two very successful enterprises, which have received regional and even international attention. Those are Omaha Brewing Company and Richland Rum,” Moye said in an email. “I can’t overstate how significant and solid these businesses are. Their true impact will be in the future.”

“This county government has begun a program with the citizens to identify problems and find solutions. We will have our second meeting on Friday,” Moye added. “Yes, Stewart County has chronic problems. But, also, the county is actively engaged in its own business and in finding solutions.”

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