Spinning our Wheels

Spinning our Wheels is a commuting blog about the challenges of getting around Atlanta by car, bus, MARTA, bicycles and on foot written by transportation reporter David Wickert

The biggest Atlanta traffic story of 2017? Duh

The year’s end is a time to take stock – to remember what happened and, sometimes, to marvel at what you endured. 2017 gave Atlanta commuters plenty to remember, whether we want to or not. So here’s our highly subjective list of the top traffic and commuting stories for the year.

No. 1: I-85 bridge collapse and reconstruction

Is there any doubt? When a colossal fire destroyed a stretch of I-85 in Buckhead at rush hour March 30, it made commuting in Atlanta almost unbearable for many residents. Traffic on other interstates got worse. Local streets near the bridge were gridlocked. Other major highways also shut down – why should I-85 have all the fun?

MARTA, other transit agencies and ride-sharing companies pitched in to help commuters. But the bridge collapse touched off a flurry of finger-pointing about who was responsible.

A homeless man was charged with setting the blaze, but he may never be tried. Meanwhile, critics said the Georgia Department of Transportation should bear some of the blame for the bridge collapse. For years the agency stored fiber-optic cable under the bridge – material that fueled the fire. The National Transportation Safety Board and the state fire marshal are investigating whether it makes sense to store construction material under the nation’s highways. They have not released their reports, but – spoiler – don’t be surprised if they say storing stuff under bridges is a bad idea.

Almost as shocking as the bridge’s destruction was its quick reconstruction. Thanks to contracting incentives, round-the-clock construction and accelerated construction techniques, I-85 reopened after just six weeks. GDOT’s quick work won praise from President Donald Trump and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. The State Transportation Board gave GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry a 40 percent raise in August, citing his leadership on the bridge reconstruction.

In sum, it was a miserable but amazing six weeks. But some good came from it – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution received some inspired entries for our I-85 bridge collapse haiku contest.

No. 2: State and local officials take another look at mass transit

For decades MARTA has been a dirty word in the Atlanta suburbs. That animosity and some well-documented financial and operational problems have long fueled anti-MARTA sentiment in the General Assembly.

But years of improvements at MARTA have thawed relations with lawmakers. And growing economic development imperatives – including Amazon’s search for a new corporate headquarters – have made public transportation an urgent priority at the Gold Dome and at  county courthouses this year.

A House commission has been studying state funding for mass transit – likely in the form of money for capital projects. Lawmakers may tackle funding for metro Atlanta in 2018, and they have also may try to consolidate the alphabet soup of agencies that provide public transportation across the region.

Meanwhile, local governments also have embraced mass transit. Fulton and Gwinnett counties plan to hold transit referendums next November. Cobb County is conducting a transit study that could also lead to a referendum.

But transit in the suburbs may not include MARTA rail service. Fulton and Gwinnett officials have signaled they’re ready to embrace bus rapid transit – a new kind of commuter service in Georgia.

No. 3: MARTA loses CEO Keith Parker

Speaking of MARTA, many give CEO Keith Parker much of the credit for reviving the agency’s fortunes. But after five years at the helm, Parker left the agency this fall to become president of Goodwill of North Georgia. Now the state’s largest transit system is looking for new leadership at a crucial time for public transportation in Georgia.

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe says the agency’s reputation has improved dramatically since it hired Parker, and he believes it will be able to hire another great leader by the end of March.

No. 4: Progress on major road work

Though much of the political discussion focused on transit this year, the vast majority of metro Atlanta commuters travel by car. So Georgia is spending billions of dollars to address major traffic bottlenecks in the Atlanta region.

In January Georgia opened the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes to ease congestion south of the city. The reversible toll lanes carry traffic into the city in the morning and out in the afternoon.

Work also is progressing on two other express lane projects: the Northwest Corridor along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties and the I-85 express lane extension in Gwinnett County. They’re part of a system of express lanes that eventually will stretch 120 miles along metro Atlanta highways.

State officials say the express lanes will guarantee you can drive at least 45 mph – a significant improvement over rush-hour traffic in some areas – if you’re willing to pay by the mile.  But some commuters can’t stand them, dismissing them as “Lexus lanes” for those who can afford them.

Meanwhile, after months of preliminary work, GDOT has begun major construction on a new I-285/Ga. 400 interchange. When it’s done in 2020, state officials say it will make commuting easier for hundreds of thousands of people.

No. 5: Atlanta traffic is still awful

When I-85 reopened, commuters weary after weeks of disruption were able to get back to … some of the worst traffic in the world. I-85 didn’t make Atlanta’s reputation for traffic congestion. It was well-earned long before the bridge collapsed.

What’s more, traffic is going to get worse as the region adds millions of more residents in coming decades. Experts say Atlanta can avoid the worst effects by diversify its car-centric commuter culture. That means more transit, but also more bike and pedestrian paths and better land-use planning, they say.

In the meantime, we can look forward to 2018. If we’re lucky, no major Atlanta infrastructure will collapse, buckle, black out or otherwise fail.

If we’re not, well, maybe the AJC will sponsor a Ga. 400 limerick contest.

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