After the toll: Ga. 400 traffic has slowed

Ga. 400 commuters are sitting in traffic a little longer now that tolling has ended, state Department of Transportation data shows.

But either the change is so small as to be imperceptible, or drivers are too giddy about getting a free ride to care.

Since tolls ended in November, average daily traffic on Ga. 400 has increased by 2 to 7 percent, depending on what segment you’re on, the data shows. Rush-hour speeds are down 2 to 5.7 mph in many places, again depending on location.

Drivers said they haven’t noticed.

Holly Klay, of Alpharetta, said it makes sense that more drivers would use Ga. 400 after it became toll-free, but she insisted, “I can’t tell a difference.”

Stone Mountain resident Josh Lewis said the toll removal created a traffic trade-off.

“In some respects, it’s probably worse because of the greater volume, but also there’s no people slowing down for the toll booths,” Lewis said.

Thaddeus Adeleye, a taxi driver who frequently travels in that area, said his trips seem to take much less time.

“I think it’s better, because people were stopping to put their slot money into the toll, so that creates a long line,” Adeleye said.

The increase in traffic is smaller than state officials predicted, at least so far. A study conducted in 2010 showed that without the tolls, gridlock could worsen 10 to 18 percent by 2015. Some of that increase was inevitable because of population growth. But the research showed traffic would have only worsened by 6 percent if tolls had stayed in place.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale noted that the holidays and toll plaza demolition has resulted in less-than-normal traffic conditions for much of the past three months, which may be why traffic isn’t up as much as expected. The traffic analysis did not include the two weeks when ice storms brought metro Atlanta traffic to a halt (Jan. 26 through Feb. 1, and Feb. 9 through 15) to avoid skewing the data.

“We are still very much functioning with a construction zone out there, so there is a chance people aren’t using 400 because they don’t want to go through that area,” Dale said.

The biggest traffic increase so far is between north Buckhead and I-285. Average evening rush hour speeds near Wieuca Road are about 5 mph slower in both directions.

People taking short trips in that area tended to travel on side streets to avoid tolls, said Bert Brantley, deputy executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority.

Two other changes could bog down Ga. 400 more in coming months, though one is temporary.

New ramps providing a direct connection from I-85 to Ga. 400 that are set to open in April are expected to draw more drivers to the corridor, said Brantley.

And while the initial stages of toll booth demolition have not slowed traffic, officials say there could be some rubbernecking delays when crews dismantle the canopy and pull up the asphalt and concrete. Demolition should be done by the fall.

State officials predicted a silver lining: Many side streets used as alternates, such as Buford Highway and Peachtree, Roswell, Piedmont, Lenox and Peachtree-Dunwoody roads, would be less congested as drivers chose a toll-free Ga. 400.

It’s not clear yet if that has happened. GDOT only measures traffic on state routes every two years (Peachtree Dunwoody, which is not a state route, is not measured by GDOT at all). Most of the other roads were measured in 2012 or 2013, so they won’t be measured again until later this year or in 2015.

Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, believes that side streets are becoming less congested, and that conditions will improve with time. That’s good for business, he said.

“It takes people a little while to learn that changes have taken place,” Massell said. “And they are not all daily travelers, so it does take time to sink in.”

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