Atlanta’s top commuting story for 2018? Put down the cell phone

No change touched more Georgians than the General Assembly’s decision to prohibit motorists from holding their cell phones while driving. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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No change touched more Georgians than the General Assembly’s decision to prohibit motorists from holding their cell phones while driving. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

You say it's hard to top 2017 for big commuting news in Atlanta? The year I-85 went up in flames, state officials got religion on mass transit and MARTA lost a leader credited with bringing it back from the verge of insolvency?

Well, 2018 says, “hold my cell phone.”

In some ways 2017 was merely a prelude to this year's dramatic developments. For example, when I-85 collapsed in March 2017, snarling metro Atlanta's already horrible traffic for six weeks, it helped convince state lawmakers the region could not solve its traffic problems solely by expanding its congested highways. This year they approved legislation authorizing a major transit expansion.

So here’s our highly subjective list of the top traffic and commuting stories for 2018.

No. 1: Georgia’s new distracted driving law 

Sure, transit news dominated much of the year across metro Atlanta. But no change touched more Georgians than the General Assembly's decision to prohibit motorists from holding their cell phones while driving.

The move was prompted by a years-long spike in traffic fatalities – one that experts say is largely due to our addiction to smart phones. Our eyes have been glued to our phones, instead of the road, and people are dying as a result.

Those deaths have scarred countless families, and their stories – told by tearful survivors in legislative hearing rooms – had a big impact on lawmakers. The personal stakes were underscored when Gov. Nathan Deal signed the law in an emotional ceremony.

As its name implies, the Hands-Free Georgia Act requires motorists to use hands-free technology when using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. You can still make calls, listen to music and even text while driving – you just can't hold or support the device with any part of your body (here's a detailed look at what's legal and what's not).

Some police departments – like the Georgia State Patrol – planned to emphasize warnings for several months, while others handed out tickets right from the start. It's too soon to tell whether the law has had a big impact, as traffic fatality statistics lag by several months. But it's clear many people are still holding their phones while driving.

Traffic safety advocates say the law is a welcome first step, but they'll keep pressing for more restrictions. One possible change on tap for 2019: Lawmakers may restore a ban on teenagers using electronic devices while driving, hands-free or not. That long-time ban expired when the new law took effect in July.

No. 2: Law paves way for metro Atlanta transit expansion 

Key lawmakers spent much of 2017 studying mass transit. This year, they cleared the way for a major transit expansion.

House Bill 930 allows voters in 13 metro Atlanta counties to approve new sales taxes for transit construction and operations. Several counties are already in expansion mode, including Gwinnett, Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb. Other counties are in no hurry or flat-out don't want transit (here's a county-by-county look at how things stand).

The law also created a new board to oversee regional transit planning and funding. The idea is to create a seamless system from the mishmash of agencies that provide transit service across metro Atlanta.

That’s a big task that likely will take years. But if transit advocates get their way, 2017 will be a watershed for public transportation in Georgia, thanks largely to the new legislation.

No. 3: Gwinnett County transit referendum 

Gwinnett County is at the head of the line for transit expansion, with a referendum on joining MARTA set for March. It's another sign of the county's dramatic political transformation. Among other things, it has transformed from a county that has long rejected MARTA to one many believe is poised to finally join the regional transit system.

This year, Gwinnett officials approved a transit plan that calls for a MARTA rail extension to Jimmy Carter Boulevard and bus rapid transit routes on several major thoroughfares. They also approved a contract that would allow MARTA to assume control of Gwinnett's transit system – a contract voters must approve.

Despite Gwinnett's changing politics, the referendum is not necessarily a slam dunk. Gwinnett commissioners moved the proposed referendum from November to March. Democrats criticized the move to a lower-turnout election for what they said were political purposes, and they said the chances of failure rise as a result. Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash says she's confident the referendum will pass.

The stakes are high. If the referendum passes, it could pave the way for Cobb – another county that was once staunchly opposed to MARTA – to follow suit. And it could pressure lawmakers to provide permanent state funding for mass transit. If it fails, it could bring momentum for transit expansion across metro Atlanta to a grinding halt.

Either way, look for this to be one of the top transportation stories of 2019.

No. 4: More MARTA 

No story underscored the growing hunger for transit expansion than the battle over which projects would be included in Atlanta’s transit expansion, dubbed “More MARTA.”

City voters approved another half-penny sales tax for MARTA in 2016, and last summer the agency unveiled a proposed project list that included light rail, bus rapid transit and other improvements. But $2.5 billion over 40 years doesn't go as far as it used to, and the announcement touched off intense lobbying for funding.

The loudest voices came from supporters of the Atlanta Beltline, who were upset the list included only a third of the proposed 22-mile light rail loop around the heart of the city. Also in the funding mix were the Clifton Corridor light rail line to the Emory University/CDC area and a Campbellton Road line in southwest Atlanta.

Ultimately, the MARTA Board shuffled money from the Clifton Corridor to the Beltline. The final plan calls for 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit lines and other improvements.

The debate isn’t over. MARTA must now begin detailed environmental studies and decide which projects come first.

But the More MARTA debate – along with MARTA's decision to build a commuter rail line through Clayton County – showed a pent-up demand for transit services in MARTA's existing service area, regardless of whether it expands deeper into the suburbs.

No. 5: Metro Atlanta’s network of toll lanes continues to grow 

While transit expansion often dominated the news in 2018, Georgia has continued to place a big bet on toll roads as a way to solve metro Atlanta’s traffic mess.

State transportation officials say building more "free" lanes won't solve the problem, because they fill up as soon as they open. Building toll lanes – or "express lanes," as the state calls them – allows the state to "manage" traffic in a way the free lanes don't.

Here’s how it works. The cost to ride in the express lanes rises along with traffic congestion – the worse the traffic, the higher the toll. The idea is to discourage enough people from using the toll lanes to keep traffic in the lanes moving along at 45 mph.

That guarantees a predictable commute for those who are willing to pay. And there's some evidence traffic in the free lanes also moves faster as more people use the toll lanes.

Georgia already had toll lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties and on I-75 in Clayton and Henry counties. But in 2018 it opened 40 miles of new toll lanes. The biggest stretch was the 30-mile Northwest Corridor Express Lanes on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties. They opened in September.

In November, the state opened a 10-mile extension of the I-85 lanes in Gwinnett.

Eventually, Georgia plans similar lanes on Ga. 400 in Fulton and Forsyth counties and on the top half of the Perimeter. When completed, the state will operate a 120-mile network of toll lanes across the region. As of 2018, that network is more than halfway finished.