A recent bird's-eye view of construction of the new I-285 interchange at Ga. 400. The work is expected to continue through the end of the year. (Courtesy of James Cool/Cool New Media).

Transit, seat belt debates coming in 2020

As the new year begins, it’s time to look to the future. But when it comes to Atlanta traffic and transportation issues, the recent past is a pretty good guide to what we can expect in the coming 12 months. Here are some of the transportation issues to pay attention to in 2020:

More transit votes? For years transit was an afterthought when it came to metro Atlanta transportation fixes. Sure, there were plans. But they never seemed to go anywhere, for lack of funding. 

That’s changed in recent years. First, voters in Clayton County and Atlanta approved sales taxes for transit expansion. Then the General Assembly got on board, clearing the way for more transit in 13 metro counties. 

The momentum took a big hit last year, when Gwinnett County voters rejected a plan to join MARTA. But that may pave the way for an even bigger transit push this year. 

Gwinnett officials seem to be building toward another transit vote, perhaps this November. DeKalb County also may ask voters to approve a sales tax to pay for its new transit plan this year. Watch for decisions on whether and when to hold those votes in coming months.

A possible transit referendum in Fulton County seems to be on hold until 2021. But after years of inaction, it seems likely that transit expansion will be a perennial theme as local officials seek to address some of the world’s worst traffic.

Traffic safety legislation: Two years ago the General Assembly prohibited motorists from handling their cell phones while driving. This year, they may tackle another traffic safety issue: seat belts. 

The state currently requires people in the front seats of passenger vehicles to buckle up. And it requires anyone 17 and under in the back seats to be restrained. But adults in the back seats are free to ignore the safety restraints. 

Traffic safety advocates say requiring everyone to buckle up would save lives. A Senate panel has recommended such a law. But seat belt laws have a history of dying in the General Assembly, where many lawmakers are concerned about personal liberty. Look for some spirited debate in the upcoming legislative session. 

Seat belts aren’t the only traffic safety issue on lawmakers’ minds. They may revisit the 2018 distracted driving law. Last year saw an effort to prohibit anyone under 18 from using electronic devices while driving. It went nowhere, though it’s still technically alive. 

Another possible change: Lawmakers could eliminate or tweak a provision in the distracted driving law that allows first-time offenders to get out of a ticket if they buy a hands-free device and present the receipt in court.

Major road work continues: In Atlanta, nothing is certain except death, taxes and road construction. That’s sure to continue in 2020. 

The biggest project, the reconstruction of the I-285 interchange at Ga. 400, has been under way for years and could wrap up by the end of 2020. It’s a massive, $800 million effort to address a major traffic bottleneck. And it will serve as the linchpin for a 120-mile network of metro Atlanta toll lanes. 

In the meantime, the construction means the interchange is more congested than usual. So you’ll have plenty of time to think about death and taxes while stuck in traffic.

Transit legislation: After approving transit expansion legislation for metro Atlanta two years ago, some lawmakers pressed to take transit expansion to rural Georgia. The idea was to enlist private industry to help transport seniors to medical appointments, college students to class and workers without cars to their jobs. House Bill 511 would also create a new state agency to oversee transit planning in rural areas and small cities. 

The legislation passed the House of Representatives but went nowhere in the Senate. Opposition from the State Transportation Board was a key factor. The bill also became entangled with the fate of a Delta jet fuel tax and a possible state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport before dying on the last day of the session

But state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has expressed optimism that a deal can rescue the transit legislation in the upcoming session. 

One more transit issue to watch: Last year some Gwinnett County Republicans sought to prohibit the county from holding another transit referendum until at least 2026. Their effort failed. But it’s worth paying attention to see if they try to revive it.

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About the Author

David Wickert
David Wickert
David Wickert writes about transportation issues for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He previously worked for newspapers in Washington state, Illinois...
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