Atlanta’s top commuting stories: Delays, delays, delays

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

GDOT, MARTA revise their expansion plans

Grand plans to address metro Atlanta’s world-class traffic mess have a way of becoming, well, less grand.

That was certainly the case in 2022, when major road and transit projects were delayed, scaled back or both. More of the same may be coming next year. In the meantime, here’s a look at metro Atlanta’s top transportation stories of 2022.

GDOT pushes back major road work

In 2016, then-Gov. Nathan Deal announced a 10-year, $10 billion plan to improve Georgia highways. It included massive road projects in metro Atlanta: new toll lanes on the top half of the Perimeter and Ga. 400, reconstructed I-285 interchanges at I-20 east and west of the city, new truck-only lanes between Macon and Henry County, and the widening of I-85 northeast of Atlanta.

Since then, the Georgia Department of Transportation has revised its plans for those projects multiple times. The most recent shakeup came in February, when GDOT announced it was pushing back the timeline for the toll lanes, the truck lanes and the I-285/I-20 west interchange.

The agency also announced it will allow a private firm to set and collect tolls on the Ga. 400 lanes — just as it plans to do with the toll lanes on the Perimeter.

GDOT has not announced new completion dates for the affected projects. Planning and procurement continues, but you won’t be driving along those new lanes and interchanges any time soon.

I-285/Ga. 400 work goes on … and on and on

GDOT began work on a new I-285 interchange at Ga. 400 five years ago. It was originally set to open in 2020.

But GDOT added I-285 bridges to the project, and unmarked utilities and pandemic-related supply chain and labor issues also delayed the work. The result: The new interchange isn’t expected to open until the second half of next year.

In the meantime, GDOT has closed some I-285 lanes to accommodate the construction of the bridges. That means an intersection that handles 250,000 vehicles a day is reduced to three lanes in each direction. Traffic is generally bad, but sometimes comes to a standstill when, say, a tractor-trailer crashes (which they seem to do periodically).

GDOT also recently closed a northbound lane on Ga. 400 through the area. The closure is expected to last at least three to four months.

Bottom line: GDOT advises motorists to avoid the interchange if possible. If not? Bring plenty of audiobooks.

MARTA scales back transit expansion plans

Just a few years ago, MARTA was poised for a major expansion of its rail network. But over the last year, some of its plans have changed, and MARTA has signaled its new favorite words are “bus rapid transit.”

In Clayton County, MARTA planned a 22-mile commuter rail line from East Point to Jonesboro and Lovejoy. The project stalled last year when the Norfolk Southern railroad declined to let MARTA use its tracks. With the blessing of county officials, MARTA recently adopted bus rapid transit — which includes exclusive lanes, stations and other features of rail lines — as its preferred approach for the Jonesboro line.

MARTA also backed away from plans for light rail on Campbellton Road in Atlanta, saying a rapid bus line would be less expensive and could be built faster. That plan prompted a backlash from some Atlanta officials and residents.

But MARTA eventually won over many critics and adopted bus rapid transit as its preferred alternative for Campbellton Road last summer. A federal agency recently signaled its support for the project.

MARTA’s plans for the Clifton Corridor in Atlanta and DeKalb County also may change. MARTA has long planned to build light rail along the line, which would connect Lindbergh station to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control.

But MARTA recently unveiled two rapid bus and one light rail option for the Clifton Corridor. A final decision is expected early in 2023.

One bright spot for rail enthusiasts: MARTA is moving forward with a streetcar extension to the Atlanta Beltline and Ponce City Market. But that project has drawn community opposition.

And it’s unclear when or if MARTA will extend light rail along the Beltline as planned. Last winter, a study of one key Beltline rail segment found it would cost twice as much as originally expected.

Rapid bus lines aren’t immune from price hikes, either. In August MARTA revealed that the cost of its Summerhill bus rapid transit line had increased 49%. The agency has reduced the number of proposed stations and made other cuts to save money.

Turnover at the top

Several metro Atlanta transportation agencies lost their top executives this year. In January, MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker died by suicide. In October, the board named Collie Greenwood as Parker’s permanent replacement. Greenwood is a 35-year transit veteran who joined MARTA three years ago and served as interim CEO following Parker’s death.

Last spring Chris Tomlinson stepped down as executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority.

Among other things, Tomlinson oversaw the operation of region’s growing network of toll lanes and the state’s Xpress commuter bus system, as well as transit planning and funding in a 13-county area. Heather Aquino is the interim director of the agencies.

Billions in federal aid?

Last year President Joe Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law that will provide billions of dollars for roads and transit in Georgia. In 2022, that money began to trickle in.

The money will be used for everything from bridge repairs to electric buses to road work. In coming years, some of it likely will be used to build new MARTA transit lines in Atlanta and Clayton County.

But it’s unclear how much Georgia will ultimately get from the law — it’s subject to future appropriations by Congress. And even if Georgia gets all the money the law envisions, it may not go as far as hoped as inflation continues to drive up road and transit construction costs.