Atlanta traffic after I-85: It’s going to get worse

Troy Ernst stands by his car at his job at Stein Steel and Supply Company in Atlanta, GA preparing for his hour commute to Grayson, GA. Wednesday, May 17, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Troy Ernst stands by his car at his job at Stein Steel and Supply Company in Atlanta, GA preparing for his hour commute to Grayson, GA. Wednesday, May 17, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Troy Ernst drives different routes to work, depending on the time of day and the season. He uses Google Maps alerts to navigate around accidents.

But there’s no secret route or magic app that can whisk Ernst from his home in Grayson to his job in Atlanta. Most days it takes 50 minutes to an hour to get there, if accidents don’t muck things up. It’s another hour or more to get home.

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"I'm basically using two hours of my life each day to just drive back and forth to work," he said. "It seems like an incredible waste."

Ernst isn't the only one wasting time on area highways. Every day, hundreds of thousands of commuters are reminded that Atlanta has some of the nation's worst traffic. The region ranks high in surveys of traffic delays, commuter stress and other costs of congestion.

When I-85 went up in flames March 30, it made things that much worse. So the region marveled when it reopened last weekend, just six weeks after it lay in ruins.

But the quick fix to I-85 only restores commuting to its usual state of misery.

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We’re still stuck in traffic, still paying the price for spending hours on the road. And despite plans to invest tens of billions of dollars into new roadways and transit projects in the coming decades, our daily commutes will likely only get worse.

The average commute time is expected to go up, while the average freeway speed falls. And we’ll spend hundreds of dollars more each year wasting gas while idling in traffic.

Cars are backed up as they opened the closed portion of the damaged northbound lanes of I-85 Friday, May 12, 2017.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

"If I'm in a hurry, I just feel myself getting angry," Ernst said. "I get angrier when I'm driving than any other time. There are times when I have to check myself and chill out."

Here’s the good news: The region’s political leaders seem to understand Atlanta’s transportation challenges, and they’ve got plans to address them.

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s long-term transportation plan calls for spending $85 billion through 2040 to fix traffic. It calls for building 963 miles of new lanes on key arterial roads. It includes 13 new freeway interchanges and the reconstruction of 22 more. And it includes another 93 miles of new mass transit lines.

More good news: Georgia and the Atlanta region are finally getting serious about paying for those plans. The Legislature's 2015 decision to raise gas and other taxes will generate up to $1 billion annually for road and bridge improvements. Atlanta and Fulton County voters last year approved new sales taxes for a MARTA expansion and other transportation improvements. Other counties are considering their own plans for transportation fixes.

But here's the bad news: Even if it all gets built — not a sure thing, given concerns about federal funding and other question marks — the improvements will only be enough to keep up with the region's surging population, not actually improve traffic.

The 20-county metro region will add another 2.4 million people by 2040, and those new residents will crowd onto highways, trains and buses with the rest of us.

Infamous traffic

Atlanta is famous for its traffic.

Earlier this year, the American Transportation Research Institute named Spaghetti Junction the worst truck bottleneck in the country. Six other Atlanta bottlenecks also made the group's top 100.

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In 2015, the online magazine Vox found the Perimeter to be the deadliest interstate in the country. And, of course, 2014's Snowmageddon turned Atlanta into a late-night punchline.

Not content with national infamy, Atlanta recently landed at No. 8 on the INRIX Research international ranking of cities with the worst traffic congestion. It finished fourth among U.S. cities — thank goodness for Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Atlantans aren’t alone in their suffering. Traffic congestion is a fact of life in most major urban areas, said David Schrank, a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. It’s actually a sign of economic vitality.

Since a fire led to the collapse of a segment of I-85 in Buckhead March 30, the Georgia Department of Transportation has scrambled to reopen the vital stretch of highway into the heart of Atlanta. Officials now say the collapsed bridge will open May 26, ahead of the previous June date. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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“Congestion usually occurs where thing are happening,” Schrank said. “That means, usually, jobs and a vibrant economy.”

Still, congestion imposes real costs on the region and its residents. Two years ago, Schrank and other researchers found the average Atlanta worker spends 52 hours a year in stop-and-go traffic instead of traveling at normal speed — 12th worst among 101 urban areas. Time spent in traffic is time not spent working or enjoying life.

You don’t have to tell Geoff Clark of Powder Springs. He commutes an hour every day to his job at a pharmaceutical manufacturer near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He listens to podcasts — the “Stephen King Cast” is his current favorite — to pass the time.

Clark often doesn’t get home until after 8 p.m., and his 5-year-old daughter is already in bed. So he doesn’t see her much, except on the weekends. He can spend some time with his wife before heading to bed by 9 p.m.

“It’s not ideal, but you do the best you can,” he said.

Clark has considered moving closer to his job — many of his colleagues live in Peachtree City or Newnan. But he’s a Cobb County native and has a lot of friends and family in the area. And most of the jobs in his field are in the north metro area. So he’s staying put and trying to keep his commute manageable.

“I’ve tried so many different ways,” he said. “But it’s about an hour no matter what I do.”

Ernst, the Grayson resident, also has tried various routes to get to his job at a steel fabricator in Atlanta. During the school year, he usually takes U.S. 78 to Memorial Drive, then drives Memorial all the way to work, avoiding the interstates. Other times, he takes 78 to I-285 to I-20. In the summer, Ga. 124 to I-20 can be the quickest route.

“You can’t live here without knowing several alternative routes,” he said.

The afternoon is more unpredictable, so Ernst often lets Google Maps guide him home. He calls his wife, Amanda, every day when he’s a little more than halfway home so she can start dinner. He usually arrives by 6:30 p.m. — nearly 12 hours after he leaves for work.

Amanda works a few miles from their home. But the couple may move in the next few years to shorten Troy’s commute.

“It starts to get under my skin,” he said, “and I start to think about what a colossal waste of time it is.”

Big plans

Like many southern and western cities, Atlanta grew up in the age of the interstate highways. So it’s no surprise that it’s more dependent on automobiles than older cities like New York or Chicago, which developed transportation systems long before the interstate building spree that began in the 1950s.

The highways fueled suburban population booms in Atlanta and other cities. But in recent decades transportation infrastructure has failed to keep up with that boom.

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“When the interstate era began, you’d see pictures of interstates with six to eight cars on them, and everyone seems to be smiling and going out for a Sunday picnic,” Schrank said. “That’s not the way it works anymore.”

Transportation experts say highways alone are not sufficient to address the traffic congestion of modern cities. They say light and heavy rail and other transit options should be part of the mix. So should high-occupancy vehicle and toll lanes, “smart” highway technology like ramp meters and advanced “incident management” systems to clear accidents quickly.

Atlanta has a well-developed highway system and limited rail service in MARTA. And it has some of those other features, but not enough, said Catherine Ross, a transportation systems planning expert at Georgia Tech.

“I think we have a skeletal structure,” Ross said. “We have a good system in many ways. But it’s not a very complex system.”

April 24, 2017 Atlanta: Construction workers continued to make progress on the I-85 bridge.  JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

There are plans for more complexity.

The ARC's regional transportation plan takes the "try everything" approach experts say is needed minimize traffic congestion. There are hundreds of miles of new lanes to accommodate increased traffic, including 100 miles of tolled express lanes like the Northwest Corridor.

There are numerous expansions of MARTA and the Atlanta Beltline and streetcar system. There are new and reconstructed interchanges — like the colossus at I-285 and Ga. 400 — to address bottlenecks.

And yet, even if all the money materializes and every road and transit project in the ARC’s plan comes to pass, traffic is still projected to get worse.

The average commute time by automobile is expected to rise from 31 to 34 minutes. The average speed on general purpose freeway lanes will fall from 46.5 mph to 39.5 mph. The annual cost of time and gas wasted while idling in traffic will rise from $1,403 per commuter to $2,095 — a hidden tax paid for the pleasure of getting nowhere fast.

Still, the ARC takes a “glass half full” view of the future. From that perspective, absorbing another 2.4 million people — about the population of metropolitan Charlotte — while essentially keeping up with traffic would be a tremendous achievement.

ARC Executive Director Doug Hooker said managing congestion in a vital region is preferable to having open roads in an economically depressed area like Detroit.

“They would love to have a little more congestion,” Hooker said. “I know that doesn’t make the average commuter feel good when they’re stuck in traffic.”

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said Georgia is moving in the right direction when it comes to solving Atlanta's traffic problems. He cited a growing sentiment in the General Assembly that mass transit should play a bigger role in the region's future.

“We cannot just continue to build more lanes (for highways),” Tanner said.

Traffic congestion affects businesses as well as commuters. Schrank said many studies have sought to determine how bad traffic must get before it inhibits economic growth, but they’ve been inconclusive.

“Most cities of your size have the same problem,” he said. “If companies are going to try to find the perfect city without congestion, they’re going to be looking for a long time.”

Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce officials say traffic has not hindered their efforts to recruit businesses to the region. But they say Atlanta must diversity its transportation system to alleviate congestion for freight and commuters alike.

"If building more roads could solve our transportation problems, we would have solved them long ago," said Dave Williams, a vice president at the chamber.

Saving 10 hours a week

Still, politicians and planners can only do so much.

They can diversify the region’s transportation infrastructure. But if everyone wants to live in the suburbs and drive alone to work, things likely will get worse.

That’s why transportation experts cheer people like Suzanne Swann. She moved from Marietta to Buckhead last year to be closer to her job as a physician practice manager.

April 19, 2017 - Atlanta - MARTA passengers board a train at the Doraville station. MARTAs Twitter account reported the parking lots were full at 8:11 AM. The collapse of a portion of I-85 some three weeks ago has been a headache for Atlanta drivers, but is proving to be a golden opportunity for MARTA. Long neglected in a car-crazy region, MARTA is getting a second look from commuters desperate to avoid gridlock. Ridership is up. MARTA parking lots are packed. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Swann's commute used to take 45 minutes. But it grew to more than an hour after construction began on SunTrust Park. She bought a new car with satellite radio to make the drive more pleasant.

It worked for a while, but eventually the commute became intolerable. Swann sold her house and moved to an apartment in Buckhead. Now her commute is 15 minutes.

She sleeps more and arrives at work refreshed instead of anxious. In the evening, she has more time to cook and walk her dogs. She pays more for housing, but that’s partly offset by a reduction in money spent on gas.

Swann marvels at the years she spent driving in Atlanta traffic. She did the math and figures she’s saving 10 hours a week — or about 480 hours a year — that she used to spend driving.

“That’s like three extra months a year of work,” she said.