Holiday weekend travel is bad enough with volume alone, not to mention any wrecks, big events, or bad weather. The Georgia Department of Transportation took this into consideration years ago and began suspending scheduled lane closures during these saturated travel times. GDOT has rightfully limited work blockages for the days surrounding the Christmas and winter holidays, Spring Break, Easter, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Memorial Day.
GDOT’s parameters for the Memorial Day weekend have been between noon Friday and 5 a.m. Tuesday. That has traditionally given the waves of vehicles at least more room to breathe as they traverse the biggest Georgia roads. But data shows this window is too small. INRIX and AAA analysis reveals that the busiest travel window for Memorial Day travel in recent years has started on Thursday. The numbers unsurprisingly projected the most people to be on the roads during the late afternoon on both Thursday and Friday. From my view in the WSB Skycopter and the WSB Traffic Team’s observations in our 24-Hour Traffic Center, that prediction seemed spot on again this year.
But with that study in mind, GDOT needs to adjust its lane-closing schedule. More people are traveling, the economy is better, and Atlanta’s population is growing, so routine traffic patterns are becoming nontraditional. And, again, the data proves all of this.
Construction on Thursday afternoon was in full effect on I-285/northbound at Atlanta Road in Cobb County and I-20/westbound near Highway 27 in Carroll County; the delays were quite stout with both. Then around 2 p.m., with traffic rising to a boil on I-285 in Sandy Springs, all lanes shut down. Crews essentially paced traffic both ways on both I-285 and GA-400 near their interchange for several minutes to do blasting work. This is part of the long term Transform I-285/GA-400 project. But the timing was poor, at best. It could have waited.
That pacing added about 20 minutes of delays on I-285 in both directions, and GA-400 saw its backups, too. The delays from the I-285/northbound at Atlanta Road daily closure helped cause at least a wreck or two. And the I-20/westbound delays in Bremen were even worse, because only one lane of the interstate was open. The Alabama-bound crowd had to wait extra long to cross the threshold of their Sweet Home.
Holiday travel rush hours are not just the daily commute on steroids. Many Georgians hit the roads in an estuary of license plates from literally all over the country. This means sharing the road with people less familiar with where they are going and with little idea of unexpected road changes and closures. Lack of familiarity is a pillar in the causes of wrecks, some of which we saw from Thursday and Friday were quite terrible and spectacular.
So, if traffic delays are proliferating and high travel days are morphing, GDOT needs to change the standards for holiday travel closures. If those closures cause more delays and delays cause wrecks, this becomes a matter of both safety and convenience. And if holiday travel brings in a more crash- prone group of drivers, then all of this makes even more sense.
GDOT has done a great job in adapting to the changing ebbs and flows of Atlanta traffic. Their I-85 bridge rebuild is the crown jewel of that notion. And their increasing sensitivity to traffic patterns in general has been commendable. But now, with more traffic and more traffic stats than ever, GDOT needs to explore when they both deploy and pull up lane closures. The window for suspending them on holidays needs to grow, and while we’re at it, the cones need to come up earlier for daily PM rush hours, too.
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