The Interstate 285 now moves 2 million people a day around the city.

Gridlock Guy: A different take on I-285 at 50

I-285 celebrated its golden anniversary last Tuesday with Atlantans of old recalling the stages of its construction, how few people used it back then, and how it’s more than doubled in size since. What started as a true, two-lane (each way) Atlanta bypass in October of 1969 grew to needing a third lane in 1989, and up to five lanes ahead of the 1996 Olympics.

» RELATED: AJC Deja News: 50 years ago, ‘glorious things’ expected from I-285 (1969)

I-285 has become an idiom and an enigma. It’s absolutely necessary to traverse Metro Atlanta, but moves with ever-increasing gridlock. It’s famous for Spaghetti Junction, the vast conference of ramps connecting I-85 and I-285 in DeKalb County. It’s ironically infamous for reckless speedsters and horrendous backups. Mentioning I-285 is like chasing an ice-cold Coke down with some cough medicine. It’s nice, but … wait … ewwwww.

To commemorate Atlanta’s complicated relationship with it’s not-so-bypass bypass, I decided to pose a question to my friends and followers on social media. I took a page out of former “Gridlock Guy” Mark Arum’s 95.5 WSB talk show and played “Would You Rather?”. By the way, “The Mark Arum Show” had a great two-hour discussion on I-285 with Triple Team Traffic’s Smilin’ Mark McKay and GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry on October 15th. 

I asked Facebook and Twitter users if they would rather be always forced to drive only 50 mph on I-285, but be guaranteed that speed at any time of day, or would they rather keep I-285 just as it is. The responses were not surprising. 

“50 mph” won the 84-vote Twitter pole handily at 82% to 18%. And the few in the minority had good reason.

“I voted ‘As Is’, but only because I come in on I-20 from the east and head south,” user @KudzuCarl said. “If I was getting anywhere near the north side, I would have voted for 50, without question.” Another person on the Twitter thread said they would take any speed to guarantee others not following so closely on I-285.

On Facebook, the only people that wanted to keep I-285 the same don’t have to drive it during rush hour.

“Selfishly, as is,” Triple Team Traffic overnight anchor Steve Winslow said. “Full disclosure: I have only driven on 285 during early a.m. hours (before 7:00) during the past three to five years, so there would be minimal issues for me!”

Facebooker Jason Matthews had good perspective.

“The answer seems obvious. The commute is regularly an hour or more, from Roswell Rd. over to Covington Hwy., on the Inner Loop in the afternoons. If we’re guaranteed 50 mph, then it would always be exactly 23 minutes, saving us potentially 40-plus minutes each direction every day.”

Jefferson Yearwood has a hellacious commute from Concord in Pike County to Marietta each day and would love the reprieve.

“Yes. 50 mph all around the circle, no matter what hour of day, works for me! But I’d prefer a second perimeter — an outer perimeter — even more than trying to fix 285.”

The Outer Perimeter project failed, because GDOT couldn’t buy up enough right of way or drum up enough cooperation to complete a plan. That is why they are eventually going to erect tolled Express Lanes, similar to those bordering I-75 and I-575, by the end of next decade. These, however, will not be reversible. So fixing I-285 is the route they will take, which also includes an I-285/I-20 interchange rebuild of some kind on both sides of town, the current overhaul of I-285 and GA-400, and some redesigns in Spaghetti Junction.

Our WSB Traffic Trooper Coach K, who commutes from Locust Grove into town every day, may have had the best line of the whole exercise.

“I’d take 35 mph guaranteed,” he quipped.

And maybe that is the real choice I should have given people, but 50 mph matches up with 50 years. Some students tried an experiment for a film in Georgia State University’s 2007 Campus Moviefest. In “55: A Meditation on the Speed Limit,” they drove in a line, at the then-55 mph speed limit, and in all lanes. That created big backups and big tempers.

Regardless, Atlanta celebrates 50 both revolutionary and agonizing years of The Perimeter. I-285 is a highway so clogged that most would be willing to take it just below the speed limit 24/7/365 to absolve their drive-time jams. And most would take sitting still on I-285 over the far worse notion of having no I-285 at all. 

» RELATED: National traffic data shows I-285 deadliest highway

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxmg.com .

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