Traffic progress may be illusion

Report says metro only third-worst in nation.Data collected when gas prices were high may skew perception.

Well, honk if you believe that!

An apparent slight drop in traffic reported by the nation's premier congestion study, to be released today, is like a slap in the face to some commuters who say they haven't noticed anything of the kind. It could be that the good news in the study isn't so good: The data, collected in 2007, probably reflect a temporary traffic reprieve brought about by rising gas prices. Preliminary 2009 figures from the state Department of Transportation show some of those drivers may be going back to their cars, if prices at the pump will let them.

"If it's a difference, it's very unnoticeable," said Angelo Riley, 31, who has driven Atlanta roads since he first got his license. He spoke as he filled up his tank near the Downtown Connector and University Avenue, adding that Atlanta traffic was "horrible."

The report showed the average Atlanta-area commuter wasting 57 hours a year going nowhere in traffic jams. Atlanta had the third-worst congestion in the nation, a better ranking than second-worst two years earlier when drivers wasted 60 hours a year idling. As a whole, the Atlanta area lost more time and money than ever to congestion: a total of 135,335,000 wasted hours in the year of the study, at a record cost of $3 billion.

But even in the face of a problem that big, a fix seems miles away.

The state has failed to pass transportation funding two years in a row. The federal transportation budget has its own problems, and it is expected to go in the red this year, again.

Yet state leaders haven't given up, their spokesmen say.

"We look forward to presenting a proposal to Georgia's voters in November of 2010 that solves our state's transportation issues," said Marshall Guest, a spokesman for House Speaker Glenn Richardson.

Several problems

The stakes are high. Gov. Sonny Perdue said a study he commissioned showed the need for transportation investment. Without it, highways would not only become more congested, but the state could forgo 320,000 potential jobs over the next 20 years.

Some measures are on the drawing board, said Chick Krautler, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, metro Atlanta's official planning agency. "But when can we promise them depends on, really, the leadership in the state and federal government for providing the opportunity to generate the resources," Krautler said. "It's frustrating when you ask the General Assembly to give you the right to ask your citizens to tax themselves, and they won't even do that."

The state gas tax, which funds transportation, is charged as cents per gallon, not cents per dollar, so it doesn't rise with inflation. For the second year in a row, the Legislature this spring failed to pass a measure that would allow Georgians or metro Atlantans to vote themselves a penny sales tax earmarked for transportation projects.

Then there's the toll road program created in 2003, which hasn't turned the shovel on an inch of dirt. And in the last two years, accounting troubles at the state Department of Transportation have slowed road spending to a crawl.

$4 for gas had impact

The national report released by the Texas Transportation Institute today measured traffic in 2007, the latest year available, as regular gas rose from $2.10 per gallon in metro Atlanta to $3. When reliable figures come out for 2008, they will probably show even more declines in congestion because gas soared to $4 last summer, and the economy declined steeply, meaning fewer commuters and less travel for pleasure.

Four-dollar gas was an earthquake for Atlanta commuters. Many who never thought they'd leave their SUVs headed for MARTA buses and trains, vanpools, HOV lanes and teleworking registries. Advocates for mass transit and against sprawl trumpeted that Atlanta was seeing a historic shift.

Some of that stuck, but the jury is still out on how much. Historically, the new congestion study says, when conditions start to ease up, many people return to their cars. And more recent data from DOT may bear that out.

Small fixes can work

Preliminary figures from selected interstate spots put together by DOT show that, in spite of the tanking economy, in May 2009 the number of cars was actually up slightly over May 2008. Although people's budgets were tight, gas prices were more stable, and $1.60 lower than May 2008, AAA reported.

And MARTA ridership is down slightly in the first three months of 2009 compared to that period last year, though that could also be due to the economy.

It is "absolutely" no mystery that in general, Atlantans like their cars, said Mark Demidovich, DOT's assistant state traffic engineer. "You have the freedom to go wherever you want whenever you like," he said. However, as one of the people responsible for managing congestion at DOT, he said, "I think it's a good thing that got a little too good."

Demidovich does point out some glints of silver lining for Atlanta. He believes wholeheartedly in one small fix that the report says actually helped, but one that many drivers can't stand: ramp meters, the traffic lights that ration out the cars on ramps headed toward highway lanes.

In fact, no one solution is the whole solution, says Tim Lomax, a co-author of the study Urban Mobility. The only thing that holds out hope is a full-court press melding smaller solutions like ramp meters to bigger ones like system expansions and changing how towns develop.

"Our findings are usually that you can't do one thing, but if you do a little bit of a whole bunch of things, you wind up getting to a solution," he said.

Hours stuck in traffic

According to a new study, Atlanta is the third most congested urban area in the nation, with the average traveler wasting 57 hours a year just delayed in traffic. That's 38 more hours a year since the study started keeping track in 1982 but slightly less than the last time the study was done two years ago, probably thanks to rising gas prices. The new study used the latest data available, from 2007. Below are the top (or bottom) five congested areas, with the hours of annual congestion delay.

Urban area 2007 2005 2000 1990 1982

Los Angeles 70 71 68 84 44

Washington, D.C. 62 61 53 38 16

Atlanta 57 61 60 31 19

Houston 56 55 45 34 29

San Fran.-Oakland, Calif. 55 57 54 61 23

Source: Texas Transportation Institute

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