Want to see Atlanta’s traffic future? Denver offers a glimpse

DENVER – If you want to see what metro Atlanta’s transportation future might look like, visit Union Station in downtown Denver.

From there, commuter and light rail trains depart for the suburbs in every direction. Express buses filled with college students arrive from Boulder, an 18-mile trip on highway toll lanes. Free shuttles ferry passengers along a bustling downtown mall every few minutes. And bike rental stations allow commuters to pedal to their final destination.

It’s the kind of complex transportation network experts say is needed to address traffic congestion in booming metro areas. And Atlanta officials are paying attention to Denver and other cities that are building those kind of networks.

Metro Atlanta's long-term transportation plan includes many of the elements the Mile High City already has: bus rapid transit, new light rail and streetcar lines, an extensive network of toll lanes for congested highways and new trails to encourage commuting by bike and on foot.

“It’s a balanced plan,” said Dave Williams, a vice president at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “We are mostly road-based. We need to improve that. We need to diversify the way people commute.”

Denver has nearly 88 miles of passenger rail lines, compared to Atlanta’s 48 miles. Metro Atlanta officials are watching Denver and other cities that have diversified their transportation networks. Ben Gray / AJC File Photo

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That need came into shocking focus this spring, when the collapse of the I-85 bridge played havoc with Atlanta traffic for six weeks. Our awful traffic takes a toll on commuters and employers alike.

While Denver leaders forged regional partnerships to tackle transportation and other problems, Atlanta at times has let such problems fester amid regional squabbling. While Denver voters approved billions of dollars in new taxes to expand mass transit and fix congested highways, Atlanta voters have rejected similar measures. While Denver placed a big bet on an extensive passenger rail system, Atlanta hasn't expanded MARTA rail in 17 years.

But Atlanta’s prospects may be changing.

Flush with billions of dollars from recent state and local funding measures, the Atlanta region has begun to diversify its transportation network. Toll lanes are already operating on parts of I-85 and I-75, and more are on the way. MARTA is planning expansions in Atlanta and Clayton County.

In Gwinnett, Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has signaled she's open to bus rapid transit. And Fulton County officials will travel to Los Angeles in August to study that city's bus rapid transit system. Atlanta has pledged $1 billion over 25 years for bike infrastructure.

The region is playing catch-up with some of its economic development rivals, including Denver. But if it catches them, Atlanta could itself become a model for others to emulate.

Failure breeds success

Denver’s recent transportation success was partly born of failure.

The Denver Regional Transportation District opened its first light rail line – a 5.3-mile stretch along I-25 in central Denver – in 1994. It proved so successful RTD had to order six more vehicles to carry passengers.

RTD Assistant General Manager Scott Reed said the success of the line changed the conversation about mass transit in Denver.

“It was amazing to see,” he said. “The talk literally changed overnight from `no one wants that, no one’s going to ride it’ to `when do I get mine?’”

But that good will faltered. In 1997 voters rejected a $2.2 billion transit expansion plan. Critics said it was too vague – the district had only preliminary cost estimates and hadn’t even identified what would be built on all of the routes.

Denver’s Reed said the lack of specifics – along with divisions among elected officials and business leaders – doomed the measure.

“We learned our lesson,” he said.

Two years later, RTD and the Colorado Department of Transportation brought voters a smaller, more specific proposal: $1.7 billion worth of bond measures to widen parts of I-25 and I-225 in southeast Denver and build a new light rail line alongside them. Voters approved them, and the expanded highways and rail line opened in 2006.

But the big success came in 2004, when voters approved a new sales tax for a $4.7 billion transit expansion. The proposal included 122 miles of new light rail and commuter rail lines, 18 miles of bus rapid transit and new bus routes. It also included 57 new transit stations and 31 new park and ride lots. The bus rapid transit line and a commuter rail line from the airport to downtown are done, while expansion of the light rail system continues.

“In many ways that failure (in 1994) was one of the best things that happened,” Reed said. “It really did make people think about the transportation network for the entire region.”

Highways, bikes and shuttles

While transit projects advanced, the Colorado Department of Transportation improved Denver’s highways. A major tool: express lanes, which are limited to motorists willing to pay a toll, to high-occupancy vehicles and to buses.

The tolls rise at rush hour, limiting the number of vehicles using them and keeping traffic moving. The idea is to reduce delays and make commuting more predictable. The state uses such “managed lanes” on parts of I-25, I-70 and U.S. 36 in the Denver area and plans to build more.

With plenty of outdoor enthusiasts, Denver has also embraced bicycling as a commuting option. The city has more than 85 miles of paved trails and provides more than 700 rental bikes at scores of kiosks around the city.

Throw in express and local buses and free shuttles serving parts of Denver's bustling downtown, and there are no shortage of transportation options. Transportation experts say that diversity of options is the best approach to addressing traffic congestion. Dallas, Portland and Los Angeles are among the other cities that have aggressively sought to diversify their transportation networks.

“When you hear people say ‘these cities are doing a good job,’ these are the cities that are throwing in everything but the kitchen sink,” said David Schrank, a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Like Denver, Atlanta has found new momentum to diversify its transportation network after a big setback.

In 2012, voters soundly rejected the proposed $7.2 billion metro Atlanta TSPLOST. Neither road nor transit advocates felt the measure did enough for their causes, and voter distrust of government helped torpedo the measure.

But that failure lent new urgency to efforts to address traffic congestion, one of the region's top concerns.

In 2015 the Georgia General Assembly raised gas taxes and other revenue to generate nearly $1 billion a year for state road projects. The following year, Gov. Nathan Deal announced a 10-year, $10 billion plan to address traffic congestion with projects like express toll lanes along the top of the Perimeter and on Ga. 400.

Last November, Atlanta voters approved a $2.5 billion plan to expand MARTA in the city. Atlanta and Fulton County voters also approved separate sales taxes that will raise hundreds of millions of dollars for other transportation projects. Mass transit expansions also are under consideration in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Meanwhile, Gwinnett County is studying its mass transit future, though a proposal to build a bus rapid transit line in Cobb County has stalled.

A key difference between the two regions’ failure-to-success stories: Atlanta’s galvanizing failure came 15 years after Denver’s. One measure of the lag time: Denver has nearly 88 miles of passenger rail lines and counting. MARTA, which completed its last rail extension in 2000, has just 48 miles.

One thing that helps Denver: RTD oversees transit operations in all or parts of eight counties. In Atlanta, MARTA operates in three counties and Gwinnett and Cobb run their own systems. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority provides express bus service in the rest of the region.

Denver's political and business leaders also have worked hard to overcome the kind of suburban/urban tensions that can hinder regional solutions to big problems. One example: Negotiations between Denver and its suburbs led to the creation of Denver International Airport in 1995.

Atlanta also has a history of big regional projects like Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, MARTA and the 1996 Olympics. But more recently, the city and its suburbs have seemed to be more interested in poaching ball clubs and Fortune 500 companies from each other.

2015 study released by the Metro Atlanta Chamber found less than 15 percent of the region's jobs can be reached by mass transit in 90 minutes – dead last among 10 peer cities. At the top of the list: Denver, where nearly 46 percent of jobs are accessible by transit.

“(Denver has) gone big and they’ve gone fast and they’ve gone regional,” said Brian Gist of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which advocates for mass transit. “They really made a commitment to expand transit options.”

Fitting the pieces fit together

Doug Rex’s 22-mile commute to Denver takes about 53 minutes (if he drives, it takes about 40 minutes, though it can be longer, depending on traffic). He usually drives to RTD’s Lincoln Station, parks his car and catches the light rail line to the 10th and Osage Station.

From there, he rents a bike to pedal the last mile and a half to his job. On the rare occasion when there are no bikes at the transit station, he walks a few blocks to the next bike kiosk.

Rex is in charge of transportation planning for the Denver Regional Council of Governments. He said one key to Denver’s success is ensuring the various travel modes work well together – allowing him, for example, to drive and ride and pedal to work in a reasonable time.

“It’s nice having all these different modes,” Rex said. “But if they’re operating in a vacuum, with no concept of integration, it’s of very little use.”

Not everything has gone as planned in Denver. Rising construction costs and plummeting sales tax revenue during the Great Recession delayed some of the light rail lines voters approved in 2004. Construction continues on some lines, though a highly sought Denver-to-Boulder line may be decades in the future.

Meanwhile, funding for other transportation improvements is tough to come by. Colorado General lawmakers this spring did not pass a $3.5 billion transportation funding measure.

“Funding always is and always will be a problem,” Rex said.

And despite billions of dollars of transportation improvements over the last 15 years, traffic congestion remains a significant problem. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the average Denver commuter spends 49 hours a year in stop-and-go traffic instead of traveling at normal speed; in Atlanta, it’s 52 hours.

Still, one former Atlanta resident says the Mile High City is miles ahead of his hometown.

Jimmy Hawkins grew up in the Lilburn area and attended Georgia Tech. He now lives in Parker, Colo., southeast of Denver. He and his wife chose the suburban area because of its access to light rail, which he sometimes uses to commute downtown.

Hawkins said driving Denver’s highways can be a challenge, but not like driving in Atlanta.

“During rush hour, it’s got its slow-downs and congestion,” he said. “But it’s nothing like Atlanta, where you just sit still for hours.”

Metropolitan Denver is smaller than metro Atlanta – about 2.9 million people vs. 5.8 million – so it has fewer commuters clogging its roads and highways. But Atlanta is watching Denver and cities like it.

Rhonda Briggins, MARTA’s senior director of external affairs, said Denver has found innovative ways to pay for transportation projects – a mix of local and state funding, federal loans, public-private partnerships and other sources.

Briggins was recently appointed to a state House of Representatives commission on transit funding.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll look at innovative funding sources that Denver used,” she said.

Some believe it can catch them.

Gist said Atlanta has “good bones” – including the MARTA rail system – and is “starting at a better place” than its competitors. He thinks it can catch them.

“But it’s going to take a similar type commitment that these other cities have made,” he said.

Just as Atlanta is watching Denver and other competitors, some cities are now watching Atlanta.

Faye DiMassimo, general manager for Atlanta’s Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond program, said the city received a call from Orlando recently, asking about the success of its recent transportation ballot measures.

“Give us a few more years,” she said, “and everyone will be coming here to find out how to be cutting edge and how to do it better.”


The AJC's David Wickert keeps you updated on the latest in what's happening with transportation in metro Atlanta and Georgia. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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