April 7, 2017 Atlanta: A little over a week from the bridge fire and collapse of I-85 last Thursday, the Georgia DOT held a news conference Friday, April7, 2017 talking about the details to begin the construction phase on the replacement span of the I-85 bridge, on schedule towards the completion date of June 15. Just when the Buford Connector and Piedmont Road began moving in both directions, the WSB Traffic Center reported Friday an expectation of 30 per cent more traffic will hit the roadways beginning Monday after Spring Break. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Opinion: The real lesson from the I-85 crisis

The opening of I-85 four weeks early is certainly a momentous event that should make us all proud. The fact remains, however, that we have a very long way to go before we can celebrate long-term success.

But before we dive into our ongoing challenges, we have to commend GDOT, MARTA, GRTA, Gwinnett Transit, Uber, Lyft and many others for their heroic response to this major infrastructure interruption. The coordination and commitment required to get us from crisis to recovery is something we should work to replicate as we drive our region forward.

Since the critical segment of I-85 reopened, it’s easy to sense a collective sigh of transportation relief. Neighborhood streets are getting back to their normal and less-congested patterns, nearby businesses are beginning to recover, and freight deliveries are moving more efficiently.

Now let’s consider the reality: having this critical stretch of I-85 return to normal can also be described as bumper-to-bumper congestion every weekday morning and afternoon. Our congestion and delays relentlessly grow more severe with every passing week and month. Understandably so, since we’re adding two million more residents over the next 25 years, and our roads simply can’t keep up.

For us, the real lesson for our region from the unfortunate I-85 crisis is that our residents can change their commuting behaviors, if sufficiently motivated to do so:

  • MARTA handily absorbed the more-than-25 percent increase in rail ridership.
  • Uber and Lyft helped ease MARTA’s parking strains by providing rides to and from MARTA stations at a 50 percent discount.
  • Gwinnett County Transit added routes to and from MARTA’s end-of-the-line station in Doraville.
  • Many commuters altered the timing of their commutes, and many stayed off the roads during peak times altogether by teleworking.

These lessons are important as we face metro Atlanta’s tough realities around transit. Our region has developed a transportation network that relies heavily on roads, which makes us remarkably one-dimensional. Over the past four decades, we haven’t delivered on good intentions to expand other modes and options, especially transit. Had those options been in place, fewer Atlanta commuters and residents would have been impacted over the past six weeks.

We also know freight flows continue to increase, fueled by growing markets, the deepening of the Savannah port and the expansion of the Panama Canal. And while some goods can be and are shipped by rail, freight cannot ride MARTA.

By investing in a transportation network with a diverse set of options beyond roads, those who can use transit will, freeing up needed capacity on our interstates and arterial roads.

Let’s bask in this moment of resiliency. But let’s also use this episode to insist that our state and regional leaders catalyze a real movement that diversifies our transportation portfolio and expands transit across our region.

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Hala Moddelmog is president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.