Planning out ways to keep metro Atlanta moving

What will the Atlanta region look like 25 years from now? One thing seems certain: It will be much larger.

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) forecasts our population will reach the 8 million mark by 2040 – an increase of 2.5 million. That’s the equivalent of all of metro Charlotte moving to the Atlanta region.

Anyone who’s been stuck in rush-hour traffic lately may wonder how the region can accommodate this kind of growth.

In the past, Atlanta followed a basic formula: Expand highways and major arterials where possible to add capacity, while improving key interchanges to ease bottlenecks. Transit providers like MARTA, GRTA and county bus systems have played an important role by providing commute alternatives.

But this approach has its limits. New lanes invariably fill up, and we’re running out of room for expansion in some corridors.

We can’t build our way out of congestion. No region can. Every thriving metropolitan area wrestles with traffic problems. In many ways, congestion is a byproduct of a healthy economy.

Something must change. Recognizing this, ARC and its planning partners spent more than a year developing The Atlanta Region’s Plan, a 25-year blueprint that incorporates all of ARC’s planning areas – transportation, community development, water resources, workforce development and aging and health.

The plan, set to be approved by the ARC board in February, projects $86 billion in federal, state and local transportation funding, programmed through 2040. That sounds like a lot of money, but nearly two-thirds will be needed just to maintain our existing system – pave roads, repair bridges and the like.

That leaves $31 billion for expansion projects – a substantial sum, but far from adequate to meet the region’s needs.

So, what’s to be done? The Atlanta Region’s Plan offers a four-step solution:

  • Make carefully targeted investments to improve mobility by widening key thoroughfares and easing the region’s worst choke points.
  • Provide new ways for people to bypass the gridlock, such as managed toll lanes and expanded transit options.
  • Expand transit service to better connect our region’s major employment centers.
  • Work with local governments to create communities that offer more opportunities for walking and bicycling, better access to transit and the ability for people to live closer to where they work.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.

First, nearly $10 billion is committed to widen roads and improve highway interchanges by 2020. This will ease congestion in the short term and help accommodate future growth.

For example, the traffic-clogged intersection of I-285 and Ga. 400 will be reconstructed. The plan also includes funding to widen 178 major arterials, from Ga. 20 in Cherokee County to Ga. 155 in Henry County.

Second, the plan provides options to help commuters avoid congestion. A network of managed toll lanes, similar to those already operating on I-85 North, will be built across the region, promising a free-flowing ride to those willing to ride a bus, carpool or pay a toll.

Toll lanes are being built on I-75 North and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties and on I-75 South in Henry County. Future managed lane projects include Ga. 400 and I-20 West and East. Transit vehicles will be able to use the new lanes, providing an incentive for people to get out of their cars.

Third, the plan commits $12 billion for transit expansion projects that will provide greater access to the region’s employment centers. The list includes a rail line in Clayton County and potential expansions on Ga. 400, I-20 East and the Clifton Corridor, home to major employers like Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control. However, unless additional funding is found, most of these transit projects can’t be built anytime soon.

Finally, the plan will expand the region’s network of bicycle and pedestrian trails and foster the development of communities that offer increased walking and biking options, as well as improved access to transit, jobs and services. About $500 million is allocated to fund transportation projects, such as sidewalks and bike lanes, through ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative.

Many more details can be found at atlantaregionsplan.com

The Georgia Legislature passed a $1 billion per year statewide transportation funding bill in 2015. This is an important step for our future that will provide additional money for road and bridge maintenance and move up the construction timetable for many critical projects.

But, to truly address the number of cars on our roads, more of us will need to live closer to work, take transit, walk or bike to the office and telecommute. We must get comfortable with the fact that a congestion-free ride to work may require paying a toll or riding in a bus or train.

Improving our walking, biking and transit options is not only critical for our region’s mobility. It’s vital if we are to attract and retain young talent, who increasingly are seeking this kind of lifestyle. And providing alternate ways of getting around enables our fast-growing senior population to remain in their communities as they age.

We must embrace this new reality to ensure that Atlanta remains a dynamic region, full of promise and opportunity.

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Jane Hayse is director, Center for Livable Communities, of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

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