Fixing I-85 Won’t Fix Atlanta Traffic

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By Alex Soderstrom

Atlanta drivers listening to the radio on April 17 heard what could have been described as a near-apocalyptic scenario. Broadcasters fired through the list of traffic disasters occurring to major roadways around the city.

I-20 westbound was completely shut down after the interstate buckled. A fatal accident on I-285 clogged up the interstate in DeKalb County. The crowded Downtown Connector was closed after a chemical spill. Weeks after a partial collapse, I-85 northbound was still closed for construction.

Atlantans face one of the worst commutes in the country, and a flurry of recent traffic fiascos have underscored the inefficiency and danger facing the city’s roadways. The greatest of all, of course, is the collapse of I-85, an essential artery of the Atlanta area that will take weeks to be reopened. Many look forward to the day I-85 is repaired as a return to normalcy.

Source: Georgia Department of Transportation
Source: Georgia Department of Transportation

A return to normalcy, however, won’t be enough to enough to fix Atlanta’s transportation issues. The traffic problems in Georgia’s largest city have little to do with subpar roads and more to do with a neglect of public transportation.

The Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the city’s public transportation system, serving the Atlanta area with several rail lines and bus routes. Unfortunately, MARTA currently falls short of the lofty needs of the 9th largest metro area in the nation. Despite the mass of people living in and around the city, Atlanta ranks 45th in the country in public transportation use by its citizens. The city that is one of America’s leading homes for Fortune 500 companies is also behind Lawrence, Kansas, in the number of average trips on public transportation taken by residents in a year.

The truth is, it is hard to blame Atlantans for not properly utilizing MARTA. The city’s rail lines do not reach large swaths of the metro area. When comparing MARTA to the public transit of a similar city, the shortcomings are glaring. For example, Dallas, which has a metro area close in size to that of Atlanta, has a far more expansive rail system. The lines reach 23 miles north of the city’s center, 10 miles to the south, more than 30 miles to the west, and 20 miles to the east.

Compare that to Atlanta, which reaches 15 miles northward, 10 miles to the south, 12 miles east, and 5 miles west. Basically, MARTA does not go where some Atlantans can use it, even if they wanted to. This gap between where commuters live and where MARTA stations are located means some transit riders must drive to a MARTA station and park. The consequences of this can be seen in the aftermath of the I-85 collapse, as stations are overflowing with parked cars as commuters make a mad dash to public transportation.

This could be seen as a win for public transit in Atlanta, with more riders meaning less cars on the roads every morning and afternoon. In actuality, it has exposed MARTA’s limited nature. Also, there is little to suggest this is a permanent switch. Instead, it is likely the pattern of commuting by car will resume for many once I-85 is reopened.

Recent pushes by MARTA for the opportunity to expand have failed. The transit system, which is primarily funded through sales tax revenue in Fulton and DeKalb Counties, as well as the City of Atlanta, lobbied this year for chance to hold a vote in DeKalb County. A state measure would have allowed citizens of DeKalb County to vote on a proposal to increase the local sales tax. If approved, the extra .5% sales tax on purchases would have provided MARTA with $5.5 billion.

In order to warrant a county-wide vote, the measure first had to pass the Georgia General Assembly. Instead, the bill died in committee in February. One legislator who voted against the bill, Sen. Frank Millar of Dunwoody, said DeKalb County needed to first worry about funding its existing roads and bridges. In reality, public transportation is a way to cut down on needed roadway construction, which cost the Georgia Department of Transportation $2 billion last year.

Even more disheartening, the increased tax revenue would have only funded the expansion of MARTA in DeKalb County. Other metro counties such as Cobb and Gwinnett, the most populous counties in the state after Fulton County, have yet to see a significant public transportation presence.

To truly cut down on Atlanta’s brutal traffic situation, which causes long delays and helps create the deadliest interstate in the nation, the metro area has to rethink the approach to public transit. Increased funding is not only needed, but an expansion of participating municipalities is vital. To secure the funding it needs and reach enough riders to be useful, MARTA will have to be embraced by more metro Atlanta counties.

And then, just maybe, the city will no longer be crippled by a single interstate.

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