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When will 'leaders' learn that more highways aren't the answer?

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Here we go again. A man who may become Georgia's next lieutenant governor thinks we ought to keep widening roads. "As long as Georgians have a love affair with their vehicles, we've got to widen the roads," Republican Casey Cagle said at a recent candidate forum.

No, no, no. I keep telling you people that widening roads is the crystal meth of transportation planning. When you widen a road, it feels great for a short time and then your teeth fall out. Or, with a road, it fills back up with traffic.

It's like that definition of insanity: You keep doing the same thing but keep expecting different results.

We've been doing the same thing for 50 years. I remember when our expressway system consisted of a four-lane highway between the Varsity and Georgia Tech. It was built in the mid-1950s, when nobody had any idea of the size of the traffic avalanche that was bearing down on us.

By the mid-1970s, the highway system was swamped. So, the Department of Transportation decided to build the whole damn system over again with a project called "Freeing the Freeways." That was back in the day when a man named Tom Moreland was transportation commissioner. He left state government and got rich by -- guess what -- opening a highway engineering company. For one thing, as I recall, his company designed that idiotic stretch of road that runs from Ga. 400 to the Lenox/Peachtree Road intersection in Buckhead. I can't go to a movie at Phipps Plaza without getting into the wrong lane.

But I digress.

To thank Moreland for the strategy that made millionaires out of Georgia road builders and developers, who in turn helped bankroll a generation of Democratic governors, the state named Spaghetti Junction in his honor. Anthropologists in the future will look at the far-flung ramps and bridges and endless lanes of the Tom Moreland Interchange at I-85 and I-285 and figure he was some kind of mighty god. They would be right.

Freeing the Freeways took 17 years and cost $1.5 billion. It doubled metro Atlanta's interstate lane miles from 900 to 1,851.

When it was finished, that original four lanes of the Atlanta freeway system between Tech and the Varsity had grown to 15 lanes in some stretches. And traffic still doesn't move on it. Last Friday afternoon, the flow on the eight southbound lanes of the Downtown Connector (I-75/I-85) was stopped dead.

We built it. They came. D'oh!

I saw the traffic jam Friday but I didn't get in it. I took a back road, stopped for coffee and had a pleasant afternoon. I live in town and don't get into the traffic jams. Why? Because I'm not an idiot.

The Census Bureau reported last week that Atlanta ranks second among large American cities in the percentage by which the daytime population explodes when commuters pour in for work. Washington is the champ at 72 percent. Atlanta is No. 2 at 62 percent.

Atlanta's full-time population of 416,474 in the 2000 Census balloons by 260,000 every weekday. Most of the quarter-million outsiders slouch into Atlanta in their cars.

That's because our transportation future was hijacked 30 years ago by the Freeing the Freeways project. We built massively wider highways at a time when gasoline was cheap. No one had any incentive to ride the then-novel MARTA system. It languished while the bulldozers roared. It has never recovered.

With highways spreading out in all directions, developers have been building subdivisions from the Appalachian foothills to the horse country of Middle Georgia to the outskirts of Athens. Atlanta has grown faster geographically than any community in the history of the world, thanks to the highway system.

MARTA was forever stunted from the ever-widening highway system -- not only by the competition, subsidized with tax dollars -- but also by the suburban racism that kept MARTA confined to Fulton and DeKalb counties.

We still don't have commuter rail in metro Atlanta, although there is a possibility that the state will open a line to Lovejoy. It's a delicious irony that commuter rail may finally be implemented under a Republican governor, Sonny Perdue. One of the reasons Perdue upset Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002 was that Barnes wouldn't let go of the antediluvian plans to build part of the wasteful Outer Perimeter highway, a project that would have shamed the pharaohs.

The good news is that the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, started by Barnes, has seen a 41 percent bump in its little bus system. The suburban county bus systems that bring commuters to Atlanta likewise are seeing ridership increases of about 25 percent since the price of gasoline went through the roof.

But born-again bus riders make up a mere trickle compared to the river of cars. More than 93 percent of metro Atlanta's commuters still drive to work. That's because we're now saddled with a permanent infrastructure that was designed for a temporary way of life.

I have to quibble with Casey Cagle's quote about Georgians' love affair with their vehicles. Sad to say, that affair is headed for a messy divorce.

As I keep harping, the whole house of cards on which the suburban Atlanta lifestyle teeters is about to blow. Much of the oil-industry infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico remains damaged from recent hurricanes. Gas prices may have dropped below $3 a gallon, but they're still hovering around $2.70 and could easily rise again. Suburban Atlantans, in particular, are hostage to fuel prices because their lifestyles depend entirely on cheap and plentiful gasoline.

But gas prices aren't the only problem. Not by a long shot. Home heating costs are set to rocket skyward by 40 percent or more because of a shortage in natural gas. Try heating one of those 4,000-square-foot McMansions with natural gas this winter. The owners might burn books to keep warm, if they had any.

And real estate prices in major markets around the country are beginning to show weakness. What will happen in the 'burbs if people wake up one day and can't sell their houses? You think the fisticuffs during the gas shortage were bad? That'll be pale beer compared with a real estate collapse in an economy that depends on the buying and selling of homes.

Robert Prechter, an economic forecaster in Gainesville, says America's "final outlet for manic psychology has been real estate." Prechter has been writing that America's great bull market of recent decades will be followed by a great depression, which he contends has already begun.

"The U.S. is in fact already bankrupt and poverty-stricken," Prechter writes in his October Elliott Wave Theorist. "These facts just haven't yet become a matter of record. When they do, the public's anger and dismay will be tremendous because its current expectation of business as usual is the complete opposite of the reality that's coming."

The great failing of today's leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, is that they haven't prepared us for the future in any meaningful way. Our transportation system was built to enrich road builders and developers, not to transport the public. And certainly not to enhance our communities.

As gasoline and natural gas prices soar, as salaries and pensions shrink, as houses start to sit unsold on the market, we're about to confront a future in which a suburban way of life based on a love affair with our vehicles looks as regrettable as a low-rent rendezvous.

Senior Editor Doug Monroe wrote 1,000 traffic columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His great-great uncles, the Belle Isle Boys, were Atlanta's first auto mechanics and cab drivers. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.

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