The saga of Georgia Highway 400 is one for which virtually no one foresees a happy ending. People harbor real hope that the economy will turn itself around, that their kids will grow up healthy and well-adjusted, even that Social Security will still be writing checks when they're ready to retire. But the folks who have to drive metro Atlanta's most congested stretch of pavement firmly believe you're fooling yourself if you expect traffic to get any better.
The bitter evidence is all around them. The prized "reverse commute" disappeared about three years ago; with bumper-to-bumper traffic headed in both directions, the only way to distinguish morning rush-hour from evening is by the position of the sun. Commuters headed intown back up for miles before catching sight of the Perimeter, and employees of high-tech companies on Windward Parkway find themselves caught in a northbound bottleneck stretching past North Point Mall. Creeping cars line the Holcomb Bridge Road overpass most hours of the day.
"Traffic controls my lifestyle," Baxter Davis yells into a speaker phone as he shuttles to a meeting. "I've got to be on Ga. 400 by 6:30 in the morning (to reach his office in Buckhead) or I've got to wait until 9; and if it rains, it takes me two hours to get home."
The divorce attorney has watched the promise of Ga. 400 slip away since 1981, when he bought his house in the rolling pastureland of Crabapple in extreme north Fulton. Davis enjoyed several years of idyllic ex-urban life before realizing that growth was taking over his com-munity and traffic was keeping him apart from his family. He and his wife are about ready to give up on their dream of a home in the country.
"We're thinking of moving back inside the Perimeter simply because of the traffic," he says. "If the past three or four years are any indication, it's only going to get worse."
In a time when "smart growth" is promo-ted as an antidote to suburban sprawl and clogged thoroughfares, Ga. 400 stands as the problem without a solution, like shutting the barn door after the horses have reached the back 40. In local imaginations, the road represents both promise and threat, offering a perceived avenue to a better way of life, yet demanding harsh compromises in the very lifestyle it serves to promote.
Still, the surge ever-northward conti-nues at a furious pace for new residents, big-box retailers and mid-rise office buildings. UPS Logistics Group, a subsidiary of the shipping giant, announced last month that it will move from the Central Perimeter area to Alpharetta. Later this year, MCI WorldCom is expected to begin shifting employees from its Perimeter offices to a two-building complex it's constructing on North Point Parkway. Those moves alone are expected eventually to push at least 2,000 more jobs out to north Fulton -- and a fair share of workers onto Ga. 400.
It's no secret that even while metro Atlanta is trying to get a handle on its air quality, traffic and sprawl problems, its heaviest growth is occurring along its most congested route, at the upper edge of the metro area. The word at street level is that Ga. 400 is out of control and everybody knows it.
Of course, in the early days, things were different. Open pavement and undeveloped land beckoned those who sought solitude from the city to head north.
Ga. 400 is Turner McDonald's highway. It says so on the unobtrusive green DOT signs that punctuate the shoulder of the road. The title isn't honorary; despite the literary quality to his name, McDonald is no obscure Civil War general or long-dead politician. He's the former Fulton County public works chief who first conceived of the highway and used all his bureaucratic skills to see it birthed into reality.
Now a spry 93, McDonald still mows his own lawn at the northside Atlanta home he bought in 1939. Until recently an avid golfer, he ventures up his namesake road every few weeks to the Horseshoe Bend Country Club, now only to lunch with friends. But he takes care to avoid rush hour. "I don't get on it unless I have to," he says.
McDonald is known to longtime associates as a pragmatist, not a dreamer. In the early 1950s, when white residents of Buckhead and what is now north Atlanta began fleeing the path of the city's then-aggressive annexation push, McDonald saw the trend. He decided a new road needed to be built to accommodate this exodus and to encourage growth in rural north Fulton.
"Race had a lot to do with people moving out," he says. "They'd tell you that, privately."
He persuaded the county commission to fund a design for the road -- drafted in part by current Commissioner Tom Lowe's engineering firm long before he ran for office -- even though McDonald now says most officials weren't convinced it would ever be built. And he got the OK to begin buying up right-of-way along the route with bond money. When the property was mostly assembled in the late 1960s, McDonald talked state lawmakers into applying for millions in federal grants and taking over the project.