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Rearranging the deck chairs

GDOT considers closing some ramps to ease downtown connector gridlock

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The Downtown Connector is a bizarre beast. The massive 14-lane interstate slices through the heart of the city, whips around Grady Memorial Hospital like a snake, and, save for late at night and early in the morning, is always congested with cars, often times with only one passenger.

For more than 10 years, the Georgia Department of Transportation has been wrestling with what to do about the Downtown Connector. Build more lanes! There's no more room. Double-deck it! That would cost billions of dollars. Create a massive tunnel underneath northeast Atlanta to allow cars to bypass the Downtown Connector altogether! Prepare for another freeway revolt.

Now a new idea is being bandied about: closing at least three entrance and exit ramps between Midtown and downtown for a three and a half hours during weekday rush hour. The 30-day experiment — which we should stress is only an idea at the moment, would require state approval, and likely undergo a long public education process — is an interesting way to handle traffic and offers a window into how Gov. Nathan Deal envisions the cash-strapped state addressing its transportation issues in the coming years. But it's also an abject admission that the powers that be are focused first and foremost on keeping people in cars rather than giving them options.

If Peachtree Street is Atlanta's Main Street, then the Downtown Connector is metro Atlanta's. Every day it shuttles more than 300,000 vehicles. Some of them are merely passing through and carrying tourists or freight cargo. Some are OTPers making the daily commute to jobs within the city. Others work or live intown.

The thoroughfare is a major artery, but it's also a design nightmare. According to a preliminary GDOT fact sheet about the possible plan obtained by CL, national highway standards recommend placing no more than two exits or entrance ramps per mile. The two-mile stretch of the Downtown Connector between Spring Street and I-20 has nine — five times the national standard.

This flaw creates serious chaos. Nearly 34,000 motorists jockey, jump lanes, and merge onto the interstate using the entrance and exit ramps. Under GDOT's plan, closing select ramps and pushing motorists to use more evenly spaced exits would reduce the jockeying and ostensibly ease congestion on the Downtown Connector. In that respect, the plan makes sense.

But rerouting traffic has consequences, which would be most felt on downtown Atlanta's streets. For the last year, GDOT has talked with the city, downtown leaders, property owners, law enforcement, and other stakeholders about the proposal. The city's concerned that the plan would affect pedestrian safety, create more wear and tear on already overwhelmed downtown streets, and force the city to remove on-street parking to handle the increased traffic flow. In addition, city officials tell CL they're concerned the plan would only increase afternoon commutes for downtowners and workers trying to leave the city. Not to mention complicate traffic flow during special events such as Atlanta Braves games and conventions.

"If we do this — big if — we understand that we couldn't do this without doing a bunch of mitigation to the downtown grid," says GDOT Communications Director Karlene Barron. That includes upgrading traffic signals and providing signage that could direct motorists to other routes.

GDOT's ramp-closing plan sounds like a ho-hum, low-cost traffic fix cobbled together by transportation planners. But the proposal is pretty much all officials have at their disposal after the failure of last year's T-SPLOST. Few other options exist to solve the congestion crisis that plagues not only the Downtown Connector, but dozens of other gridlocked roads and intersections in metro Atlanta.

"It's the norm that we're going to have to look at alternatives rather than just building a new lane," says Jill Goldberg, GDOT's press secretary. "Alternatives such as shoulder lanes, signal timing, reversible lanes, managed lanes — anything we can to improve the operations of the system."

That jibes with the basic mind-set on transportation planning in Deal's administration: Do more with the road network you already have. And don't even consider suggesting rail. Expect toll lanes, possibly built with the help of the private sector, variable speed limits, and other low-cost fixes on roadways.

Some of those ideas make sense. But, frankly, it is depressing. It might feel like progress and look like sound conservative policy but it's really re-arranging the deck chairs.

Nowhere in this approach do you see any visionary or far-reaching ideas, like in the late 1990s when former Gov. Roy Barnes at least began examining a commuter rail network that would have served metro Atlanta. The only new investment transit we saw during the last legislative session was $12 million to fund state-run buses that ferry suburbanites into and out of downtown.

Nor do you see any mention of rail, which could give metro Atlanta commuters another option to leave their cars at home, stop wasting paychecks on expensive gas, and help stop fueling sprawl in metro Atlanta.

The city is in relatively good shape when it comes to its transportation network when compared to the surrounding area. There are plans to build more bike lanes, something that could help Atlantans pedal past gridlock. The city might issue bonds to fund smaller projects that could improve intown traffic and quality of life. And Mayor Kasim Reed has instructed his staff to look at partnering with the private sector to build transit.

But those solutions won't do much to help people commuting from suburban counties on interstates and who contribute to the Downtown Connector's gridlock. Closing ramps and tinkering with traffic patterns are good first steps. But alone they are stopgap measures that don't take into account the fact that Atlanta and metro Atlanta will continue to grow. Being able to accommodate that growth will require bigger solutions, which requires investment. Either way we're going to end up paying to get out of traffic, be it in more tolls, taxes, or lost economic output. We need something visionary that benefits people and not just cars.

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