News & Views » Metropolis

Roads to perdition

Two competing views on congestion ensure policy – and transportation – gridlock



Here's the one thing we know with dead-certain clarity about metro Atlanta's congestion woes: No eruption of new expressway lanes, no addition of infinite concrete road miles, no rollout of train tracks cresting a thousand horizons, no stretching of buses and trolleys bumper-to-bumper from Doraville to McDonough -- in fact, all of those things stretched end to end won't bridge the galactic gap between the "truth" of the road-ists and the "common sense" of the transit-ites.

It's a fun debate to watch. The only downside is that as dogmatism rages, someday not too far away, one more new car on Atlanta's streets will result in a city-wide flash of brake lights as traffic everywhere jerks to a halt -- and never moves again. Terminal gridlock.

Two whip-masters in our community-wide transportation flagellation are AJC editorialist Jay Bookman and former AJC editorialist Benita Dodd, now a spokeswoman for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Bookman sniffs that the foundation is "aligned" with road builders and Gov. Sonny Perdue, neglecting to note that 58 percent of Georgia voters were aligned with Perdue on Nov. 7. About 100 percent of us are aligned with the dastardly road builders, at least to the extent that we ride on their handiwork.

Dodd huffs back: "Oh, Jay is a die-hard liberal. He never lets facts spoil his ideology." She forgets to note that her own ideology -- "market-driven strategies" -- is wishful thinking. Laws, rules and regulations twist the flow of money -- and thereby define the "market." Claiming roads are "market-driven" means only that there are massive public subsidies to America's automobile culture.

In a Nov. 19 column, Bookman was shocked to discover the GPPF and the Reason Foundation, a national think tank (Bookman puts "think tank" in quotes to signal stinking thinkers), actually argue what they believe. Horrors. Setting the stage for Bookman's outrage was a Reason study released this month that basically says, transportation-wise, we're screwed.

Unless we invest in a big fix.

Reason's solution: Ante $25 billion for toll lanes, toll roads, toll tunnels and toll truckways. The $25 billion bill was revealed to be wildly optimistic for such ambitious projects, and the plan has as much chance of materializing as the aforementioned Perdue has of becoming grand marshal in the next gay Pride Festival. I suspect Reason and GPPF know that.

What causes Bookman and the cars-are-evil folks (whom I often sing along with) to twitch with anger is Reason's haughty dismissal of such pro-transit strategies as high-density land-use planning (read: urban anthills) and transportation options (read: choo-choos, choo-choos and more choo-choos).

No one quibbles with Reason's recap of our crisis: Our current plans mean congestion inevitably will get worse. "A rush hour trip that today takes 46 percent longer than at off-hours will take 67 percent longer in 2030," the Reason study states, echoing Georgia officials' own analyses.

Add to that the fact that we're the least-dense major city in the nation. And most of Atlanta's commuters don't drive from suburban homes to the city center to work. Rather, the overwhelming largest component of commuters goes from suburban homes to suburban businesses. Fewer than one in 20 commutes to downtown.

To create a transit-suitable city, says David Doss, former chairman of the State Transportation (read: roads) Board, density in Atlanta would have to increase 600 percent. "But that can't happen," says Doss, a Rome real estate executive. "You couldn't move around with that many people."

But Doss and other highway shills refuse to acknowledge that incremental solutions could edge us toward more density. And Reason and its allies don't reason through the problem that doing more of what's caused the problem isn't likely to solve the problem.

To counter Reason's big solution, Citizens for Progressive Transit -- a well-meaning group studiously ignored by decision-makers -- proposes retrofitting Atlanta with trains, trolleys, buses and bike lanes. The group's fantasy map resembles the transit systems of great cities such as New York and London. But, shucks, we're just Atlanta.

Lee Biola, chairman of the transit cheerleading group, has a price tag for his plan: $16 billion

So, we're caught in a double dilemma. We're not dense enough for transit. But we'd need transit to get dense. The two poles range from $25 billion (plus) for more roads or $16 billion (plus) for transit.

Either way, we need to think big, and a better idea would be a melding of the two visions. We shouldn't fritter our time, energy and money on low-yield transit projects.

The AJC in a Nov. 16 editorial mooned Reason and gushed nonsense about "two small but encouraging developments": A "baby-step closer to launching a commuter rail line" to Lovejoy, and Cobb County officials allowing MARTA buses onto their turf.

The 26-mile Lovejoy commuter rail will cost about $120 million (80 percent from federal grants). Optimistically, it may remove 3,000 cars from the highways. The AJC chides Reason for glossing road costs, yet trains almost always come in over budget; the Lovejoy line's projected budget already has inflated by $11 million. For $120 million, you could add another expressway lane between downtown and Lovejoy -- and that would carry many, many, many multiples of the commuter rail ridership.

I don't know which "big" option is best. What I do know is that we don't have the leadership to do either.

Two cities where I've worked give some clues. In the 1970s, Miami Herald Publisher Alvah Chapman galvanized that community into passing a bond issue that built a transit system.

And, in Tampa, a transportation-deadlocked county commission in the mid-1990s appointed 99 citizens (including me) to ponder big-picture solutions. Eighteen months later, the commission was handed a plan.

We have neither a leader of Chapman's stature nor officials willing to risk decisive citizen direction.

In Atlanta, the only things we create -- other than congestion -- are more transportation agencies. They vie with each other for money and power. While we sit in traffic.

Disclosure: John Sugg sometimes writes for Reason on economic and media issues.


Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment