Just as traffic-choked metro Atlanta appears poised to wean itself off its automobile addiction, a task force created by Gov. Sonny Perdue threatens to focus future transportation funds on projects tailor-made for the car.
In addition, the task force's recommendations would make it harder for walkable, mixed-use developments and new mass transit projects to become a reality.
The governor's Congestion Mitigation Task Force, made up of leaders from four transportation and planning agencies, released recommendations Dec. 6 that likely would force planners to choose road expansions over more inventive solutions for traffic. The task force is asking planning agencies to give far more consideration -- a jump from 10 percent to 70 percent -- to "congestion mitigation," or traffic relief, when deciding which projects get priority funding.
That means planners would be required to give first priority to moving as many cars as possible as quickly as possible -- and that entails adding more highway lanes.
The Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission are expected to adopt the task force recommendations next year.
"Projects will be reprioritized in accordance to that new congestion scoring," says Mike Kenn, former chairman of the Fulton County Commission and current president of road-advocacy group Georgians for Better Transportation. "A lot of people don't realize that if you rank projects by how much congestion relief they provide, there are positive byproducts, such as safety and air quality."
But David Goldberg, a spokesman for Smart Growth America, considers the task force's proposal a major step backward for Atlanta.
"We cannot pave our way out of congestion," Goldberg says. "Merely laying down more pavement is a recipe for wasted money and even worse traffic in the future. ... We're not managing our growth and giving people the option of not getting into traffic in the first place."
Goldberg points out that billions of dollars were spent on highway expansion in the '80s and early '90s to loosen gridlock -- and that by 2000, any improvement in traffic had been eclipsed by rampant development.
The task force's proposed shift toward highway expansion comes at a time when transit projects, such as the Beltline and the Peachtree Trolley, and smart growth developments, such as Atlantic Station, are finally gaining in popularity.
It took almost 10 years for home buyers, financiers and retailers to embrace smart growth, pedestrian-friendly developments such as Atlantic Station and Charles Brewer's Glenwood Park. Over the same time period, the Atlanta Regional Commission has funded a dozen smart growth-type projects, from Buford to East Point.
Most experts credit those smart growth initiatives with a 19 percent reduction in commute times in Atlanta between 1998 and 2003.
Still, Thomas Weyandt Jr., the ARC's director of comprehensive planning, says the focus on traffic relief rather than alternative solutions could yield positive results.
"I think you'll obviously see more value placed on congestion," Weyandt says. "What that means ... remains to be seen, because there are a lot of ways to deal with congestion."
GET INVOLVED: To learn more about transit issues facing metro Atlanta, visit Citizens for Progressive Transit at www.cfpt.org.