Managed arterials, anyone?

Two views on more tolls

Moderated by Tom Sabulis.

In the wake of the failed transportation tax, Gov. Nathan Deal has declared the door slammed shut on rail expansion. Georgia’s likely future seems to be for roads, roads and more kinds of roads. A think tanker below talks up tolling arterials such as Roswell Road. The Sierra Club, which helped defeat the T-SPLOST and its rail component, doesn’t believe this is a good idea.

Commenting is open below Mark Woodall’s column.

By Robert Poole

When transportation experts compare Atlanta’s congestion problem with that of comparable large urban areas, one major difference leaps out of the data. Atlanta relies far more on its expressways to handle rush-hour traffic than comparable areas.

In Orlando, major roadways called “arterials” handle more traffic than expressways, and Denver’s arterials handle nearly as much as its expressways.

By contrast, Atlanta’s arterials handle only one-fourth as much traffic as its expressways. That’s a major reason why Atlanta’s expressways are among the nation’s most overloaded.

It’s probably way too late to build a modern grid of major arterials in Atlanta, but if some way could be found to make existing arterials like Roswell Road work better, those roads could reduce the burden placed on expressways, easing everyone’s daily commute.

The most obvious way to improve arterials is to widen them, but that is costly and can be politically contentious if landowners don’t wish to sell the needed right of way.

Another good idea is to synchronize traffic lights, so that motorists in the peak direction at rush hour get mostly green lights. Traffic engineers know that delays at intersections can be as big a limit on an arterial’s traffic capacity as the number of lanes.

What if it were possible to increase an arterial’s traffic capacity by more than would happen by adding a lane each way — but without having to widen it? Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., are both looking into this idea. It’s called converting an arterial into a “managed arterial.”

The basic idea is to give motorists a way to bypass traffic signals, by adding overpasses or underpasses to major arterials. Because those “grade separations” are costly to build, a small toll (e.g., 25 cents) would be charged, electronically, for each underpass a motorist used.

Those who didn’t want to pay would use the intersection just as they do today — to go straight or make a left turn or right turn.

It’s the same principle used around the country for express toll lanes on expressways, like the ones now working well on I-85 in Atlanta. You pay only the toll, using Peach Pass, if the value of the faster and more reliable trip is worth it to you.

Could the improvements that convert a regular arterial into a managed arterial pay for themselves? Preliminary studies in Florida cases suggest that as much as 75 percent of the cost of adding a set of overpasses or underpasses could be financed by the toll revenues, leaving the balance to come from conventional transportation revenues (mostly gas taxes).

By contrast, if the alternative of adding lanes each way were pursued, 100 percent of the cost would have to come from gas taxes.

Managed arterials offer metro Atlanta a way to relieve the area’s overburdened expressways, funded largely by voluntary payments by motorists. It’s an option transportation planners should seriously consider.

Robert Poole is director of transportation for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

By Mark Woodall

Fresh off the disastrous rollout of “managed lanes” on I-85, the highway lobby is back with its latest innovation for Atlanta — “managed arterials,” the idea of transforming our familiar surface streets into a grid of junior expressways, allowing cars to zip along where now they must wait for lights at intersections.

This transformation would be accomplished by converting existing intersections into “grade-separated” facilities, with underpasses and overpasses that are to be built and maintained by electronic tolls on the drivers who use them. Similar to the I-85 managed lanes, two classes of drivers will result: those willing and able to pay a toll to bypass the intersection, and everyone else, who will sit in traffic on the “unmanaged” lanes that may in fact be worse than it was before.

Lost in this discussion is the fact that these intersections would become stark, industrialized environments once the projects are complete. Residential and commercial properties that have existed for decades could see their access severely curtailed. Pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, already poor on many of these corridors, will become even worse. The only redevelopment options will be intensely automobile-oriented uses, resulting in even more car trips — a perfect example of induced demand. How is this going to reduce congestion?

Time and again, Atlanta has fallen victim to the simplistic notion that the solution to traffic congestion is to build new roadway capacity. Many of our most congested roadways — Interstate 285, for instance, or the current 14-lane incarnation of the Downtown Connector — were originally pitched as “congestion-relief” projects. Such an approach provides short-term relief at best. Eventually, it only serves to perpetuate a development pattern that depends on cars, which quickly overwhelm the new capacity.

It is time for Atlanta to move beyond the idea that traffic congestion is a problem that must be “solved.” Yes, traffic is bad in Atlanta, but so is it in any economically vibrant region where people want to be. In fact, Atlanta doesn’t even rank in the top 10 most-congested metropolitan areas in the country. Traffic in many of the cities we worry about competing with is even worse.

So what are other successful places doing that we aren’t? The answer is not building “managed arterials.” Instead, they are building the multimodal transportation systems the 21st century requires. They are investing in proven options such as commuter and intercity rail. They are addressing issues of regional transportation governance and are creating efficient, integrated systems. They are making the most of their existing transit infrastructure. In other words, things Atlanta has been failing to do.

Make no mistake — Atlanta still has great potential. But we must stop repeating the mistakes of the past and look toward the future and the transportation system we want — one in which residents have choices and one that attracts the businesses and job seekers of today.

Fresh off the disastrous rollout of “managed lanes” on I-85, the highway lobby is back with its latest innovation for Atlanta – “managed arterials,” the idea of transforming our familiar surface streets into a grid of junior expressways, allowing cars to zip along where now they must wait for lights at intersections.

This transformation would be accomplished by converting existing intersections into “grade separated” facilities, with underpasses and overpasses that are to be built and maintained by electronic tolls on the drivers who use them. Similar to the I-85 managed lanes, two classes of drivers will result: those who are willing and able to pay a toll to bypass the intersection, and everyone else, who will sit in traffic on the “unmanaged” lanes that may in fact be worse than it was before.

Lost in this discussion is the fact that these intersections would become stark, industrialized environments once the projects are complete. Residential and commercial properties that have existed for decades could see their access severely curtailed. Pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, already poor on many of these corridors, will become even worse. The only redevelopment options will be intensely automobile-oriented uses, resulting in even more car trips – a perfect example of induced demand. How is this going to reduce congestion?

Time and again, Atlanta has fallen victim to the simplistic notion that the solution to traffic congestion is to build new roadway capacity. Many of our most congested roadways – Interstate 285, for instance, or the current 14-lane incarnation of the Downtown Connector – were originally pitched as “congestion relief” projects. Such an approach provides short-term relief at best. Eventually, it only serves to perpetuate a development pattern that depends on cars, which quickly overwhelm the new capacity.

It is time for Atlanta to move beyond the idea that traffic congestion is a problem that must be “solved.” Yes, traffic is bad in Atlanta, but so is it in any economically vibrant region where people want to be. In fact, Atlanta doesn’t even rank in the top 10 most congested metropolitan areas in the country. Traffic in many of the cities we worry about competing with is even worse.

So what are other successful places doing that we aren’t? The answer is not building “managed arterials.” Instead, they are building the multimodal transportation systems the 21st century requires. They are investing in proven options such as commuter and intercity rail. They are addressing issues of regional transportation governance and are creating efficient, integrated systems. They are making the most of their existing transit infrastructure. In other words, things Atlanta has been failing to do.

Make no mistake – Atlanta still has great potential. But we must stop repeating the mistakes of the past and look toward the future and the transportation system we want – one in which residents have choices and one that attracts the businesses and job seekers of today.

Mark Woodall is chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.

44 comments Add your comment

Road Scholar

August 7th, 2012
12:00 pm

“It is time for Atlanta to move beyond the idea that traffic congestion is a problem that must be “solved.”
Sucking on the tailpipe of the car in front of you while still stuck in traffic? Do you know, in addition of congestion issues, we have an air quality problem…caused by congestion.

In designing our arterials in the past, developers could not wait to develop the parcels at an intersection. Now with congestion, the traffic backs up at the signals making it near impossible to turn in/out of those parcels. To grade separate those intersections would require huge expenditures on land.

Go to Maryland and other states that have a network of Interstates and limited access arterials. They work as “blood vessels” as the larger one distributes traffic to/from the smaller ones. Here the politicians chased the almighty dollar and has locked us into a system too costly to modify or if modified, turns out like PIB OTP.

jj

August 7th, 2012
11:11 am

Fix the problem: Abolish the SRTA!

too little time

August 7th, 2012
10:52 am

” Such an approach provides short-term relief at best. ”

As with the TSPLOST, no one is thinking clearly about this. The building boom is over. It might very well be over for good. The Metro area is restricted by water. Had the SCOTUS not ruled in favor of drinking Lake Lanier, The Metro area would have no water reserves whatsoever. The Great Recession has wiped out the building industry. Any transportation infrastructure improvements now WILL be beneficial for a prolonged period of time. NOW is the time to make transportation infrastructure changes that won’t be immediately overwhelmed by an influx of new building/construction.

Tyler B

August 7th, 2012
10:40 am

Seems like Georgia’s transportation engineers are more in it for transportation economy but fail to note that they are NOT urban planners. Such a terrible idea- not to mention the Governor’s refusal to address transit projects is like spitting in the face of progress- we need a multi-faceted transportation system that provides CHOICES.

ConwayNative

August 7th, 2012
10:33 am

Oh Robert, you can’t be serious. Citing Orlando as a poster child for its effective traffic and congestion management?! I lived there for 40 years, just moving to the Atlanta area six years ago. Traffic in the Orlando area is nightmarish, much due to the poor planning (and sellout) of its political leadership. We may have traffic congestion here in Atlanta, but the folks in Orlando have traffic congestion AND they pay outrageous tolls to sit in it. No thank you.

MANGLER

August 7th, 2012
10:33 am

It’s going to be hard to get people of the region to approve of regional projects and initiatives until you get the region to start thinking of itself in that way. I’m sure there was a time when the surrounding towns were happy to be part of the larger city in the middle, but that is not the case in the mindset of the individual City Councils or residents today. That’s plainly visible in the “what will this do for me” and the “why should I pay for them” attitudes. When the local leadership can band together and visibly work to achieve cohesion between the cities of the region, the residents will listen. However, when Sandy Springs feels that the needs of Decatur don’t matter to them, and when Lawrenceville doesn’t see that Peachtree City is also important, the infighting will continue.

As for traffic congestion … might I suggest stop looking for ways to get everyone everywhere and focus on the heaviest concentrations of movement? With roads, drivers tend to fill them up wherever they are built. With trains or bus routes, activity tends to congregate around those options. Residents and companies will either sprawl themselves outward or concentrate around transit. But that can be their choice only if those options exist.

Atlanta Home, Orlando Job

August 7th, 2012
9:42 am

The situation in Orlando is that the Orlando toll way expressway system has very high tolls ($8.25 to go around the city N to S on SR 417, $.75 to go 2 miles East on SR 408 from Rouse Rd to Research Park). The Orlando freeway system is incomplete in connecting job centers with residential centers. The result is that the tollways are not cost effective for many commuters and arterials are the sensible and economical means of getting from point A to point B. It does help that the main Orlando arternials have synchronized lights. In 13 years of living here, they have built only one new arterial overpass where two arterials cross (SR 50 and SR 436). Arterial congestion has mostly been relieved by adding additional lanes to the arterials. The main problem with Orlando arterials is the lack of dedicated lanes at intersections for turns.

WeNeedAlternatives

August 7th, 2012
9:39 am

So are those ‘managed arterials’ are all going to pay for themselves? I’ll bet they will only line the pockets of the corrupt politicians and highway builders, plus have some serious cost overruns without any oversight.

Ooh, that feels better… it’s fun to turn the tables on the ‘NO’ crowd.

Always Skeptical

August 7th, 2012
7:47 am

Why would deal automatically leap to the conclusion that any and all expansions for “transit” and or rail are now off of the table because of the negative TSPOST vote. Clearly the folks inside 285 want it and the folks outside of 285 don’t. The governor needs to rub his 2 brain cells together and figure out a way to fund road expansions ( that make sense to the people using them) and tolls outside of 285 and expanded rapid transit ( bus, light rail, beltline) inside of 285.

Tanner

August 7th, 2012
7:13 am

A libertarian myself, I agree with Patrick’s comment above (and not with Tom Sabilus’ recommendations). The libertarian’s answer to a problem with government is usually, “if x were run like a free market, then y problem wouldn’t exist.” Coming to the government-caused problem of traffic jams, Sabulis fails to take that approach.

Instead, his answer – far from market-oriented – embraces liberty in a different sense: the liberty to go fast on surface streets. But that liberty comes at the expense of imposing costs on others, if not in the form of taxes (since he supports a toll), then in the form of urban blight.

Heavy, snarled traffic (and, for that matter, sprawl growth) exist because a driver creates costs that he himself does not have to bear. Market-oriented solutions would make a driver internalize that cost, and less traffic would result. Tolls and gas taxes come the closest to doing this, and many a libertarian would agree that these should be increased before more blight-sprawl-overpass projects are undertaken.

Only if the cost of driving is sufficiently large will projects such as light rail become feasible in any event. Most commenters on the “left” side of the spectrum miss this point, taking instead a “build it and they will come” attitude toward rail projects with stratospherically high price tags. Experience in other U.S. cities shows that rail, without more, is both extremely expensive and extremely underused.