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

Rider Inman

August 8th, 2012
4:28 pm

Duke,

STOP with that Agenda 21 garbage, it only makes you sound like a loon conspiracy theorist. What you’re promoting is a non sustainable way of life that has lead to the problems we are facing now, aka SPRAWL. Speaking of the constitution, nowhere in there does it say that we have the right to rape the Earth of its natural resources.

Mike

August 8th, 2012
1:33 pm

I have to admire Robert Poole for at least thinking about how to pay for an arterial with tolls rather than taxes. In order to actually pay for a road, you have to collect during the off-peak hours. Not just in the HOT lanes for a few hours of the day. So his solution is either pay the toll or wait through a 3 minutes light.

Morning Reads for Wednesday, August 8

August 8th, 2012
10:57 am

[...] The Reason Foundation and the Georgia Sierra Club talk toll roads. [...]

Steven

August 8th, 2012
9:55 am

Light rail and improved subway transit. Period. Don’t let us turn into another Los Angeles of sprawl and traffic. Oh wait, we are already like that. But this will never happen with the backwards and ignorant mindsets of the cretins in this part of the country. Sorry, but that’s reality.