Money for unclogging Atlanta

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grants provide federal funding to planning organizations like the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) for projects that relieve traffic snarls and reduce air pollution. Today, we hear about the distribution of grants from the ARC’s executive director, while a highway proponent takes issue with some of the commission’s decisions. We also break out the new spending.

Commenting is open.

An ‘exciting’ chance to reduce congestion

By Doug Hooker

Few things are more important to the economy and success of the Atlanta region than its transportation network. But in a world of dwindling gas tax revenues and budget cuts, the opportunities to plan for new transportation projects are rare. In fact, more than 70 percent of available funding is needed just to maintain the existing network.

Because of the limited dollars available for added capacity, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) was excited to accept proposals for new projects from county and city governments around the region in 2013. Local jurisdictions submitted their ideas under a federal funding program called the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ or “Cee-mak”). As the name implies, projects funded under this program must demonstrate they relieve congestion and improve the region’s air quality.

ARC received nominations for 83 projects estimated to cost approximately $320 million. With $125 million to spend during 2014 to 2019, ARC, the Georgia Department of Transportation and local jurisdictions pared the list down to 28 projects with the biggest impact for the region. The cost is approximately $113 million. Staying below the maximum dollar figure will allow for unexpected cost increases or new projects in the final years of the program.

The project list includes funding to help pay to operate the Atlanta Streetcar and to reduce MARTA train rush-hour wait times from 15 to 10 minutes.

On the region’s roads, the list includes two new diverging-diamond interchanges, at I-75 and Windy Hill Road in Cobb County and I-285 and Camp Creek Parkway near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It makes small investments in Georgia DOT’s managed lanes program with the extension of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes north along I-85 and the construction of new lanes along I-75 to the north and the south.

The CMAQ program also includes installation of several “intelligent transportation systems” around the region that automatically adjust the timing of signals along major corridors based on traffic flow. A new traffic control center in Paulding County will complete the county’s monitoring network along its major corridors, several of which carry tons of freight every day.

The projects make the most of limited funding. They also reflect new priorities at the local, state and federal levels. But perhaps the best part of these 28 projects is that many of them will break ground within the next three years, providing very quick results.

These new projects in the CMAQ program give the region an opportunity to quickly improve its transportation future. However, the addition of almost 3 million more people in the next 20 years — and a potentially devastating lack of funding — means that our infrastructure won’t be able to keep up with increasing congestion.

Barring a sudden, and unlikely, boost in federal funding, the state and the region’s local governments must collaborate to find ways to provide metro Atlantans with additional infrastructure and more commuting options for the near future.

Doug Hooker is executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

ARC funding should focus on traffic

By Baruch Feigenbaum

Atlanta’s traffic congestion costs commuters $1,120 per year and produces 462 pounds of excess carbon dioxide per driver. With the region expected to add another 2.6 million people over the next 25 years, reducing congestion is a critical component in ensuring the area’s economic and environmental health.

The challenge for the Atlanta Regional Commission is to prioritize projects that do the most to reduce congestion and improve regional mobility.

In its latest plan, the ARC has chosen several worthwhile projects, including $44 million to extend I-85 managed lanes from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road. The managed lanes are always free flowing and thus reduce congestion.

Enhancing Atlanta’s intelligent transportation systems is another valuable project. Today’s poor traffic light synchronization causes rapid acceleration and braking, leading to unnecessary traffic jams and increased pollution.

However, the ARC made the curious decision to fund replacing diesel buses with natural gas vehicles, which will not decrease congestion. The New York Times recently reported that research in the journal Science “concludes that switching buses and trucks from traditional diesel fuel to natural gas could actually harm the planet’s climate.”

The ARC’s long-range plan also has a few problems. Spending $3 million to add sidewalks and bike lanes in Paulding County, where 93 percent of commuters drive and only 0.5 percent walk and bike to work, isn’t going to meet the supposed criteria of cutting gridlock and air pollution. And the ARC’s plan to spend $600 million (in mostly federal funds) between 2014 and 2019 on non-motorized transportation improvements such as recreational trails won’t change commuting patterns.

There is community value in recreational trails. But they can, and should, be funded out of the parks budget. The limited federal transportation funding ARC receives should be directed at projects that do the most to reduce traffic and air pollution.

Key projects are missing from ARC’s priorities. Plan 2040 fails to upgrade metro Atlanta’s arterial network. The latest long-range plan removes the widening of Ga. 120 in Cobb and Ga. 141 in Fulton County from the from the list. Both projects would reduce congestion and pollution.

Similarly, the managed lanes on parts of I-285 and Ga. 400 are welcome, but the 2040 plan misses the opportunity to further reduce congestion by implementing managed lanes on busy sections of I-285 (north of I-20) and parts of I-20 itself. A network of toll lanes connecting the region’s highways would offer congestion-free options to commuters, emergency vehicles and buses.

But buses lose out to rail as the 2040 plan dedicates significant funding to right-of-way acquisition and construction for rail projects. For the cost of those limited rail projects, the region could build three to five times the amount of express bus and bus rapid transit service.

It’s vital the Atlanta Regional Commission prioritize projects that will make the biggest dents in pollution and traffic congestion.

Baruch Feigenbaum is an Atlanta-based policy analyst with the Reason Foundation (www.reason.org).

More on ARC spending

The Atlanta Regional commission’s PLAN 2040 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) is a $59 billion blueprint for transportation spending in an 18-county region through the year 2040. Due to the cost of maintaining the region’s existing network, there is only about $15 billion for expansion over that time.

The update focuses the plan even more heavily on relieving the region’s worst bottlenecks and providing residents with more options for getting around. It also takes into account some shifts in priorities by local jurisdictions and by the federal government following the passage of a new federal funding bill called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21).

One highlight of the update is that ARC was able to take applications from local jurisdictions for new projects under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ), which requires that projects meet certain congestion and air quality standards. CMAQ projects include:

• $15.2 million for operations of the Atlanta Streetcar, scheduled to start running in May.

• $11.4 million to reduce MARTA rail wait times from 15 to 10 minutes during morning and afternoon rush hours.

• $24 million in signal synchronizations and traffic management systems along key freight and commuting corridors around the region.

• $9.6 million for diverging-diamond interchanges at I-75 and Windy Hill Road in Cobb County and I-285 and Camp Creek Parkway in Fulton County.

• $3.6 million to replace diesel MARTA buses with natural gas buses in south Fulton County.

• $44 million to extend the I-85 HOT lanes from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road.

Aside from these CMAQ projects, the 2040 plan includes other critical projects that will get underway between now and 2016. These include:

• $65.5 million for an underpass and realignment of Ga. 92 in Douglasville.

• $3 million for an underpass at Old Covington Highway and Ga. 138.

• $557.8 million for express toll lanes along I-75 from Charles Grant Parkway to two miles south of Ga. 155.

• $935 million for express toll lanes along I-75 from Akers Mill Road to Hickory Grove Road and along I-575 from I-75 to Sixes Road.

• $112 million to extend existing express toll lanes along I-85 from Old Peachtree to Hamilton Mill roads.

• $8.7 million for pedestrian/bicycle facilities and upgrades along Juniper Street and Ponce De Leon Avenue in the city of Atlanta.

• $3.2 million for pedestrian/bicycle facilities along Franklin Road in Cobb County.

• $5.4 million for medians and pedestrian/bicycle improvements along Buford Highway and in Suwanee in Gwinnett County

• $1.6 million to improve intersections and safety along Ga. 6 in Cobb and Douglas counties, which carries truck traffic to and from the largest freight rail facility in the Southeast.

To see a complete list, visit http://bit.ly/MoLeja.

One comment Add your comment

Matt P

February 25th, 2014
12:07 pm

Why are we extending HOT lanes? They are universally hated, and commuters overwhelming revolted against them when they were implemented. In the case of extending HOT lanes over pre-existing lanes, it’s a new tax to use infrastructure the public has already paid for – and because we’re not all made out of money, it’s also providing better public service to the well-to-do than the less-well-off. How is it justifiable to spend public tax dollars in that manner? The same fatal flaw also argues against building new lanes, as they plan to do on I-75 – and in fact, it may even be worse, as we are using everyone’s publix tax dollars to build lanes that only the privileged can use. What’s next, using tax dollars to knock down old stadiums so we can build a new stadium with more luxury boxes?

Also, I found this quote laughable: “In its latest plan, the ARC has chosen several worthwhile projects, including $44 million to extend I-85 managed lanes from Old Peachtree Road to Hamilton Mill Road. The managed lanes are always free flowing and thus reduce congestion.” Why, yes, if you only look at 1 of the 7 lanes, it’s a great success! Never mind the increased congestion on the remaining lanes during rush hour. Or how on the weekend or during most non-peak lanes, the managed lanes are completely empty (because why pay for a negligible/no improvement), hence pushing everyone into using the other lanes – increasing congestion. Put another way, the traffic that would be spread across 7 lanes is now squeezed into 6. Why are we doing more of this on purpose?