Calls to fix traffic are familiar

The Atlanta region doesn’t often come in near the top of national rankings, but traffic congestion is something we do right. It’s no surprise that a recent survey ranked metro Atlanta gridlock as the third worst in the country. We’ve been among the top five for years.

The annual survey, conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute, was, as usual, followed by another annual ritual: the pledge from metro Atlanta business leaders to conquer traffic congestion.

“The CEOs are saying this has got to be fixed. We’ve got to have action and leadership,” Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, told AJC business columnist Henry Unger.

Haven’t we heard this before? Many times?

Williams is farsighted, thoughtful and well-meaning, but neither he nor the business leaders he represents have summoned the political power to get the Georgia General Assembly moving in the right direction.

In 2008, the chamber tried to win support for legislation that would have allowed metro Atlanta voters to decide whether to tax themselves for transportation improvements, but the Legislature balked at even that.

The plan didn’t call for a tax increase, mind you. It merely asked that voters be allowed to determine whether we wanted a tax increase to ease congestion.

Though Republicans claim they support local control, Gov. Sonny Perdue opposed it, telling rural legislators “this was something that the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce supported and he couldn‘t see how it was going to be good for rural Georgia,” one legislator said.

The measure fell short by four votes.

Williams is right about this much: Failure to deal with the region’s miserable traffic will eventually choke off growth.

As congestion grows over the next decade, metro Atlanta’s declining quality of life will cease attracting the top-flight industries and highly educated workers that the area needs.

This recession has sped up changes that were already occurring in the cultural and economic landscape.

The new buzzword is “sustainability” — features that allow for long-term growth and development in the face of limited resources, whether water or petroleum or natural gas.

The smartest regions have well-developed public transit corridors, zoning that nurtures high-density development and environmental laws that encourage conservation.

And the smartest businesses are looking to locate in those regions.

Here in Georgia, public officials have long been lukewarm at best toward public transportation.

MARTA is the only public transit system in the country that receives no financial support from its home state, and plans for rail lines gather dust.

Take the proposed “Brain Train” between Atlanta and Athens, one of the most traffic-clogged corridors in the state. If the Legislature had funded that rail corridor, the state could lay claim to developing infrastructure that would aid the pursuit of a thriving biotechnology industry.

Since the Atlanta region is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research universities and medical schools, that’s not just a pipe dream. But any biotech business would need easier access between the state’s biggest research university, the University of Georgia, and, say, the CDC.

With the miserable drive to Athens, why would a biotech business locate here?

Maybe, this time, with a governor’s race heating up, the Metro Atlanta Chamber will be able to get something done. But judging on performance, I’m still not sure business leaders are serious.

After all, the Republicans who run the state are natural allies of business; if they believed that CEOs wanted the transportation problem solved, they would already be hard at work on public transit and road improvements in metro Atlanta.

So maybe Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle figure that business leaders are happy with gridlock.

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