T-SPLOST: Is traffic really a problem in Atlanta?

The problem the proposed transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST, purports to solve would seem obvious. Here’s how the first advertisement by a group pushing the tax framed the issue:

“Metro Atlanta, we have a problem: one of the longest average commutes in America, over an hour a day. Five hours a week you don’t spend with your family; 260 hours a year.”

But what if the length of our commutes isn’t a problem we can solve? At least, that is, not by building new infrastructure to relieve congestion.

That’s the implication of new data from INRIX, a private company that tracks traffic information.

The latest INRIX Traffic Scorecard, updated this week with data through April, shows traffic congestion increases the average commute in metro Atlanta by only about 10 percent — less than six minutes a day.

Let me repeat that: Congestion adds less than six minutes to the average metro Atlanta commute. And to reduce — not eliminate — that six-minute problem, we are asked to tax ourselves an extra $7.2 billion in 10 years.

If you’ve driven a car around here, right about now you may be thinking these figures are baloney. So let me briefly explain where they come from.

INRIX, based in Washington state, tracks traffic data in America’s 100 largest urban areas, including metro Atlanta (it defines each region the same way the Census Bureau does). It does this by collecting information about drive times from 100 million truck drivers, taxis, airport shuttles, delivery vehicles and motorists who use its smartphone app in 30 countries. It then sells the relevant data to federal and state transportation agencies, including the Georgia DOT, said Jim Bak, co-author of the scorecard.

INRIX compares drive times when traffic flows freely to those at rush hour, then calculates the amount of “wasted hours” congestion adds to the average commute.

In Atlanta, based on the latest data, commuters would drive 241.9 hours each year — almost 56 minutes each workday — even if traffic always flowed freely. Congestion adds 25.4 hours a year, or almost six minutes a day.

What’s more, our “wasted hours” are decreasing even as employment begins to recover. Fuel prices, Bak said, are offsetting the return of commuters to the roads.

So, while the INRIX data show metro Atlantans have the sixth-longest average commute in America, we rank only 14th in “wasted hours.” The clear takeaway is that the chief reason our commutes are so long is that so many of us live so far from our workplaces.

Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on where you live. Certainly, in some parts of our region the average commute tends to be longer.

But another interesting INRIX finding is that, while metro Atlanta is 14th in overall congestion, our worst corridor ranks only 114th nationwide. Twenty-six other cities have a stretch of road more congested than Ga. 400 south between Old Milton Parkway and Holcomb Bridge Road.

This reinforces the idea our congestion is evenly applied to numerous roads. And that may explain why there’s so much disagreement about where T-SPLOST funds ought to be spent.

Now for some optimism: We may be able to improve conditions even without building new lanes — by relying on data from INRIX or its competitors, such as NAVTEQ and TomTom, to better manage traffic flows.

Bak gave an example from Washington: A curvy stretch of I-5 from the airport north to downtown Seattle. Washington’s DOT installed electronic signs on which they can adjust the speed limit according to real-time traffic information.

“It slows the cars that are coming into congested areas, which delays the gridlock, which allows traffic to flow better,” he told me by telephone. “People would be flying at 65 miles per hour, and all of a sudden they come across the curve” to find stopped traffic, often causing wrecks — and more delays. The variable speed limit signs have reduced accidents there by 30 percent, Bak said.

One mile of a highway lane can handle only so many cars an hour. Gridlock occurs, often for a disproportionate length of time, if that threshold is surpassed. Slowing oncoming traffic as roads become congested may prevent the worst traffic.

So, maybe the questions we ought to ask ourselves are not how much to spend, and where, but whether we can afford to subsidize people’s choices to live far from work — and, if so, whether there’s a cheaper and smarter way to do that.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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136 comments Add your comment

bug

May 24th, 2012
5:53 am

The oil companies and automobile manufactures kept buying out elected officials for the past 50 years when we should have been building rapid transit.

Julia

May 24th, 2012
5:54 am

Perhaps people live far from work because they HAVE to, they cannot afford to live closer, particularly if they work inside of 285. Obviously you have not traveled any of the intown surface streets during rush hour, sitting in traffic for sometimes an hour to only go a mile or more.

jconservative

May 24th, 2012
6:21 am

Julia people make decisions on where to live and where to work. Intown streets have been slow for decades. Anyone who looked knew that when they took the job downtown.

Good column Kyle.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Unexpectedly Revised Downward)

May 24th, 2012
6:30 am

Excellent article.

Don’t fear facts, tax-loving big-government types!

This is Mrs. Norman Maine

May 24th, 2012
6:41 am

Are we supposed to believe you and INRX and not our own lying eyes? So when I drive to my job during the week and it takes me at least 1 hour to drive 22 miles with congestion and on the occasional weekend when I go in, it only takes 30 minutes to drive that same commute without congestion that is all in my imagination? It’s amazing the lengths some of you will go to avoid any solution to our traffic problem which no matter what you say IS a problem.

BlahBlahBlah

May 24th, 2012
6:43 am

Julia, I live one mile outside the perimeter, in Tucker. I work downtown and my 13 mile commute takes about 1/2 an hour. Housing in Tucker is very affordable. jconservative is right, it’s all about choices. No one is forced to live 25 miles OTP.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Unexpectedly Revised Downward)

May 24th, 2012
6:56 am

This is Mrs. Norman Maine
May 24th, 2012
6:41 am
———————-

Some folks just don’t understand averages.

Are we to tax ourselves $7.2 billion over ten years to improve YOUR commute, or should we consider how what our government does affects us all?

Jack

May 24th, 2012
6:59 am

Turn the commute into a learning experience; buy CDs that teach you something new. A foreign language, morse code….even correct usage of the English language.

@@

May 24th, 2012
7:00 am

Is traffic really a problem in Atlanta?

Not for me, it isn’t.

Six minutes of separation from Atlanta is a good thing.

schnirt

ByteMe

May 24th, 2012
7:02 am

The only problem with the conclusion is the data. Specifically, this:

It does this by collecting information about drive times from 100 million truck drivers, taxis, airport shuttles, delivery vehicles and motorists who use its smartphone app in 30 countries.

A self-selecting group of people worried about avoiding traffic and high-tech enough to have a smartphone and using that specific app. A more random set of average people might present a different set of data points and lead to a different conclusion.

No doubt, people who live way OTP and commute to Atlanta to work are both part of the problem AND the ones who will complain the loudest about traffic. But considering how little the OTP people want to fund additional transportation choices, I’m guessing they’re not in the majority.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Unexpectedly Revised Downward)

May 24th, 2012
7:06 am

ByteMe, I found that my commute time was not one bit affected by my purchase of a smart phone.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Unexpectedly Revised Downward)

May 24th, 2012
7:09 am

BTW, no one gets to complain about your commute time. You chose it. Some small amount of sympathy may be on offer regarding the change in your commute time if you moved to your current residence well before anyone thought Ball Ground was a suburb of Atlanta.

Kyle Wingfield

May 24th, 2012
7:10 am

ByteMe: The company also incorporates data from DOT’s roadside sensors, which are a broader measure. What its unique sources tell us, and what DOT sensors can’t, is what traffic conditions are like away from the interstates and major state highways.

iggy

May 24th, 2012
7:30 am

Built-in to this TSplost are provisions for Marta. One of those being, funds for painting/landscapting at some Marta stations. How does a Marta Maint schedule ease traffic congestion?

This is just another “Detroit of the South” cash grab.

TSplost? Hell NO!

Manny

May 24th, 2012
7:47 am

The infrastructure is starting to crumble. If we do not at least keep up we will not attract businesses. The T-SPLOST doesn’t even get us back to funding levels of 5 years ago. The work it finances has one of the largest multipliers in our local economy and far beyond the supposed stimulus funding. VOTE YES

laurie

May 24th, 2012
7:50 am

Telecommuting has been a great option for me, glad my employer has given it’s workers the ability to work from home. I’ve turned down a number of interview requests for other jobs because of this benefit. I think Atlanta needs to think outside the box on this issue, instead of blindly throwing money at it. If our metro area governments offered more incentives to companies for cutting down traffic through van pools, flexible work hours, or telecommuting, maybe our roads would be easier to travel.

Tvshooter

May 24th, 2012
7:52 am

All these little piecemeal projects will do nothing to alleviate traffic. By the time they are built (at substantially more money), traffic will have increased beyond the project capacity to reduce traffic. This will give the politicians the “reason we must raise/extend the tax”. It’s never enough.
I might be more open to the tax, if there were one or two projects, big ideas, that would help. But the list is nothing but “what’s in it for me” pork. And what is the measure of these projects being successful? A 3% decrease in traffic? I can see the press release: “metro Atlanta commutes dropped an average of 2.3% over the last 6 years due to the T-Splost. That’s what we need to extend it”.
I have no illusion this list of projects will change anything. Except cause me to shop more online instead of brick and mortar stores. Keep in mind the E-Splost was extended, and yet Dekalb and Atlanta schools are crying they need even more money. Once these projects start, there’s no turning back…regardless of the tax’s ability to fund them, they will have to complete them, and cost overruns are the name of the game. The bids for these projects will all end up being higher than expected, and will all go over bid….that’s what highway projects do.
I can’t recall a tax ever being rescinded, nor a highway/transportation project that came in on or under budget. And neither is going to happen with any of these projects.

iggy

May 24th, 2012
7:54 am

Laurie makes an excellent point. The company where Im currently employed is sending everyone possible, home to telecommute. Telecommuting is one of the answers and it doesnt cost 7.2 billion.

dc

May 24th, 2012
7:55 am

Are you actually trying to introduce common sense into a politically charged argument, Kyle…:) Remember, the answer to many folks is always 1) Mass Transit, combined with 2) More SPENDING!! Now, what was the question??

I travel a lot on business, and my experience is that our road system is pretty darn good when compared to other cities. And that our mass transit system has been a colossal waste of money, that could’ve been spent much more effectively. Anyone using the heavy rail south of I-20 see’s what a waste all those stations are. And of course, it doesn’t run to the Braves stadium, nor many commercial “hot spots” throughout the metro area.

And that’s not a surprise, because it can’t. We could never afford to spend the money it would take to make the rail system actually effective. It’s another pipe dream that “sounds good”, and makes people feel really good about themselves, but will never really be an effective use of transit money.

Thomas Heyward Jr.

May 24th, 2012
7:55 am

We were supposed to have flying cars by now.
.
Instead, Washington got involved, and now all we have is flying drone snitches.

sirwinston

May 24th, 2012
8:00 am

Many of the highways that are being redone is to beautify Atlanta because the highways don’t lead to nowhere….really. It start and run right back into the grady curve all of them; I-75, I-85 South and even both of them coming from the South going North. Even the small streets on all of the streets in Atlanta; so small that you have to almost get out to ask permission to get into the flow of traffic or asked to park; yes, just that bad……..and they want more tax for highways or transportation, long comutes is a problem when you think you can go to a particular place only to get stop in traffic for someone to move or clear up something. We are better off riding our bikes or motorcycles! You can always get by and gas will not be that much!

iggy

May 24th, 2012
8:05 am

Many of you may not remember but at one time Atlanta did have street cars/trams. The tracks were torn up and replaced with busses.

All these downtown “green” initiatives are loss leaders and fluff, nothing more.

iggy

May 24th, 2012
8:11 am

Obama stimulus money…more waste.

http://www.ajc.com/news/georgia-high-speed-rail-136662.html

Then there is the all problem sovling “beltline.” What a dumb idea.

Cowtipper

May 24th, 2012
8:15 am

iggy = stupid

Stuck in Traffic

May 24th, 2012
8:24 am

Traffic in Atlanta is BEYOND repair. It was an issue 20 years ago and the DOT has done very little to change it. They missed the boat on GA-400 by not putting in lanes to I-85 N; They missed the boat on buying land for MARTA to expand into North Fulton – where people actually live and pay taxes to support – they’ve really blown it with the new shoulder lanes on GA-400 and the toll lanes on I-85.
On any given morning you never know what your commute time will be from Cumming to the perimeter – one day 20 minutes, the next 2 hours. On any afternoon after 3 PM you’ll sit in the merge lane to on I-285 to GA-400 N for 30 minutes and covere 1/2 mile, then another 30 minutes to get to Mansell Road. And you ask if Atlanta has a traffic problem?? YES!

tiredofIT

May 24th, 2012
8:24 am

Who cares when half of the mortgages in metro Atlanta are underwater. Who are these idiots!

Stuck in Traffic

May 24th, 2012
8:30 am

(PS to prior) — Any idea when the DOT is going to start using the traffic management system that they install on GA-400 (Mansell to Windward) 5 yrs ago?? Those nice (new) traffic signals are just rusting away……

iggy

May 24th, 2012
8:38 am

SIT. Ive seen them being used on ramps Milton North, Windward South. Couldnt say, though, how often…

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

May 24th, 2012
8:39 am

Improved infrastructure isn’t just about commuting. Companies rely on solid infrastructure to get their wares to store shelves or delivered to homes. They also rely on customers being able to get to their location/stores, etc. Companies also rely on infrastructure for their employees to get to work.

This isn’t just a personal issue, it’s also an economic issue.

Then there is the safety aspect of improved infrastructure….

iggy

May 24th, 2012
8:43 am

Finn, you forgot the other liberal mantra. Along with it being safe its also “for the children.”

Steve

May 24th, 2012
8:55 am

I’ve lived here since 1990 and the only way we “solve” traffic here is to build another lane, and then it’s too late to keep up with the already increased flow. Traffic has been getting worse, in town, for years. The Connector is a disaster every afternoon, and the commute to Alpharetta is absolutely ridiculous. We have to do something. If we vote no, we are set back even more time. TSplost is another idiotic idea in this backwards part of the country, but it’s better than nothing.

BW

May 24th, 2012
8:57 am

Kyle

Sounds simple…relieve certain perpetually gridlocked areas of the metro and add commuter rail….why can’t we get the honest discussion of the traffic congestion resolution out in the open? Why must a board draft a pet project list behind closed doors rather than allow experts to plan the relief? Finally why people continue to elect people that can’t manage to govern? People seem to be distrustful of legislators regardless of the fact that they are mostly R’s rather than D’s. This can’t bode well for the future of this region.

Kyle Wingfield

May 24th, 2012
8:58 am

I Report: You might not like the topic, but this is the topic. No threadjacking.

redneckbluedog

May 24th, 2012
9:01 am

Yes…Metro Atlanta traffic is HORRIBLE…but it’s due to volume and sprawl….Nobody could have seen the growth coming 30 years ago when one town started turning into the next….

Nobody will ride mass transit, except hippies, African-Americans, and yankees….. Your not going to change the culture with a $7B investment, a $15B investment, or a $50B investment….Better to invest in a bunch of Volts and Prius’s and just carpool….

I will say this, they handle accidents there better than a lot of metro areas. People just move right on around them…Except I got caught on 75 south one time around Jonesboro Rd on a Sunday….HORRIBLE…But I was going to Fla so I couldn’t have taken mass transit anyway…

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

May 24th, 2012
9:07 am

Ooops, I fired that last one off before I read your admonition.

So what about driver education requirements that could teach people to maintain their speed, pay attention to the road instead of facebook, merge and drive in inclement weather?

What would that cost compared to choo choo trains running hither and yon?

atler8

May 24th, 2012
9:13 am

It’s sad how a column addressing a serious issue facing us in metro Atlanta can prompt so many pointless & space-occupying responses, several of which resort to childish labeling & name-calling.

iggy

May 24th, 2012
9:17 am

atler8

May 24th, 2012
9:13 am

Kinda like yours, eh!!

yuzeyurbrane

May 24th, 2012
9:23 am

Excellent article. Provocative. In the same vein, I have heard urban planner presentations that say the trend is to move closer to work in higher density mixed use developments than 1960’s cheap gas suburban model. And we already see examples sprouting up at many places around Atlanta. But if this is happening, it seems like mass transit still has a place between the concentrations. The density of population will finally be there. Some vision is called for. I might add that even in the traditional 1960’s model, most people become pretty smart when it comes to figuring out the best way around congestion—learning the “short-cuts”, the non-Interstate surface street alternatives, etc. I rarely get on Interstate during rush hours and get around pretty easily and I doubt my experience is unique.

the red herring

May 24th, 2012
9:23 am

SPLOSTs are another tax that never ends. this one will be no different. when they started splosts they were mainly used for schools (now for other things as well)– governments never seem to find a tax they don’t need and once they “fix” the original problem the splost is shifted to another problem so
that they keep the revenue coming in. The good thing about splosts is that they are a fair tax —everybody pays which is how taxes should be.

Cosby

May 24th, 2012
9:23 am

Move closer to work or better yet move out of Atlanta…with modern communication, big business does not need the big office space..so have them move elswhere……or request an accounting from the State elite government officials just where did they spend the current money before handing them more to wast…and by the way…25% collected in “Other Regions” is turned over to those elite state personel to decide how it will be divided up….welll…from not a metro goon…take a hike!!!!!!

Steve

May 24th, 2012
9:31 am

Want Atlanta to prosper? Provide adequate transit like any other successful, modern city. We will have to suck it up and pay the price and get people out of cars and off the roads. Imagine that…

Glenn

May 24th, 2012
9:31 am

What ? No more love for these so called Quik Trip parents ? Good : ) What a waste of money the northern arc would be .

SBinF

May 24th, 2012
9:32 am

Heavens no. Traffic in Atlanta isn’t a problem. No, not at all.

I don’t want to blow your mind or anything, but do you think, just possibly that the city sprawls so much there was no effective transportation plan when the population of the area began to explode in the previous few decades? Meaning, traffic or no, commutes are longer because there was no thought put into regional planning. Whether or not commutes get shorter is hardly the issue here.

Steve

May 24th, 2012
9:33 am

SBinF – the obvious will elude most of the posters here :)

Glenn

May 24th, 2012
9:35 am

I really think as telecommuting picks up traffic will go down on its own . There is just less & less need to be at the office on a daily basis . I just know more and more people who go to the office only for some obligatory face time .

MrLiberty

May 24th, 2012
9:36 am

Great piece Kyle. The next question we should be asking as always, is what is government doing to make things worse (because that is exactly what they are best at)?

No doubt much of many people’s commutes are spent not on the major interstates, but on the roadways. Anyone who has any distance to travel to get to the interstates knows that horribly-timed lights, horrifically-designed intersections and dysfunctional overpasses literally strangle traffic as it attempts to move through city and the suburbs. Other studies have shown that the simple act of traffic flow analysis combined with appropriate timing of lights could reduce traffic congestion significantly. The problem- the failure of DOT and local county/city agencies to purchase appropriate control systems that would enable intelligent timing of lights. While they are wasting millions of dollars of stimulus money repaving streets that don’t need it (LaVista in DeKalb county comes to mind) and installing spy cameras to the tune of millions of dollars on every intersection in the city (they aren’t to keep track of traffic if you actually are naive enough to believe that), they are ignoring the obvious solutions that could significantly improve everyone’s commutes.

A very long discussion could also be had about the negative and destructive impact zoning regulations has on where folks work versus live. An equally long discussion could be had regarding the impact of tax laws, labor regulations, liability costs, OSHA regulations and the like on the prevalence and functionality of labor flexibility, work at home/telecommuting options, and other creative things that companies could be doing to ease traffic congestion. As always, government rules and regulations having a negative impact on solving these problems.

But then government, unlike private businesses, is not in the business of keeping its customers happy. We are their slaves. They steal from us not just to support those that work for them directly, but also to line the pockets of big business friends. Unlike a business that has to EARN the money it receives by keeping customers happy, providing a needed good or service, government has no such mandate, and implicitly cannot ever achieve such goals as their funding comes through theft rather than voluntary payments, fees, etc. in the competitive marketplace.

It is encouraging to see that the slim majority are opposed to this proposed tax, but completely discouraging to see that so many people still put their faith in government to solve their problems. Government has the worst possible track record of any group at solving problems – now creating them is another matter, and they perpetuate their existence by always coming up with solutions to problems that they created in the first place. One can hope that the revolution that is sweeping this country will awaken more and more to this reality so that once and for all we will restore the marketplace to its rightful place as the creator of solutions and relegate the government to its only appropriate role – protecting our rights and our freedoms (something they also have done a miserable job at).

JHoffman

May 24th, 2012
9:38 am

Kyle,

I appreciate the column, but there are some faulty assumptions with argument. Infrastructure wears at non-linear rates, which makes deterioration seem insignificant to the casual user until the situation becomes grave. And as Atlanta continues to grow, which every study suggests it will, the deterioration will accelerate. This deterioration is caused by use, which leads to fatigue. The argument for TSPLOST should be about the longer term benefits for investing now when repairs and needed expansion will be far cheaper and easier to implement, than later after the problem is already rearing its head. It goes far beyond congestion and fancy traffic signs.

I completely believe we should not subsidize people who choose live 70+ miles from where they work. If people chose to do so, then they should suffer the consequences for living an unsustainable lifestyle. But as jobs are generally more abundant in high density areas where a greater number of talented individuals can live, we need to make high density living more attractive. Investing in transit is not a subsidy since it pays for itself in the long run through economic development and a better distribution of resources through the reduction of waste.

We commonly hear people complain that all politicians do is kick the can down the road instead of doing what is needed to ensure a better tomorrow for future generations. TSPOLST is an opportunity to do that in a fiscally responsible way without increasing government liabilities. Thanks again for your column.

iggy

May 24th, 2012
9:41 am

Marta seems to be constantly in the red and is waste deep in fraud, employee pilferage and from top to bottom incompetent/STUPID employees. Why keep allowing the marta foxes to raid their own hen house. Adding addl trams, beltlines and other warm-hearted intiatives will only lead to more of the same.

MrLiberty

May 24th, 2012
9:44 am

And while we are at it, let’s not forget the impact that artificially low interests rates (a direct result of Federal Reserve price fixing) had on the growth of this city. Very little of this sprawl would have been possible had the Fed not just created credit and money out of thin air. There was certainly no savings for people to borrow. Low interest rates encouraged creation of long term projects (commercial real estate, homes, retail establishments) that brought people to further and further remote areas of the city. Much of this development has now tanked and surely the situation will worsen as the economy and dollar continue their horrible deline. Hundreds of thousands of new homes and buildings went up while plenty of existing real estate sat empty. None of that would have happened without the negative and disasterous influence of the Federal Reserve.

Once again government (no, the Fed is not the government, they are actually worse and more destructive but were created by the government) at the root of this problem too.

Edward

May 24th, 2012
9:48 am

When the Georgia GOP eventually manages to smother the last bit of life out of Atlanta, drives MARTA into the dust and chokes off everything that made Atlanta the business hub of the south… will they finally be happy? Will those GOP legislators from Bumf*** smile and pat themselves on the back for a job well done? Never have I ever seen another state so backwards that they go out of their way to vilify and screw the only major city it contains, turning it into one of the most inefficient and least-desirable metro areas in the world. I guess the Georgia GOP wants another Detroit, perhaps so they can then snap up all the real estate at fire-sale prices?