Like other major highways across the nation, Interstate 75 in the Atlanta metro area is plagued by congestion. And there are good reasons to think that it will get worse, unless there are major changes.
The transportation analytics firm INRIX recently rated Atlanta as the fourth most congested urban area in the country. In 2017, Atlanta drivers spent an average of 70 peak hours in congestion (up from 2016). To put a dollar amount on that, the hours spent in traffic cost each driver an average of $2,212 in 2017, for a total cost to the metro area of a staggering $7.1 billion. And that doesn’t even account for the stress caused by sitting in traffic day in and day out, or the environmental damage caused by all those cars creeping along the highway, or the harm to the city’s air quality and public health.
So, what can be done? The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) thinks it has the solution. GDOT is proposing to build 75-miles of new truck-only lanes along a stretch of I-75 that is one of the busiest trucking corridors in the United States. It’s also heavily traveled by passenger vehicles trying to get to, from, and through Atlanta. Separating trucks and passenger vehicles is popular among both truckers and drivers, who believe that makes everyone safer.
While it seems like this plan would help alleviate congestion, we know from experience that this won’t play out so well. Not only that, other options could solve the problem in a much more environmentally and socially-beneficial way.
Officials backing the project tout the prospect of reduced congestion on general traffic lanes, as well as improved safety, as overwhelming justifications for the project. After deciding to move forward with the project, GDOT commissioned a study by Cambridge Systematics that estimated that the project would reduce the number of hours vehicles spend in delay in the corridor by 40 percent in 2030. GDOT and state officials continue to cite that study in defense of the project.
Even if those numbers are correct, the idea that the new lanes will actually reduce congestion is dubious. Expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions that ultimately lead the highway to become congested again – often in only a short time. Businesses may choose to move or establish new locations on the outskirts of the city in order to take advantage of the new highway. People may choose to move farther away in pursuit of cheaper housing (despite spending more on transportation in the process). Commuters who used to leave early for work to avoid traffic might travel at rush hour once again. People who had taken transit might get back into their cars.
The ability of these changes – collectively termed “induced demand” – to take up additional space on highways, ultimately resulting in the return of congestion, is so predictable that it has been called the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.”
For example, in Houston Texas, the Katy Freeway was known as far back as 2002 for traffic jams. A $2.8 billion highway widening project was promoted as a fix for the congestion. The highway became one of the world’s widest – with a mind-boggling 26 lanes in parts. And yet, travel times worsened considerably. By 2014, 85 percent of commutes along that highway took longer than they had in 2011. Morning commutes took more than 30 percent longer; afternoon commutes took more than 50 percent longer.
For a more local example, look at what happened when Georgia stopped collecting tolls on GA-400, north of Atlanta. GDOT estimated that the change would bring an additional 11,000 vehicles to the highway daily, and it wasn’t wrong. When it was suddenly easier and more attractive for drivers to use the highway, traffic skyrocketed. Less than a year after the tolls were removed, average daily traffic on the highway had increased by 2 to 7 percent, depending on the location. Rush-hour speeds dropped to 5.7 mph in many places, again depending on location.
That’s the problem with highway boondoggles that allow access to more vehicles. They’re expensive and flashy but based on outdated ideas about how our transportation system should work. They cost a lot of money, but they don’t make a lasting positive impact. Boondoggles are attempts at 20th century solutions to 21st century problems.
GDOT has a history of not fully exploring its options before moving forward with highway projects in the past. A 2016 Georgia state audit criticized GDOT for failing to adopt best practices in the evaluation and selection of highway expansion projects. According to the audit, GDOT’s planning department “lacks detailed policies and procedures to guide key selection and programming decisions, and the basis for the decisions are not well-documented.” The audit even specifically called out the I-75 truck lanes proposal, noting that the project “was programmed without a full and complete assessment of the need for the project, evaluation of options and the pros and cons of each, and an explanation for the option selected.”
Everyone wants to alleviate congestion on I-75. But it would be more effective to provide drivers with better transit, walking, and biking options. Where’s the money for that? Well the $2 billion being spent on this boondoggle would go a long way. We know transit works. Just look at Seattle. When public transit investment went up, ridership went up and congestion went down. We don’t know that truck lanes work.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called the truck only lanes “an important part of what our future transportation system should and will look like.” That ignores the lessons we’ve learned time and time again when building bigger and bigger highways. It’s also an uninspired vision for the future of transportation.
It also ignores the well-documented needs of Atlanta’s transit system, which many people are actively trying to improve. The state Senate is entertaining legislation that would remake transit planning and funding in Metro Atlanta, and the House is expected to unveil similar legislation soon. Clayton County, which I-75 cuts right through, recently resumed local bus service and is exploring a high-speed commuter rail with MARTA. Transit expansion hasn’t always been a popular proposition around Atlanta, but things are changing. With the possibility of Amazon HQ2 coming to Atlanta, even Cobb and Gwinnett counties are considering major transit expansions.
More and more Americans are looking for ways to avoid driving and the problems that come with it. Public transportation ridership nationwide is hitting record highs. This trend is greatest among younger Americans — who will be the biggest users of the infrastructure we build today. Since the 1950s — despite knowing that mass transit uses far less energy and space — we have spent nine times more on highway projects than on public transportation.
In 2015, more than half of Americans — and nearly two-thirds of millennials, the country’s largest generation — want to live “in a place where they do not need to use a car very often.” Similar trends exist for older adults, who, in general, list creating pedestrian-friendly streets and local investment in public transportation among their top five priorities for their communities.
Here’s how our future transportation systems should make our world better: Cleaner air. More convenience with improved public transportation options. Fewer traffic jams. More sidewalks and bike lanes, so many people walk or bike to their jobs, schools, and other destinations. Only having to own and maintain a maximum of one car per household. People will feel a little richer with extra money in their pocket, by spending less on gasoline, parking, and auto maintenance. Georgians will be healthier because of reduced pollution and increased physical activity.
That sounds pretty good, right? We definitely don’t get there by spending billions of dollars on new highways.
We tried to bring this to the attention of GDOT’s staff, but they responded by putting their heads in Georgia’s equivalent of the sand -- its fabled red clay. Doing that, of course, doesn’t change reality. Users and neighbors of the highway would prefer their government officials don’t waste $2 billion on truck lanes, and instead spend those resources on an improved regional rail system, dedicated bus lanes, road and bridge maintenance, and walking and biking infrastructure.
Every year, U.S. PIRG, along with Frontier Group, releases a report, called Highway Boondoggles, that shines a light on the most wasteful highway projects in the nation. In Highway Boondoggles 3, released in April 2017, we included Georgia’s proposed $2 billion dollar truck lanes on I-75. Highway Boondoggles 4, which will shine the spotlight on a new set of problematic highway projects across the country, as well as provide updates on the projects previously included in the reports, will be released later this spring.