The saga of Georgia Highway 400 is one for which virtually no one foresees a happy ending. People harbor real hope that the economy will turn itself around, that their kids will grow up healthy and well-adjusted, even that Social Security will still be writing checks when they're ready to retire. But the folks who have to drive metro Atlanta's most congested stretch of pavement firmly believe you're fooling yourself if you expect traffic to get any better.
The bitter evidence is all around them. The prized "reverse commute" disappeared about three years ago; with bumper-to-bumper traffic headed in both directions, the only way to distinguish morning rush-hour from evening is by the position of the sun. Commuters headed intown back up for miles before catching sight of the Perimeter, and employees of high-tech companies on Windward Parkway find themselves caught in a northbound bottleneck stretching past North Point Mall. Creeping cars line the Holcomb Bridge Road overpass most hours of the day.
"Traffic controls my lifestyle," Baxter Davis yells into a speaker phone as he shuttles to a meeting. "I've got to be on Ga. 400 by 6:30 in the morning (to reach his office in Buckhead) or I've got to wait until 9; and if it rains, it takes me two hours to get home."
The divorce attorney has watched the promise of Ga. 400 slip away since 1981, when he bought his house in the rolling pastureland of Crabapple in extreme north Fulton. Davis enjoyed several years of idyllic ex-urban life before realizing that growth was taking over his com-munity and traffic was keeping him apart from his family. He and his wife are about ready to give up on their dream of a home in the country.
"We're thinking of moving back inside the Perimeter simply because of the traffic," he says. "If the past three or four years are any indication, it's only going to get worse."
In a time when "smart growth" is promo-ted as an antidote to suburban sprawl and clogged thoroughfares, Ga. 400 stands as the problem without a solution, like shutting the barn door after the horses have reached the back 40. In local imaginations, the road represents both promise and threat, offering a perceived avenue to a better way of life, yet demanding harsh compromises in the very lifestyle it serves to promote.
Still, the surge ever-northward conti-nues at a furious pace for new residents, big-box retailers and mid-rise office buildings. UPS Logistics Group, a subsidiary of the shipping giant, announced last month that it will move from the Central Perimeter area to Alpharetta. Later this year, MCI WorldCom is expected to begin shifting employees from its Perimeter offices to a two-building complex it's constructing on North Point Parkway. Those moves alone are expected eventually to push at least 2,000 more jobs out to north Fulton -- and a fair share of workers onto Ga. 400.
It's no secret that even while metro Atlanta is trying to get a handle on its air quality, traffic and sprawl problems, its heaviest growth is occurring along its most congested route, at the upper edge of the metro area. The word at street level is that Ga. 400 is out of control and everybody knows it.
Of course, in the early days, things were different. Open pavement and undeveloped land beckoned those who sought solitude from the city to head north.
Ga. 400 is Turner McDonald's highway. It says so on the unobtrusive green DOT signs that punctuate the shoulder of the road. The title isn't honorary; despite the literary quality to his name, McDonald is no obscure Civil War general or long-dead politician. He's the former Fulton County public works chief who first conceived of the highway and used all his bureaucratic skills to see it birthed into reality.
Now a spry 93, McDonald still mows his own lawn at the northside Atlanta home he bought in 1939. Until recently an avid golfer, he ventures up his namesake road every few weeks to the Horseshoe Bend Country Club, now only to lunch with friends. But he takes care to avoid rush hour. "I don't get on it unless I have to," he says.
McDonald is known to longtime associates as a pragmatist, not a dreamer. In the early 1950s, when white residents of Buckhead and what is now north Atlanta began fleeing the path of the city's then-aggressive annexation push, McDonald saw the trend. He decided a new road needed to be built to accommodate this exodus and to encourage growth in rural north Fulton.
"Race had a lot to do with people moving out," he says. "They'd tell you that, privately."
He persuaded the county commission to fund a design for the road -- drafted in part by current Commissioner Tom Lowe's engineering firm long before he ran for office -- even though McDonald now says most officials weren't convinced it would ever be built. And he got the OK to begin buying up right-of-way along the route with bond money. When the property was mostly assembled in the late 1960s, McDonald talked state lawmakers into applying for millions in federal grants and taking over the project.
McDonald brought his family along for a cookout to celebrate the July 31, 1974, opening of the first stage of the highway, between I-285 and Northridge Road. Ga. 400 wasn't McDonald's only notable accomplishment -- he also helped set the route for the Downtown Connector but he recognizes it as his legacy and insists he's not surprised by the growth it's ushered in to the northern suburbs.
"It's the most important road around here," he says. "It's really helped those cities up there."
Ga. 400 certainly made dreams come true for people like Baxter Davis -- at least for a decade or so. But those who have moved to north Fulton recently are unlikely to ever have what the Davises had.
That's all part of the natural evolution of suburban growth, says Georgia Tech city planning professor Larry Frank. By originating as a road to nowhere in particular, Ga. 400 created an artificially inexpensive housing market, which simply encouraged more people to use the road. It also brought about what transportation planners call "induced demand" -- development that brings more traffic until a road is filled past capacity. Ultimately, the promise of the highway was illusory.
"We've had a window of time where we've been able to live far out from the city and enjoy a certain lifestyle because it was cheap for the individual, but we're learning it wasn't cheap for society," Frank says.
Atlanta is confronting the lesson most other big cities learned long ago: outward growth that depends so heavily on the automobile will eventually begin choking under its own weight. By clinging to its car-centric mindset instead of investing heavily in alternatives, Frank says, Atlanta has grown into gridlock that no longer can be paved away.
"We've built a lot of highways and the roads are filling up," he explains. "Congestion will continue to get worse, no matter how many roads we build."
Ga. 400 has become metro Atlanta's Main Street. The highway curves through our epicenters of commerce; it reinforces Atlanta's nouveau-riche boomtown status by connecting CEOs to their office suites and the affluent to their season-ticket seats; it vividly showcases in its slug-like crawl our utter reliance on our cars to take us to work, school and the mall; and it embodies for many a link to the good life of a five-bedroom house far removed from the dingy chaos of the inner city.
The key to understanding the bi-directional morass of Ga. 400 is Alpharetta. For many years a sleepy patchwork of horse pastures and rural homesteads, the city is now home to arguably the hottest office market in metro Atlanta and one that barely existed five years ago. The Ga. 400 corridor north of Northridge Road now contains nearly 10 million square feet of office space, about 9 percent of the entire Atlanta market.
And the key to understanding the new Alpharetta is the Windward development, nestled against the Forsyth County line. From the exit ramp at Windward Parkway, 20 miles from the northern city limits of Atlanta, the traveler can catch his first glimpse of the North Georgia mountains. In the late '70s, Mobil Land Development, an offshoot of the oil company, eyed north Fulton as the perfect site for a "master plan community," an uber-subdivision and office park carved out of 3,400 acres of former farm land on the east side of Ga. 400.
The company, which also developed the Washington, D.C., suburb and high-tech business center of Reston, Va., from the ground up, built Windward Parkway around 1980, began filling up the 195-acre private Lake Windward and prepared to break ground on its first of 2,400 planned homes. At the time, Alpharetta contained about 3,000 residents.
Richard and Lynn Sickeler were labeled suburban pioneers when they became the first people to buy a home in Windward in fall 1983. A retired engineer with Rockwell Missile Systems, Rich Sickeler says he also looked at golf and tennis communities in Dunwoody and Gwinnett when he arrived in Atlanta, but decided on Windward in part because of the easy access offered by Ga. 400.
"In those days, 400 was the most beautiful road we'd ever seen; there was a nice median and no billboards," he recalls wistfully. "It was a pleasant 25-minute drive to work."
Sickeler says he and his wife were equally captivated by their new city's charms. "Alpharetta was a nice little town and I wanted to shut the gates right then, but I realized that I had come here looking for a certain lifestyle and others would, too."
Both Sickelers now sell real estate and make a point of avoiding Ga. 400 when they can. "It's bad every single day, and it only seems to get worse," he says. "People who have to take 400 every day, I don't know how they face it."
Today, more than 2,200 homes have been built and occupied at Windward -- the average home price on some gated cul-de-sacs is $2 million. Windward's success helped usher in a boom that is spreading up into North Georgia; Forsyth County -- just north of Windward along 400 -- is now the nation's fastest-growing county.
Windward has had an even greater impact in its office developments. Across the lake from the Sickelers, AT&T was the corporate pioneer. In the early '80s, it became the first major company to move to Alpharetta, taking advantage of a communications infrastructure that had already been installed.
A few others followed, but the boom began in earnest after Cousins Properties built a series of buildings next door to the newly opened North Point Mall in 1993, about the same time Ga. 400 was extended south to I-85, providing the all-important link to Hartsfield Airport. Cousins had sat for more than a decade on a 600-acre dairy farm it had purchased in the path of Ga. 400. At the urging of city leaders, the company sold land for the regional mall and then rode a wave of success, quickly developing the nearby retail strips and offices.
One of the ironies of congestion on Ga. 400 is that it's been helped along by a handful of men who wanted to reduce the time they spent on the road.
"Alpharetta's growth began in the early '90s as an executive housing site," explains James Drinkard, the city's economic development coordinator. "We asked these CEOs, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to get on Ga. 400 and drive downtown every day?' "
Alpharetta Mayor Chuck Martin agrees that much of the city's success in attracting major corporations has come about because CEOs wanted to live near their homes and favorite golf courses. "Executives liked the lifestyle and wanted to move out of Buckhead and locate their offices here. I'm reminded of the apartment complex sign that read, 'If you lived here you'd be home by now.'"
The prospect of shortening his commute was one of the factors in persuading Jeff Pieper and his partners in Pieper O'Brien Herr Architects to move from costly rented space at Perimeter Center and build their own 15,000-square-foot offices in Alpharetta.
While the execs got a break in their drive time, Pieper concedes that employees who lived intown struggled with the relocation. "We lost a couple of people who couldn't handle the commute, but others moved up here." Most of the staff of 38 now live in north Fulton and Forsyth.
In 1995, no new office space opened in Alpharetta. Last year, a million square feet of new space was added, an apparent aberration after three straight years of more than 2 million square feet of new space. Currently, more than 2.5 million square feet of office space is under construction in the city along Old Milton and North Point parkways, including an office park by Cousins on the newly built Westside Parkway across Ga. 400 from Windward.
The list of companies that have made the move to north Fulton in the past five years reads like a Who's Who of high-tech, insurance and financial corporations: Nortel Networks, GTE Wireless, Lucent Technologies, Sun Micro Systems, Siemens Energy & Automation, McKesson HBOC, GE Capital, Travelers Insurance, Automated Data Processing, Met Life, Compaq/Digital Equipment Corporation, Equifax, Radiant Systems, E*Trade, Choicepoint, Aetna US Healthcare, IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
In five years, the city has transformed itself from a high-end bedroom community to one of Atlanta's major employment centers, drawing intown workers and helping boost residential growth in Forsyth, Hall and White counties -- in turn, encouraging further ex-urban sprawl. Although Alpharetta has grown to 30,500 residents, its daytime population swells to 70,000 as a result of the more than 55,000 new jobs added since 1996.
But along with all that development comes problems for Ga. 400. Now that north Fulton's traffic is perceived as just as bad as traffic on I-285, a few businesses are beginning to trickle back down to the Perimeter Center area, says Glenn Kurtz, director of the Perimeter Transportation Coalition.
The congestion on Ga. 400 has even become a key issue in a major legal battle that a group of north metro hospitals is waging against the lock that Northside Hospital holds on about 70 percent of local managed-care contracts. "Many of us think it's unsafe for the north Fulton community that their sole hospital provider is inside I-285," says County Commissioner Bob Fulton.
Perhaps the lesson of Ga. 400 will help metro Atlanta leaders realize that they must, as Georgia Tech's Frank says, "bite the bullet" and adopt approaches to transportation and land-use planning that don't rely on the single-passenger automobile.
Transportation improvements are being studied and planned for the road -- additional lanes to handle merging traffic, express buses, park-and-ride lots, HOV lanes, a MARTA rail extension -- but most are years away and some are mired in politics.
Nearly a year behind schedule, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is launching a Ga. 400 corridor study that is expected to prioritize the changes. Still, GRTA board member Eric Hovdesven is concerned that the state Department of Transportation is pushing its "collector/distributor" system -- as many as three extra lanes on either side that allow cars to merge more easily onto and off of the highway -- at the expense of HOV lanes. But even if HOV lanes are built before their target date of 2010, Hovdesven fears they, too, will back up with traffic.
A MARTA park-and-ride lot is slated to open later this year at Windward Parkway and Ga. 400 to shuttle commuters to the new North Springs rail station, but the service will only spare riders' nerves, not time. Until dedicated HOV lanes are in place, the buses will inch along with the rest of the traffic, which is why the 438-space Mansell Road park-and-ride is rarely more than half-full.
Several major intersection improvements are planned up and down the corridor, including an $18 million overhaul of the Windward interchange that Mayor Martin has been pushing for since first elected in 1996. But Bill Loughrey, a local high-tech executive who chaired a commission to assist then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in earmarking $50 million in federal funds in 1998 for Ga. 400 improvements complains that little of the money has been spent to date because of bureaucratic dithering.
"It took eight years to build the Erie Canal 300 miles from Albany to Buffalo, but they can't get HOV lanes on 400," he says.
The problem is that roads alone aren't likely to solve the problem. Even with the merge lanes, HOV lanes and park-and-ride lots, the Atlanta Regional Commission's computer modeling foresees no letup in congestion on the highway in far north Fulton over the next two decades.
And you might be ready to receive that Social Security check by the time rapid rail starts relieving traffic in the Windward area and points north. Although the system could begin building a link to Holcomb Bridge Road within seven years if the political will were behind it, a rail line to Windward isn't scheduled to materialize until 2025 -- if everything falls into place. Last fall, both Fulton and DeKalb counties surprised transportation planners by ranking a north line extension lower in priority than a line west to Six Flags.
Before long, however, local and state leaders will be forced to quit simply giving lip service to the idea of smart growth and begin implementing it, according to Frank, who is helping the ARC and GRTA develop their "Liveable Centers Initiative" to plan a transit-friendly metro area. Some of the guidelines involve clustering dense development around rail stations, encouraging public transit and ride-sharing and -- the most politically charged suggestion -- shifting substantial transportation funding away from road-building and into transit.
Elected officials in the Southeast have been wary of pushing car-less transportation options on some of the most car-oriented voters in the country, but Ga. 400 may represent the handwriting on the wall.
"It's very clear we need to make some tough choices," Frank says. "I believe they're prepared to do that and it's going to take some time for that effort to be tolerated by this culture."
Yay, pot-related arrests. Good use of my tax money. Lotta lives saved.
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