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Out of control 

Traffic on 400 is hellish and certain to get worse

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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."

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