Suburban-style gridlock coming intown 

Intown growth good, accompanying cars bad

Growth experts have for decades pushed smart growth as an antidote to Atlanta's sprawl toward Chattanooga.

The good news is that smart growth has finally caught on within the city limits of Atlanta. New projects that are either under construction or have been approved for construction will add more than 2,500 residential homes to intown Atlanta, and that's not counting the behemoth Atlantic Station. Those projects are considered "smart growth" because they connect to existing infrastructures, get people out of their cars and onto sidewalks and bike lanes, and cut down on the region's overall commute time (thus reducing air pollution).

The bad news is that developments have a side effect -- thousands of new cars will flood the streets of Midtown, Inman Park, the Old Fourth Ward and Cabbagetown.

And the worst news is that a review of the Atlanta Regional Commission's transportation projects over the next 25 years shows that the few plans to improve mobility in many big development areas are either too meager to have much impact, or aren't scheduled for completion any time soon.

Brian McHugh, the city of Atlanta's chief traffic planner, says the process of planning, funding and building transportation projects takes way too long to keep up with growth trends.

"We don't really work in real time where, if a big development comes in, we can get funding to move [a transportation project] to the top of the priority list and get it completed in time for the people to move in," McHugh says. "What we strive to do is leverage local funds to federal funds, and that takes a few years."

Right now, Highland Avenue already gets backed up during rush hour. Two projects now under construction -- the Mead plant redevelopment and Highland Walk, across the street from Jake's Ice Cream and Roman Lily -- will add at least 900 vehicles to Highland Avenue. The Alta at Inman project, with its 18 single-family homes, 63 townhomes, 145 condos, 360 apartments and 61,000 acres of office and retail space, will add more than 1,500 vehicles to Lake and North Highland avenues when it opens.

Total, that's more than 2,000 additional cars for a two-lane road.

But the only transportation project slated for Highland Avenue isn't for congestion relief.

It's for pedestrians and bicyclers.

Boulevard, a main artery running throughout east and southeast Atlanta, will also be slammed with more traffic. CityView at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway and Auburn Glen at Boulevard and Edgewood are adding 529 new homes to intown Atlanta. Boulevard will be their exclusive driveway.

Also indirectly adding to Boulevard's load are the developments along Highland Avenue, the Mill Town Lofts in Cabbagetown (52 faux lofts) and Charles Brewer's Glenwood Park (300 homes).

There are currently no plans to fix up Boulevard, which backs up at intersections with Memorial Drive, I-20 and Freedom Parkway, and in front of the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts. However, Boulevard's intersection with Memorial Drive is scheduled for a face-lift, to be completed by 2015.

Moreland Avenue, already a constant traffic nightmare, is getting the mother of all traffic jams -- the Sembler Co.'s redevelopment of Atlanta Gas Light's property a half-mile south of Little Five Points.

That development -- with its Target, Best Buy, Lowe's, Kroger, Barnes & Noble, and Bed, Bath & Beyond -- will generate 20,000 trips a day.

Traffic improvements along Moreland include better crosswalks, signal synchronization and possible sidewalk and bike lane expansions -- all of which could be under construction by 2007, at the earliest.

But, if there is an upside to surviving Atlanta's growing pains, it would be that traffic in Atlanta would have to get worse before it got any better. Severe congestion, traffic experts say, is the factor most likely to get people out of their cars, and onto bikes or buses.

McHugh knows of another consolation.

"I can't really say or speak to how bad it will get before there's a change, but there is a difference between intown growth and outside the Perimeter growth, where long commutes in traffic affect air quality," he says.


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