A $25-billion bombshell is rousing both sides this week in Atlanta's war over its transportation future.
A report by pro-road forces says that's how much it would cost to complete four "mega-projects" that they say would address the metro area's traffic congestion.
The scheme, which was devised by the Reason Foundation but has high-powered backing in Atlanta, calls -- among other things -- for a double-decked tunnel that would connect Georgia 400 with I-20, and a web of underground and aboveground truck-only highways.
"If the objective is to significantly reduce traffic congestion, transit is not going to get you there," argues Robert W. Poole Jr., author of the report, Reducing Congestion in Atlanta: A Bold New Approach to Increasing Mobility. "Atlanta is the most decentralized -- the transit people would say 'sprawling' -- city. Over 20 or 30 years you're not going to change the underlying realities of this city."
The odd thing is that transit advocates welcomed Poole's plan as heartily as did pro-road forces.
"The report does us a great service in showing the level of sacrifice required to build our way out of congestion [with roads alone]," says David Goldberg, the Atlanta-based communications director of Smart Growth America.
The scheme's "laughably grandiose and bizarre" projects prove his point that Atlanta's transportation issues will only be solved through a balanced approach, incorporating roads, mass transit and better land-use planning, Goldberg says.
So far, metro Atlanta's relied mostly on road projects to address its traffic problems, with more talk about transit alternatives than action. More recently, the state Department of Transportation has pushed plans for an even more controversial approach: Funding highway expansions through tollways, built and operated by private companies.
The Reason Foundation study calls for a dramatic expansion of privatization. And tolls would pay 80 percent of the $25 billion bill for four "mega-projects:"
• A network of express toll lanes on area freeways;
• the double-decked tunnel from Georgia 400 to I-20, which eventually would be extended south to I-675;
• the extension of the Lakewood Freeway eastward to I-20 as a tunnel, and westward to I-20 as a freeway;
• and a separate truck tollway network -- including an underground trucks-only highway -- permitting heavy trucks to bypass Atlanta's congestion.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that has pushed for years for privatized tollways in Georgia, cosponsored the study, and planned to unveil it with Poole at a press conference Wednesday.
The report's release, one week after the Nov. 7 election, comes at a prime time for road-building interests to push for more highway spending, because politicians typically don't like to be put on the spot before the election.
State Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans, a strong roads advocate, says he welcomes the study's findings. "Hopefully this will generate some discussion" in the General Assembly, he says.
"I'm not opposed to mass transit," Evans says. "But right now we have such a huge need, and so little money chasing that need. We need to spend the money as carefully as possible. Where do we spend the money to get the biggest bang for the buck? That's not in the transit area."
Goldberg also wants to see more discussion about the region's transportation options. But he says it should be a "real public debate" -- maybe even leading to a referendum that places both the roads-only approach and a more balanced approach on equal footing.
"I would like to see some competing scenarios put to a vote," Goldberg says. "I would like to see [the Poole] package along with a sensible, smart-growth package that includes recommendations for planned growth and transit alternatives, put to a vote. Let's talk through the implications over the next year, hold community meetings and put a referendum on the ballot."
Another critic of the roads-only approach argued that Reason's $25-billion plan not only wouldn't solve the congestion problem but also would be bound to generate more air pollution.
"You're talking about a helluva lot of air emissions," Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring says.
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