Private Money, Tolls Roads Recommended to Reduce Atlanta Traffic Jams

Published February 1, 2007

Atlanta needs a major rethinking and rewriting of its long-range transportation plan, including four major toll road projects that would significantly reduce the region’s current and projected traffic congestion, according to a new Reason Foundation-Georgia Public Policy Foundation (GPPF) report.

“Reducing Congestion in Atlanta: A Bold New Approach to Increasing Mobility,” published in November, recommends four essential projects that would be paid for in large part by toll revenues, not tax dollars, and developed and operated by the private sector.

The Atlanta Regional Commission says by 2030 a rush-hour trip will take 67 percent longer than at off-hours. In a Reason report released in August 2006, University of North Carolina at Charlotte Prof. David T. Hartgen put that figure at 85 percent–meaning what should be a 30-minute trip would take more than 55 minutes. That’s worse than the infamous traffic in today’s Los Angeles.

Traffic Worse Than LA’s

To reduce Atlanta’s existing gridlock and accommodate future growth, the Reason-GPPF report recommends a network of variably priced toll lanes, a double-decked tunnel to reduce congestion on the Downtown Connector route, a new east-west highway link, and a separate toll system for trucks.

Adding significant new roadway capacity is an integral part of reducing congestion in Atlanta. But capacity expansion needs to be coupled with better system management (such as ramp metering), faster clearance of traffic crashes and vehicle breakdowns, and better traffic signal synchronization. The 76-page report addresses those issues.

“Congestion costs this region economically, and it has become a huge quality-of-life issue,” said Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “Instead of penalizing Atlantans for their chosen lifestyle by neglecting the dire need for added capacity, we should make them consider the value of their trip. Toll lanes provide that option.”

State Toll Authority Interested

The Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority issued a statement expressing interest in the report:

“This report by Bob Poole and the Reason Foundation offers intriguing perspectives in the ongoing dialogue about how to address the metro Atlanta area’s traffic congestion concerns. It should be read and considered by all who are faced with making critical decisions regarding Atlanta’s transportation future. SRTA is particularly encouraged by the Reason Foundation’s endorsement of tolling and user-fee financing as an important component of any effort to provide mobility and funding options to the Atlanta region and the State of Georgia.”

Private-Sector Interest Expected

The Reason-GPPF study says by using toll lanes, Atlanta can get the private sector to pay for large portions of the construction costs. And the city will need fewer new lane miles because priced, managed lanes can carry more rush-hour traffic than non-managed lanes.

Citing experience in California, the study explains how two priced lanes on the 91 Freeway–a major east-west limited access highway in Orange County–handle 49 percent of rush-hour traffic on the highway despite representing just 33 percent of the physical lane capacity.

The report also recommends several other ways to reduce the region’s traffic delays.

Large-scale freeway ramp metering could save Atlanta’s drivers 5.75 million hours each year that are currently wasted sitting in traffic, the report says. Lowering incident response times and improved signal timing (already part of the Governor’s Fast Forward program) could also substantially ease traffic.

The Reason-GPPF study credits the Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force with making congestion reduction its top focus. However, unless the Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) long-range plan is dramatically changed, it will not achieve the task force’s congestion-reduction goal, the report says.

Tolls Offer Best Answer

The current long-range plan would spend only $8 billion on additional roadway capacity, while devoting $10 billion to transit projects.

Despite spending $10 billion on transit, the ARC projects just a 1.7 percentage point increase in transit mode share (to 8.4 percent of all commuters) by 2030. Likewise, the commission has $5 billion slated for additional carpool lanes even though it expects the percentage of carpool users to fall.

As Atlanta continues to grow, spending most of the available funding on transit and carpool lanes will mean even more congestion.

With limited resources available, the report says, money should be spent where it will most effectively reduce congestion. For the foreseeable future, toll lanes are Atlanta’s best answer, the report concludes.

Robert Poole Jr. ([email protected]) is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation. He has advised the last four presidential administrations on policy issues.

For more information …

“Reducing Congestion in Atlanta: A Bold New Approach to Increasing Mobility,” released by the Reason Foundation and Georgia Public Policy Foundation in November 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20328.

Reason Foundation’s August 2006 report, “Building Roads to Reduce Traffic Congestion in America’s Cities: How Much and at What Cost?” is also available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #20329. A state-by-state addendum is available as document #20330.