Originally created 09/06/98

Gridlock hurting Atlanta's image



ATLANTA -- The bumper-to-bumper procession begins early every morning. Grumbling drivers ease slowly toward downtown, filling the air with puffs of gray smog that hover between skyscrapers.

The city too busy to hate has become the city too busy driving to care.

"The worst part about it is ... I think about the lost production I could be using toward my job or toward leisure," said 31-year-old marketing representative David Herman, who spends 90 minutes a day commuting from Marietta to Roswell, two north Atlanta suburbs that are less than 10 miles apart. "This is how much of my life I'm wasting on the road."

After expanding nonstop for three decades, Atlanta is bursting at the seams with new residents, all of whom seem to have brought their cars, a desire to live in the suburbs and an aversion to public transportation.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency last year showed that Atlantans had the longest commute in the country, driving an average 34.7 miles a day.

Atlanta's traffic wasn't a major problem a decade ago, but as businesses and organizations moved to town (UPS, the American Cancer Society, Holiday Inn) and hometown companies expanded (The Home Depot, Turner Broadcasting, Coca-Cola) the area began to outgrow its infrastructure. The growth really took off before the 1996 Olympics.

"We really are a victim of our own success," said Jayne Hayse of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a group working to develop a transportation plan for the area.

And the growth isn't expected to slow. People continue to move to the area, and many are moving far outside of town in subdivisions that are swallowing up farms and forests around north Georgia. Some people are now commuting more than 120 miles a day.

Many people refuse to leave home during rush hour, terrified that a drive to the grocery store could turn into an hour-long excursion.

"I have to schedule my entire day around the traffic. It takes me five minutes to go a couple of blocks," said Kristin Jones, 21. "Between 5 and 7 o'clock, I try to stay off the road."

She and her husband even sacrificed midweek dinners with her parents, who live in Sugar Hill, because the 37-mile drive takes 90 minutes.

The traffic not only affects the lives of the 3 million metro Atlanta residents, but also everyone traveling through the region or doing business here.

The traffic has reduced much of Atlanta's appeal -- its slower pace than other cities and Southern hospitality, which is being supplanted by road rage. One driver even shot out a traffic signal box at a gridlocked intersection last fall.

During rush hour, commuters cram onto four main interstates -- 75, 85, 20 and 285 -- all of which intersect at various points around the city. I-85 meets I-285 at a notoriously backed-up intersection known as Spaghetti Junction, named for the noodle-like formation of its always crowded ramps.

"I don't like getting on 285 at any time, rush hour or not," said Mrs. Jones. "It doesn't move. You sit three minutes, then move one car length."

The seeds of the traffic problems were planted long ago, when area leaders decided to focus on building more roads instead of a bigger public transit system, said Dana White, an urban studies professor at Emory University.

"Many of the same people preaching growth, growth, growth are now saying stop, stop, stop but they're not saying how," he said. "It's almost like many of the political leaders seem to be in the state of shock about how did this happen so fast and what are we going to do now."

The pollution caused by the Atlanta's 2.8 million drivers, almost all of whom ride alone every day, has jeopardized hundreds of millions of dollars in federal road funds because the city has failed to comply with the Clean Air Act.

"I think the first shocker was when the feds seriously talked about reducing money. Atlanta is a business town and money probably means more than in some communities," Mr. White said.

Traffic congestion in metro Atlanta costs more than $1 billion a year in travel delays and wasted fuel, according to a recent report by the Texas Transportation Institute, which studies the country's most congested roadways.

The most-talked about solutions for Atlanta's traffic problems are politically dangerous -- increasing gasoline taxes, forcing companies to come up with alternative commuting plans for employees or expanding public transportation into suburbs where residents think the system will bring inner-city problems with it.

If politicians are able to fix Atlanta's traffic problem, the city should be able to continue growing and maintain its stature as the business hub of the Southeast. If not, businesses and people may start moving out and heading to growing cities like Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., or Jacksonville, Fla.

"Whether Atlanta's future will be as bright as many people hope it would be, I don't know," Mr. White said. "The Olympics may be looked on as the good ol' days."