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Editorial: State transit solutions finally are on a fast track
Georgia lawmakers aim to create regional system to ease traffic woes in metro Atlanta
Heavy traffic traveling north bound on Interstate 75 south of Atlanta moves slowly Sept. 8 during a major evacuation in preparation for Hurricane Irma. - photo by Associated Press

Along with North Georgia’s steady economic growth comes the quandary of how to keep the influx of people and goods moving efficiently from place to place. With metro Atlanta traffic growing worse by the year, and that gridlock finding its way to the exurbs of Hall County, the clock is ticking on finding answers.

Anyone who has to negotiate Atlanta downtown traffic or similar backups on Ga. 400, Interstate 985, I-85 or other major arteries know the math doesn’t add up: Too many vehicles crammed onto too few roads at the same time, leading to a panorama of brake lights, frustration, late arrivals and unproductive time. The Department of Transportation’s efforts to improve major highways often seem too little and too late as volume outpaces upgrades.

After years of tinkering around the edges in creating a comprehensive transit plan, Georgia lawmakers seem to finally have a grasp of the problem and are seeking solutions. The House, led by Dawsonville Rep. Kevin Tanner, chairman of the Transit Committee, has proposed an ambitious plan that would create a regional approach across metro Atlanta counties and more cooperation between various transit systems. The Senate has its own version, similar in scope but with differences the two chambers are seeking to work out before the plans come to a full vote.

The proposed transit governing body would be known as the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, or ATL, like the airport code. The new authority will eventually include MARTA as part of a rebranded full-scale regional transit system beyond the few counties it now serves.

Currently, most transit options end at county lines, each municipality with its own systems that don’t work with others. Roads and rail lines seldom begin and end in one county; commuters need modes of travel that cross jurisdictions. In one example, a state legislator found it took hours to travel from one metro area to another via different transit systems, a trip that should take half an hour or so as the crow flies. Yet creating a regional authority has been a hard sell in areas accustomed to local autonomy.

The desire to keep local control was one of the reasons the statewide transportation sales tax plan failed in 2012. Voters rejected a 1 percent special purpose tax in nine of 12 Georgia regions, including all in North Georgia, by big margins. The sticking point for many was that money raised in one county might be spent in another included in that region, meaning folks would pay for roads on which they may never travel.

The House plan seeks to resolve that concern by specifying that money raised in a county be spent there, even if projects include multiple counties. In addition to local sales tax referendums to pay for such needs, funding sources will include a statewide 50-cent fee for all taxis or ride-hailing services and a 1 percent tax on services at the Atlanta and Savannah airports.

Lawmakers seem to realize a piecemeal approach to solving traffic problems could ultimately drive away major corporations seeking to locate here. It’s no coincidence these plans come as Atlanta sits on the short list for attracting a $5 billion headquarters for Amazon and the 50,000 jobs it would bring. A city with effective and multimodal transportation options for people and freight is high on Amazon’s wish list for its new home, as it is for any major corporation looking to locate here.

“We cannot continue to grow in this region when we have companies telling us that they will not locate in an area that does not have mobility services offered to their employees,” Tanner said.

The plan also is an overdue acknowledgement of metro Atlanta’s over-reliance on automobiles to get around. Many younger workers in particular prefer to bypass car ownership for alternative transit, the kind more readily available in other major cities. That’s why transit solutions should cover highways, buses and expanded rail service.

In the past, extending MARTA into counties like Cobb and Gwinnett was met with resistance, mostly from those fearing it would bring “undesirable” elements to their suburban enclaves. Read that as you will, but that archaic thinking was based on false concerns, and there finally may be the motivation to move past it.

The proposed regional authority would include all metro counties, Gwinnett and Forsyth being the closest to our area. So what’s in it for Hall County and others outside of the Atlanta doughnut?

Surely getting more cars off the road would help all commuters headed down I-85, I-985 and Ga. 400 from our area who face hour-plus drives to reach sites near the city. The bottlenecks on a few major thoroughfares extend miles northward and could be eased by giving more people a way to get off those roads. If rail and bus lines were extended into neighboring counties, Hall transit could connect to give local commuters another choice. Other options could include park-ride lots at the county line, express buses to key locations such as Athens or the airport, incentives for employers to allow more telecommuting and staggered hours, and use of existing rail lines between cities.

The bigger impact here might be for businesses that want to ensure clear transit paths to Atlanta, the airport and beyond to move goods and people efficiently.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Policy Committee recently launched its own regional freight study suggesting $1 billion in road improvements over 25 years to keep up with commercial and residential growth. Projects targeted could include bridge upgrades, the Exit 14 interchange off I-985 at Martin Road and the potential widening of I-985. Other efforts would target downtown Gainesville traffic, including the idea to add roundabouts to either end of Green Street.

Like the roads themselves, all these ideas are linked to the common goal of helping people get around better, faster and easier than they do now. Growth comes too quickly to wait, as the plans put in place now won’t bear fruit for several years down the road. But taking that initiative now is crucial to getting the ball moving in that direction. We hope the legislature takes that step and works out an effective regional transit plan during this session the governor and voters can approve.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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