Published on Monday, July 3, 2006 by the Seattle Times
That's Right: 23 Lanes of Traffic
by Neal Peirce
Lacking any other noteworthy legacy, outgoing Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta may be best remembered for his proposals to relieve transportation congestion by encouraging private investment in mega-road projects.
The idea has merit: In some locations, private investment in toll roads can — with appropriate local deliberation — make sense.
But Mineta amazingly omitted both freight-railroad improvements and potential passenger-rail improvement in the expansive congestion-relief initiative for America he unveiled last month.
The danger of his formula is a wave of steamrolled, behind-the-scenes road-building deals that ignore the many opportunities for commuter and city rail expansion that clearly do reduce congestion.
For Exhibit A of the perils, check what's happening in fast-growing Atlanta. First, there's the sheer immensity of what the Georgia Department of Transportation favors. Top example: a widening of I-75 in fast-growing, suburban Cobb County, as it heads into the city, to include an incredible mile-long section of no less than 23 lanes.
"The thought ... of 23 lanes makes me shudder with fear," a correspondent wrote to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Another expanded: "The confusion of merging, exits, acceleration and deceleration lanes, speed demons, weaving drivers and cellphones is more than the average driver would be able to comfortably handle in, sometimes, split seconds."
Another possibility at play in current Atlanta road debates: to double-deck I-285, which cuts across the north side of the region — a project critics say could trigger "a lifetime of delays in construction alone." Still another: a major truck-only toll road, being pushed by a consortium of construction firms and Goldman-Sachs, the global finance firm.
To push such expansive road-building projects front and center, Georgia state agencies set up a "congestion mitigation" process to determine which projects are most pressing. The state's road-happy Department of Transportation played a dominant role, pushing through a definition of congestion focused almost exclusively on sheer throughput of vehicles.
Almost obliterated in the process: the years-long work of the Atlanta Regional Commission to create a balanced transportation network, including a "Livable Centers Initiative" to steer future growth to existing population centers. The process allowed communities to compete for a share of transportation funding based on increased population density, revitalized town centers and remapped street and pedestrian networks that would assure fewer new roads and less air pollution.
"It's a tragedy," says David Goldberg, former Atlanta journalist now communications director for Smart Growth America. "We spent years getting metro Atlanta communities to think smart growth, plan, and now we're yanking the rug out from under them."
Adding to the roads thrust: Georgia's so-called "Public-Private Initiative" law that invites private construction firms and investment companies to propose big road projects for which they'd be paid back either in toll revenues or government transportation dollars, or both.
Late in May, the state transportation commissioner, Harold Linnenkohl, signed an initial $1.8 billion deal — "flanked," according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, "by five men from builders Bechtel, Kiewit and C.W. Matthews, most of whom smiled, hands clasped in front, eyes on the moving pen like delighted guests eyeing a tasty meal."
Under the PPI law, much of the specific project information remains trade secrets of the companies. "It's really scary," says Goldberg — "a road lobby closely allied with the state DOT, and huge projects coming through. The window for corruption and poor public policy is wide open."
Atlanta does offer some sensational positive news: the first land transactions for the new BeltLine, a 22-mile loop of historic railroad right of way around downtown and midtown that's designed to become a connected system of parks, trails and transit through more than 45 neighborhoods. The project will increase Atlanta's greenspace by 1,200 acres, a "green infrastructure" treasure for a historically park-poor city.
But as the city of Atlanta bootstraps itself into greater livability with the BeltLine, the peril is clear: potential state assistance funds will be diverted to the kind of highway extravaganzas that so often end up triggering more of the very congestion they're designed to cure.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006 The Seattle Times Company