Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Opinion: Why Atlanta's roads are no match for events like I-85 collapse


The goings-on at the Legislature have been overshadowed by the fire beneath and collapse of I-85 near Piedmont Road in Atlanta. Fortunately, so far there are no reports of injuries among motorists or first responders. But it is clear this is a disaster that will reverberate for weeks if not months.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago when a small airplane crashed on I-285 and knotted up traffic (even more than usual) for hours. I'm republishing that analysis here now, because even though we can see the hopeful outlines of relief in some of the plans the state has for the increased revenue for transportation approved two years ago, it will take much more in the way of alternative routes and modes of transportation before metro Atlanta can withstand our daily traffic disruptions -- much less an event like this.

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I’ve been told that roughly half of the congestion in metro Atlanta is caused by one-time incidents — weird occurrences are the worst examples, but all-too common is the spate of traffic accidents around the area that mean a commute home can be decent one day and dreadful the next. The H.E.R.O. units have helped reduce some of the fallout from these accidents by clearing the roads more quickly, but there’s only so much that can be done with a map that looks like this:

Atlanta map

As those of us who live around here are painfully aware, there is no way besides 285 to move east-west in the near northern suburbs — i.e., the area where the plane went down today — without either dropping down 85 and coming back up 75, or vice-versa, or taking one’s chances on our over-matched arterial roads and surface streets. The same is true for people going north-south, or east-west across the middle of town, or … well, you get the idea. Not only do our interstates funnel everyone passing through town on 75, 85 or 20 through a single geographic point downtown, but there is virtually no redundancy to alleviate those routes when something shuts one or more of them down.

Compare that map to the following ones for Dallas:

Dallas map

Denver:

Denver map

And Houston:

Houston map

(NB: The maps for all four cities are on the same scale and for roughly the same-sized area.)

We compete in many ways with the other three cities. But while we hear a good bit about transit developments in those cities, only Denver has more transit trips per capita . The main way in which they whip us from an infrastructure standpoint is their far more robust highway networks. That’s a big reason why Dallas and Denver rank lower than Atlanta on one widely cited congestion index , and why Houston is about the same as us even though its population is about one-sixth larger.

More transit can play a role, but we are not going to insulate ourselves even a bit from the effects of these freak accidents, much less our daily game of car-wreck roulette, without creating some redundancy in our highway system.

There are plans out there to do just that. But while I’ve argued the new funding from this year’s transportation bill will go farther than a lot of observers contend , it won’t give us truly transformative change without the political will to direct funding to this problem even to the exclusion of other needs, as well as the political will to overcome objections to some of the proposed projects.

I wonder how many more days like this one it will take to get us there.


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.