Georgia transportation officials plan to continue investing in optional-priced express lanes, commuter buses and bus rapid transit to address metro Atlanta’s famously bad congestion, they said this week.
On the topic of transit and traffic in Cobb and Georgia, attendees of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation & Mobility Summit heard from Jannine Miller, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation, and Cain Williamson, also a transportation planner for the state.
Miller framed the need to invest in transportation infrastructure as a way to ensure continued economic development and accommodate a growing population.
Of the $11 billion of new private investment that Georgia gained in fiscal 2021, $6.3 billion was from companies that require “inbound and outbound freight service” — in other words, they ship things and therefore need robust transportation infrastructure, per Miller. Much of that new investment came from manufacturing, automotive, logistics and agriculture sectors.
As demand for delivered goods and services rose during lockdowns, the region’s roads saw an increase in shipping traffic, Miller said. The state will need to anticipate that growth with infrastructure investment. Plus, Georgia’s manufacturing sector is expected to grow by 77% over the next 30 years, Miller added.
“If you thought we had a lot of trucks out there today, get ready, because it’s coming,” Miller said.
Other statewide investments to keep Georgia competitive include expanding access to electric vehicle charging stations and new technologies for light signals.
Moving forward, Williamson said the state plans to employ a multi-pronged strategy toward addressing traffic.
“The future is multimodal,” Williamson said. “There isn’t going to be a single solution to the congestion problems, the mobility problems, the access problems that we’re seeing across the region. So, you can anticipate that there will be an array of solutions.”
Those solutions include express lanes and bus rapid transit using managed lanes. Bus rapid transit systems often include lanes reserved for buses, give priority to buses and employ other tactics to achieve the speed and capacity of rail systems.
In his role with the state, Williamson works with the alphabet soup of state agencies that oversee transit — the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (The ATL) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA).
Paying for life in the fast laneOne of the main state initiatives is the highway express lanes, where cars equipped with a Peach Pass pay a variable fee — based on the level of congestion — to use the faster lane.
There are more than 1 million vehicles with Peach passes, Williamson said. Motorists took more than 20 million express lane trips in 2020. Interstate 85 remains the most popular group of lanes, but I-75 is just behind it in usage.
The northwest corridor (I-75 and I-575) express lanes have resulted in a 12% improvement in on-time performance, Williamson added.
During the early stages of the pandemic, use of express lanes dropped 82% as traffic nosedived. Revenue produced by the lanes were 30% lower in 2020, Williamson said.
Use of the lanes is back to 60-70% of the pre-pandemic norm, and Williamson expects it to continue to rise.
Officials also tout the lanes for removing cars from the regular lanes, which reduces congestion for the non-paying drivers, too.
“From 2018 to 2019, the general purpose lanes ... are flowing 20 miles an hour faster, and you have one fewer (hour of) rush hour a day,” Miller said.
GDOT is doubling down on express lanes, then, planning to add them to the northern half of I-285, above I-10. The MDJ previously reported that the lanes are split into four projects and will be constructed throughout the 2020s, with the last portion slated for 2032 completion.
Wheels on the busThe agencies Williamson works for also facilitate the Xpress commuter buses which take people from suburban lots to inner Atlanta, or vice versa.
Bringing new uses for the Peach Pass are in the pipeline — the state has already allowed them to be used to pay for parking at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The state has partnered with other states, such as Florida and North Carolina, so the pass can be used there, and plans to partner with E-Z Pass, used by many Northeastern and Midwestern states. And one day, Williamson said, the state hopes Peach Pass can be used to pay for a car wash, gasoline and electric vehicle recharging.
The Xpress commuter buses provided more than 1.4 million trips in 2020. But commuter buses saw the most dramatic drops in ridership during the pandemic. Nevertheless, local buses such as CobbLinc remained a “lifeline” for car-less residents, Williamson said.
“Local bus systems maintained at least half or more of their ridership throughout the course of the pandemic, which I think is an indication of how important those local fixed routes or circulator systems are to folks who have no other option,” Williamson said.
To encourage people to start using commuter buses again, the state has tried to make them more pandemic-friendly by adding contactless payment options, upgrades to air systems and plexiglass barriers.
The state has received a federal grant for 10 new electric buses for the Xpress fleet and an app that can be used to pay transit fares across the metro region.
Miller said the work-from-home precedent brought on by COVID-19 is expected to leave a lasting impact on the future of work. From GDOT’s perspective, this is a good development for reducing traffic. Miller cited research indicating that work-from-home comes with increased productivity and employee loyalty, fewer missed days, increased diversity, reduced costs for employers and workers, lower stress levels, and environmental benefits.
“As much as we can continue to do that (work from home) … that will help not just our transportation network or air quality, but it also helps those first responders, those essential workers, the distribution workers, the trucks even, have such a reliable time during those otherwise peak and congested hours,” Miller said.
In addition to encouraging work-from-home, state transportation officials run a program called “Georgia Commute Options,” which seeks to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on the road, especially during peak times.
Projects at homeThe speakers also touched on projects in Cobb. Williamson and his staff have submitted projects to the governor’s office for consideration, which include improvements to the Cumberland and Marietta transit transfer stations.
Nearly 19 million vehicle miles were traveled in Cobb in 2020, Miller said. Over the next few years, more than $400 million in transportation investment is planned in the state’s third largest county, including projects for the Rottenwood Creek Trail, Barrett Parkway, State Road 120 and Old Highway 41.