After the Arc

Groups using opportunity to push transportation projects that would — gasp — actually relieve congestion

The Northern Arc
-- oh so conven-iently postponed until after this year's elections — isn't dead. But you might say it is on life support. Those most opposed to the road have seven or so months until Gov. Roy Barnes (if he's re-elected) passes the ethics reform legislation he says the state needs before he goes ahead with the Arc.

The road's opponents see this extra time as a window to pull the plug on the thing once and for all. Barnes' delay also has shifted the battle over the Arc away from grassroots opposition. Now's the time, Arc opponents say, to push transportation ideas that actually make sense, ones that actually relieve congestion in the area where the Northern Arc is set to go.

"In our spare time, we're becoming our own department of transportation," says Jeff Anderson, chairman of the Northern Arc Task Force, the most vocal group opposing the Northern Arc. "We're coming up with our own alternative plans. We think all these disjointed agencies have their own agendas and it baffles us that it is this far out of control."

Anderson says the Northern Arc Task Force will have its recommendations ready by the end of August. After the plans are finished, the task force will begin seeking an audience with the Atlanta Regional Commission, the body with the ultimate authority over the Northern Arc. The Sierra Club's chief sprawl fighter, Bryan Hager, is also trying to get the club's transportation improvement ideas before the ARC.

Anderson has some popular ideas, like widening Ga. 400, and running a rail line all the way around I-285.

One of his favorites is widening State Road 20 from a two-lane to a four-lane, an idea that Northern Arc touts have also studied.

When transportation experts studied the effect the Northern Arc would have on traffic flow in the suburbs north of Atlanta, one of the first things they needed to know was which roads were seeing the biggest increase in traffic.

Only one of the five roads they studied showed major increases in traffic runs from east to west. The rest all run north to south. That's a fact Northern Arc opponents commonly refer to when it's time for the "But we need north-south roads, not east-west roads" portion of the Northern Arc debate.

The Northern Arc would run east to west for 59 miles between Lawrenceville and Cartersville.

The roads that run north to south (U.S. 411, State Road 20, I-575, and Ga. 400) saw traffic volumes shoot up between 52 percent and 138 percent from 1990 to 1997.

Increases on the east-to-west route (the western section of State Road 20 that runs from Canton to Cartersville) topped out at 84 percent — a good argument to widen State Road 20, and a bad argument to justify building the Northern Arc.

Widening State Road 20 into a four-lane would accommodate 74,600 cars a day in the year 2035, according to a Georgia Department of Transportation Northern Arc study. The Arc itself would hold about 7,000 more cars per day, but would cost at least $1 billion more than widening State Road 20.

Here's another idea that the Atlanta Regional Commission is currently studying and one the Georgia Conservancy supports: putting a light rail line or a rapid bus route along I-285 between Doraville and the Cumberland Galleria area.

That rail line would attract 35,000 riders each day, cost $715.7 million or $5.20 per rider each day, according to an ARC study.

Another option for that same route would be what's called a Bus Rapid Transit system — buses that ride on fixed guide ways. That would garner 40,000 riders each day, cost $447.5 million or about $2.80 per rider per day, according to the ARC.

The Northern Arc, with a price tag of $2.2 billion, is predicted to draw 20,000 cars off I-285 — in the year 2035.

"[The transit line along I-285] makes a lot of sense — primarily because of the numbers" says Michael Halicki, policy director for the Georgia Conservancy. "When you look at the riders along that corridor, and you look at the congestion in that area, it's definitely an improvement. When you design an area strictly for the automobile, you box yourself into a corner."

Right now, the plan to add transit to the northern section of I-285 is just a report sitting on shelves within the ARC. There's no guarantee it will ever be studied further, let alone funded and built. But the ARC board will get a chance to vote on including it on the list of projects that get the green light.

Even the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is generating new ideas about what should happen in the jammed-up area between I-85, I-75, State Road 20 and the northern section of I-285. That land area, roughly 1,000 square miles, is called the Northern Sub Area by transportation policy wonks and is the subject of a $7 million transportation study commissioned by GRTA.

The consulting firm hired to conduct the study was asked to run six different scenarios that maxed out land-use, transit and managed growth ideas — with no regard for funding constraints. The idea was to brainstorm for ideas that would one day be presented to the GRTA board.

At a July 18 GRTA meeting, the consultants reported that if the Northern Sub Area region was outfitted with viable transit options, about 13 percent of the population there would use public transit.