Air Date: Week of May 28, 1999
Traffic jams in this commercial hub of the New South are reaching monumental proportions. And, as David Pollock reports, they are not the only problem this city is facing as a result of its explosive growth and sprawling development. Some of the measures the State of Georgia is proposing to contain sprawl are meeting with mixed reaction.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It used to be Atlanta, Georgia, was so hot during the summer you'd melt if you got stuck in your car for any time at rush hour. Atlanta still has hot summers, but since folks can now just roll up the windows, turn on the AC and stay cool, they can wait in traffic without running the risk of heat exhaustion. And wait they do. The traffic jams that step from Atlanta's rapidly sprawling development are just one of a set of problems related to explosive growth that beset the commercial hub of the new South. And now, the state of Georgia is moving in to try to contain the sprawl. >From Atlanta, David Pollack reports.
POLLACK: A small town newspaper reporter once wrote, "Atlanta is certainly a fast place in every sense of the word. They build fast houses, and burn them down fast. To a stranger the whole city seems to be running on wheels." The year was 1867, and if that writer thought Atlanta was fast then, today his head would be spinning.
POLLACK: Sprawling metropolitan Atlanta extends 100 miles north to south. It's a lot of territory to cover. And Atlantans spend more time in their cars getting from one place to another than residents of any other city in the nation.
(Radio traffic voice: It looks like highway congestion before and after...)
BACILE: No problems if you're on the top end [inaudible], 25 eastbound at Ashwood, Dunwoodie...
POLLACK: For decades, Atlanta traffic reporter Jim Bacile watched the city sprawl outward and grow congested.
BACILE: I can remember not so long ago, when Pleasant Hill Road was a truck stop. And now, it's one of the most congested areas in the state, probably in the country for that matter.
POLLACK: Jim Bacile says Atlanta built road after road to try to keep up with the traffic, only to have the highways fill up as soon as the next stretch of asphalt is laid.
BACILE: It's getting worse and worse and the commute is getting longer and longer, and people are getting more frustrated every day.
COWAN: Roads have always been sort of sacred in the state of Georgia as a part of its growth, where basically new roads beget growth.
POLLACK: Long-time Atlanta businessman Joel Cowan says growth has been a major theme of the city since the days following the Civil War.
COWAN: Everything that stood in the way of growth we stamped out, and everything that contributed to it we encouraged.
POLLACK: And so growth, and roads, and sprawl were widely encouraged, until last year, that is, when the Federal Government did the unthinkable. It banned new road construction in Atlanta until the state comes up with an acceptable plan for improving air quality. Atlanta's air quality has never been up to standard since the EPA began measuring it in 1970. And the city was recently named as 1 of only 2 in the Southeast designated as having serious ozone problems. The road-building ban prompted state leaders to create a new agency: the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, and its goal is to get people to drive less. With a $2 billion budget, the Authority can create its own mass transit system. But the agency also has the power to force local governments to consider the implications of their land use and road-building decisions. Again, businessman Joel Cowan.
COWAN: The carrot and the stick for this whole issue rests with the Regional Transportation Authority. It can disapprove, in effect, a new shopping center's location. It can disapprove connecting a certain set of streets to a state road system. It has enormous power to cause better behavior.
POLLACK: But in Atlanta's outlying districts, where development is driving the economy, the specter of a centralized state agency is causing some folks concern. Among them, Robert Leneut, a Republican State Senator from Cod County in the northwestern metro area. He says it's one thing to pass laws to control pollution, but let the local communities manage their own growth.
LENEUT: Sprawl per se is not something that we should mandate a fix to. We can't mandate and say you can't rezone this particular area because it may have a regional impact. What's that going to do to economic growth?
POLLACK: Other critics complain the agency will only be a showpiece designed to keep Federal road funds rolling in, while ignoring the root causes of sprawl. But proponents say the new state agency is at least a start.
FRANK: It provides a mechanism for smart growth.
POLLACK: Larry Frank teaches city planning at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He says the beauty of the new agency is its broad powers over new development.
FRANK: If you go and try to build this development in that location and it's found to have adverse environmental impacts, the possibility for the first time ever is that it would not receive infrastructure from the public sector. What that allows us to do is to fold together the effects of the land use actions made at the local level with the implications of regional transportation and investment.
POLLACK: Such governmental control over development in this development- loving city raised eyebrows at first. But Frank says Atlantans realize some drastic measures are needed.
FRANK: To this point, we have been very comfortable thinking what we were doing is fine. And now, we're just waking up. Things need to change.
POLLACK: And change may already be underway. Tired of long commutes, Frank says, people are moving back to central Atlanta. And so are jobs. Recently, Bell South, a major area employer, announced plans to close more than 75 suburban offices, and consolidate services at 3 in-town centers adjacent to Atlanta's rapid transit system, called Marta.
(A phone rings)
BACILE: Seventy-five southbound at I-20 on the ramp, eastbound still we have an accident there...
POLLACK: Atlanta traffic reporter Jim Bacile says it's not impossible to ease congestion, even with continued growth. Part of the solution, getting people out of their cars and onto public transportation, he says, has already been proven during the Olympics.
BACILE: You remember, everybody thought, when no one had been through here, it was going to be the end of the world. Remember that? Oh, you're not going to move, you know, it's going to be bumper to bumper gridlock 24 hours a day. What happened? Everybody took Marta. For those 2 weeks, we had the best traffic ever.
POLLACK: For Living on Earth, I'm David Pollack in Atlanta.
BACILE: Yes, and the roadway still up there, 95 southbound after highway 20, and that's causing...
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth