May 2017

Please Lord, Not Atlanta

About a month after a fire collapsed a section of bridge on Atlanta’s infamously traffic-snarled I-85, President Donald Trump said he found it a “painful reminder” of the importance of strong infrastructure. Now understood to be the handy work of a homeless man, President Trump invited first responders to the White house to honor their efforts fighting the fire and preventing casualties. Commending first responders, Trump acknowledged their fast action, skill and courage as they battled “40-foot flames, saved lives and represented the true strength of America.”

But what happened March 30 reminds everyone, especially those who make their living on the nation’s roads, just how important the country’s interstate system is and the importance to everyone living in this country of a safe and well-maintained transportation infrastructure. Trump took the occasion to reiterate his commitment to enacting a major federal infrastructure spending program, but the traffic- congested roadblock that Atlanta is has deep roots, couched in historically bad racial politics and crony capitalism—everyone agrees it is going to take way more than just fixing the I-85 bridge to fix the city and region’s commerce-choking traffic problem.

Veteran drivers and fleet operators have known for years Atlanta takes the dubious honor of being America’s most congested metro area. It’s a pain point that cannot be avoided and statistics confirm it. According to the 2016 American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) study “The Nation’s Top Truck Bottlenecks” released in January 2017is the worst bottleneck in the country. One hotspot is known to truckers as “spaghetti junction.” Apparently the fun begins where northbound Interstate 85 conspires with Interstate 285 to snarl traffic as it passes through the city. When asked about places to drive, truckers are apt to say “Please Lord, Not Atlanta! Laugh out Loud all you want but traffic congestion, especially in this region is not a joke and represents a tremendous drag on society and local, regional and national economies.

ATRI’s research reveals highway traffic congestion adds huge costs (both directly and indirectly) to freight transport. The research group said traffic has a $49.6 billion impact annually and results in some 728 million lost hours of productivity. That is the equivalent of 264,500 truck drivers sitting idle for an entire year, explained ATRI. The data also shows trucking accounts for about 70% of domestic freight transportation, including a wide variety of goods, materials, commodities and consumer products. That represented $726.4 billion – or 81.2% – of U.S. shipping revenue last year.

The ATRI’s “bottleneck” analysis incorporates and synthesizes several information and data components, including a massive database of truck GPS data at freight-significant locations throughout the U.S. ATRI also uses an algorithm to quantify the impact of congestion on truck-based freight. The data is collected to better empower decision-making in both the private and public sectors, said the American Truckers Association (ATA) announcing the study, by “allowing stakeholders to better understand the severity of congestion and mobility constraints on the U.S. highway transportation system.”

The Top Five

The top five on ATRI’s list may not be as obvious one might think and perhaps reflects more on the robustness of certain regional economies that command lots of commercial trucking. In the top five, following Atlanta at number two is Fort Lee, New Jersey, then Chicago (no surprise) then Louisville, Kentucky and at the five spot, neighbor Cincinnati.

Although the Midwest reveals itself to be an epicenter for traffic congestion, other studies identify and rank the Los Angeles and New York metro right up there as far as bad traffic areas. According to INRIX’s 2016 Global Traffic Scorecard, Atlanta ranked eighth in the world for congestion with the average commuter spending 70.8 hours in traffic each year. Don’t worry L.A. and NYC beat out Atlanta, but even before the I-85 barbeque it climbed up a rank to eight from the year prior and among global peers like Paris, Rome and London!

This is of particular importance said the ATA, as the nation weighs the needs and resources available for transportation funding. At the state and local level, this research can inform local investment decisions that can directly improve supply chain efficiency. The analysis should also be useful identifying what highway projects are worthy of funding, said ATA president Chris Spear, “especially as the Trump Administration is expected to focus on long-term infrastructure spending, ensuring the safe and efficient movement of goods should be a national priority.”

But alas, for Atlanta even though the White House is all for funding improvement, the region and state will need more than money to solve the problem. For the last several years, media outlets like the Atlanta Constitution-Journal (ACJ) and Atlanta Magazine have been reporting on the growing problem, identifying that, at the heart of the rot degrading metro Atlanta is what their editor’s termed the “Mother of All Mistakes:” that is the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. According to the ACJ it wasn’t just a one-time blunder—“it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s legacy or perhaps one should say “legendary” traffic problem.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution has been watching Atlanta’s growth—more like decline—for decades. In January 2017, he declared to the press, “Atlanta is no longer Hotlanta.” Citing the free fall from 89th on the list of the world’s 200 fastest-growing metro areas to to 189 in just five years. He also mentioned the 29 % in average housing price per square foot between 2000 and 2010.

The nation’s economy hinges on the country’s transportation infrastructure and for now, Atlanta is providing a cautionary tale for all to heed, especially the new administration.



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