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Atlanta Bridge Crisis: A Plea For Federal Infrastructure Investment

April 9, 2017 Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor

“It’s bad news — you’re going to have to drive around the sun, practically, to get around the city.”

That’s how an Atlanta resident described the effect of the recent fire on I-85, a section of highway just a few miles north of downtown that resulted in a bridge collapse and a miles-long highway closure. Having lived in Atlanta, not far from the interchange in question, I winced when I heard that. If an Atlanta driver is using hyperbole of that intensity about traffic congestion, it’s a very bad sign.

The week after I moved out of Atlanta following a couple of years living there, a light snow storm forced traffic to a dead stop on I-85. It was big news a few years ago. People abandoned their cars by the side of the road and walked home. For anyone who recalls that incident, it’s clear that the bridge collapse is not just an unfortunate accident, it’s a crisis dropping to an even deeper level.

It’ll take 6 months to a year to rebuild the bridge and reopen that section of I-85. And since there are few alternatives for the millions of people that commute from the Atlanta suburbs north of the city into downtown every day, it’s causing massive delays in a city that already is close to the top of the congestion charts. There are surprisingly few alternate routes for getting around the city — I-85 is the main road for commuters coming in from the suburbs to work — and what few there are now jammed with traffic like never before. The I-85 closure in Atlanta is going to cause major waste problems for businesses and workers all throughout the metro area.

The problem here extends far beyond the bridge fire and its collapse. It’s rather like the straw that broke the brace applied in desperation to the camel’s back. Atlanta’s traffic problems were already an emergency and have been for years. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias recently ran a piece arguing that the bridge collapse merely “highlights” the “regional transportation planning disaster” that is the City of Atlanta.

He’s right. And the problem isn’t Atlanta’s alone. For many southern cities, Atlanta is a nightmare vision of the future. That’s because it’s the biggest and busiest of a number of cities that have become sprawling as their populations swell. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I was born in 1983, the population was somewhere around 200,000 people. Today, the Raleigh Metropolitan Statistical Area has an estimated population of over 1.3 million. Add neighboring Durham and Chapel Hill into the mix (which comprises an area of relative size equivalence to the Atlanta Metro area), and it’s over 2 million people.

That’s still a far cry from the Atlanta Metro’s’ 5.7 million residents, but the growth of areas like Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill has been so swift, and with zoning so similar to Atlanta’s, there are several parts in the South where people shake their heads sadly and say “looks like we’re going to be the next Atlanta.” Sprawl has become the model for “urban planning” throughout the southeast. Regional planning seems nonexistent as suburb after suburb is tacked on and begins to boom, each one further out than the last from the urban center, where most people out in the suburbs work.

Yglesias points out something crucial to understanding the problem when he cites the failure of the 2012 referendum that would have imposed a one-cent-per-gallon gas tax for use in repairing and expanding roadway infrastructure in Atlanta. A critical need for a city of Atlanta’s size, existing as it does in a state that is anywhere between 48th-50th in per capita highway spending.

That measure was struck down convincingly, 65-35, split entirely by suburban vs urban lines. For people in the suburbs, the traffic is a nuisance, but it’s ultimately not close to home and not, in their minds, their problem. For people in the urban center, traffic is a massive disruption in a person’s daily life, and severely limits the mobility of those without a car, since Atlanta’s sub-par public transit is slowed considerably — limiting the range of options for a person to find work.

MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system, is famously insufficient and inefficient. MARTA stops are far-flung and there aren’t enough of them — and good luck trying to find buses or trains that are anywhere close to being on schedule. Park-and-ride lots work as a solution for some people, but that, of course, involves owning a car.

There are current and historical reasons behind MARTA’s inefficiency. Just like the roads that were planned on the fly as the city went along, MARTA had to come together quickly to make up for lost time, and its coverage reflects an earlier version of the Atlanta metro area, with plenty of unserved regions. This is because of the city’s initial refusal to — you guessed it — pass a referendum to create it. During the civil rights era, MARTA was as much a race-based political football as it was a planned system for public transit. Just like the 2012 referendum, those that had less of a need for MARTA said “not my problem” and voted against it.

And today, the state invests woefully little in public transit. Georgia spends 55 cents per person yearly on public transit. Massachusetts, by contrast, spends $376 per person. There is simply no money available to improve it.

Which is the problem that Atlanta now faces with the bridge collapse and highway closure. Having voted down all referenda that would have given the city a coffer from which to repair roads and infrastructure, Atlanta has no good option. Federal emergency funds were released after the collapse, and the Governor said it was enough for the short-term fix (on a very long projected work schedule) but not for a long-term solution.

That means the bridge, once repaired, will likely be worse off than it was before the fire. It’s worth noting that when federal funds are provided to states for transit emergencies like this one, the money usually winds up well spent. It’s just that those funds are limited and partly emergency-based.

This is an untenable situation. The stratification of wealth in Atlanta is exacerbated by this problem. Cars sitting in traffic are adding excessive carbon to the atmosphere, and businesses are losing money as people spend more time sitting in traffic. And other cities are close behind. So there needs to be a solution — before this problem gets so bad that people begin to leave these cities in droves.

I want to see communities making smart choices about modernizing their infrastructure. I wish this could be left in the hands of the Atlanta voter. But this suburb versus urban voter showdown seems here to stay, at least for now. It’s hard to change several million minds all at once.

The logical response, in view of local voter deadlock, is a federal investment in infrastructure. We know the state government has already made good use of what funds they’ve received, and we should trust them to do this again with money earmarked for infrastructure.

For the suburban commuters to see the value of their approving a measure like the one that failed in 2012, they have to see transportation funds in action. My hope is that the federal government does more than just support short-term fixes to the bridge, and instead makes a big investment in U.S. infrastructure across the board. It’s essential to our productivity and, for many citizens, is literally a life-or-death issue.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.