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Traffic sprawl qualitylife

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Traffic nightmares beginning to cost cities As gridlock worsens nationwide, it's hurting quality of life and causing lost business. Targeted commuting and other innovations may bring relief.
By Larry Copeland
Page 16A

ATLANTA -- Traffic is notoriously bad in this metropolis once dubbed ''The Poster Child for Sprawl.'' Only five of the 13 counties in the Atlanta metro area have any form of public transportation, and rush-hour accidents regularly snarl traffic along the already-crowded main arteries.

Still, it seemed peculiar when the Chamber of Commerce, known for its unrestrained boosterism, called traffic congestion the greatest threat to Atlanta's continued economic prosperity.

Cities now view bad traffic as much more than just a nuisance for harried commuters. It's bad public relations in the never-ending competition against other cities over the quality of life. Cities believe that out-of-control traffic congestion hurts their ability to attract new businesses. And in some places, gridlock is the political issue of the day.

''What we're seeing is that a lot of cities are recognizing that the tremendous amount of traffic congestion in our cities becomes a burden on employees,'' says Frank Moretti of The Road Information Program (TRIP), a non-profit research organization financed in part by the road-construction industry. ''Companies realize that it becomes more difficult to keep employees in areas with spectacular traffic congestion. What you're seeing in Atlanta is consistent with a lot of regions.''

Many fast-growing cities in the Southeast have commutes that are quickly worsening because Sun Belt cities tend to be more spread out than older cities in the Northeast. ''The most significant population increases have been in the West and the South,'' Moretti says. ''At the same time, very little additional highway capacity has been added in those regions.''

Interstate travel soaring

Nationally, travel on interstates and other federal highways increased 38% from 1990 to 2000, from 606 billion annual vehicle miles to 839 billion. Over the same period, the total number of freeway lane miles grew just 8%, from 232,436 miles to 250,315, according to a TRIP analysis of Federal Highway Administration data. That means the rate of growth is five times higher for travel than it is for new freeway lanes.

At the same time, the amount of time people spend in traffic delays in urban areas is increasing.

In Atlanta, the average commute to work increased to 31.2 minutes in 2000 from 26 minutes in 1990, according to TRIP.

Sam Williams, president of the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, worries that longer commutes will discourage companies and young high-tech workers looking to move here. ''What we have is the by-product of unbelievable economic success,'' he says. ''We're going back 20 years, to when nobody believed Atlanta would be at 4.2 million people. Now, we have to play catch-up.''

The chamber is pushing an ambitious traffic plan that calls for spending most transportation dollars on the 17 corridors with the most gridlock. To lure people out of their cars, the plan includes flex trolleys, which are buses that work like trains by operating on dedicated pathways and streets. Riders board them at mini-stations instead of at street corners.

It is unclear whether the chamber's plan would ever win the political support to make it a reality. Even so, it's noteworthy that the chamber is attempting to poach on what traditionally has been the turf of the state transportation department.

'Proximate commuting'

Increasingly, cities, counties and other local regions are turning away from traditional methods of easing gridlock and trying innovative methods to shorten commutes and ensure economic prosperity.

* ''In the '80s, we were the fastest-growing county in the nation,'' says Tom Mullen, a county supervisor in Riverside County, Calif., about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. ''We will once again be the fastest, but we've got to have the transportation. If we don't, we will do irreparable damage to our children and grandchildren.''

The Riverside supervisors recently streamlined the road-building process by involving environmentalists from the outset, instead of waiting for their reaction to road plans. The county also enacted what it called the nation's largest habitat-conservation plan, conserving more than 500,000 acres and identifying and setting aside land for future regional transportation needs.

* The City Council of Boca Raton, Fla., is expected to vote soon on a measure that would require businesses with at least 50 employees to incorporate traffic-management strategies into their operations. Options include staggered start times, car-pooling and four-day workweeks.

''Our expressways in some places already have 10 lanes,'' Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie says. ''We need to find ways to manage congestion other than with asphalt.''

* Several towns near Interstate 495 west of Boston worry that rush-hour congestion will overwhelm that highway as it did the Route 128 corridor when high-tech growth boomed there. The I-495 towns, including Hopkinton, Framingham, Natick and Marlborough, want to create a regional transportation authority. ''Within five to 10 years, if public transportation alternatives aren't brought to this, 495 will become 128 in this area,'' says John McEnaney, executive aide to Marlborough Mayor William Mauro.

* In Seattle, one congestion solution being tested is simply working closer to home. Companies with multiple branches would allow employees to work in the office nearest their homes. Seattle transportation consultant Gene Mullins, who devised the idea of ''proximate commuting,'' analyzed the commuting patterns of banks, fire departments and libraries and found that all could drastically reduce the commutes of employees.

''Any studies I've done show the same pattern,'' Mullins says. ''People commuting in opposite directions on the interstate passing each other headed to identical jobs.''

Boeing has contracted with Mullins' company to do a pilot test with 5,000-10,000 workers who will work in offices closer to their homes.

Voters asked to foot bill

Several cities or regions are turning to the public for help. In November, voters in Northern Virginia, Las Vegas and Seattle, among others, will consider new taxes to pay for traffic relief.

Many mayors and other local officials say they have too little say over how federal highway funds are spent.

''It's a very big deal,'' says Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' transportation and communications committee. ''Two decades ago, New York City was in bankruptcy; money going into the cities was often wasted. It seemed the cities couldn't manage themselves. Contrast that with today, when the new jobs growth, the economic might is coming out of the metropolitan areas. The economic base of our nation is in the cities, and that turns directly back to transportation.''

Both the Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities are lobbying Congress to implement what they call ''sub-allocation'' of federal transportation money.

Dollars would not be sent just to the states, but would also be ''sub-allocated'' or distributed to local governments.

Experts say that change is unlikely.

''My guess is it's going to end up staying the way it is,'' says Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. ''As far as the states are concerned, that money is their money.''

Several factors are making local governments seek more control over relieving gridlock:

* ''Just-in-time'' manufacturing processes rely on components being trucked to a factory as needed instead of being stockpiled in warehouses. This system is susceptible to unexpected traffic backups.

''It's partly about traffic congestion, but it's really a lot about reliability,'' says Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

A study by the Washington Research Council in Seattle found that higher traffic congestion led to increased shipping costs, resulting in higher prices at the store.

* The growing shift to an ''amenity-based'' economy, which allows young high-tech workers to pick where they live based on the city's quality of life. Traditionally, employees were transferred to cities by their companies.

* Traffic congestion is becoming a hot-button issue in local elections. ''In so many cases today, it's absolutely public issue No. 1, as far as local domestic issues,'' Pisarski says. ''If it's not No. 1, it's a close second.''

No easy fix for problems

Voters in Northern Virginia will decide in November whether to approve a -cent sales tax increase to generate money for transportation improvements.

Las Vegas voters will consider a -cent sales tax increase, higher fees for developers and jet-fuel taxes paid by airlines. In Seattle, voters will decide whether to finance and build a 14-mile monorail linking downtown, Ballard and West Seattle. Even when polls show congestion is a primary concern, voters don't always want to spend their tax dollars to fix it.

In August, Missouri voters rejected proposed increases in sales and gas taxes that would raise money to improve transportation.

Here in Georgia, Gov. Roy Barnes tabled plans for the Northern Arc, a $2.2 billion, 59-mile toll road that would connect Interstates 75 and 85 north of Atlanta. The proposal sparked intense controversy after published disclosures about potential conflicts of interest among Georgia Department of Transportation board members.

Last month some Atlanta businesses announced they want to raise public awareness of the ''urgent threat'' traffic congestion poses to the city. They want policymakers and planning agencies to handle traffic planning the way they run their businesses -- with a harsh eye on the bottom line.

''We don't want to see our quality of life deteriorate,'' Williams says. ''We're trying to solve it before it gets to be a crisis.''

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