By John Schaffner
Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association (BATMA) executive director Denise Starling was shocked, after sitting through a two-hour update on what is to be Atlanta’s first comprehensive transportation plan, that a major proposed improvement to the confluence area of Ga. 400/I-85 and Piedmont Road had been dismissed by the city.
Her organization, along with the Buckhead Community Improvement District (CID), had funded and overseen an 18-month comprehensive study of the Piedmont Road corridor, aimed at reducing traffic congestion in Buckhead.
That study, completed early this year, was turned over to the city’s Connect Atlanta Plan study group with the understanding many of recommendations would be included in Connect Atlanta’s final report.
Some of those Piedmont corridor study recommendations specifically addressed ways to reduce the impact of motorists using Piedmont Road as a transition from Ga. 400 southbound to I-85 northbound and southbound.
What Starling heard for the first time at the June 16 public update on the Connect Atlanta Plan concepts was that those recommendations from the Piedmont corridor study had been dropped by the city, without explanation. The message was delivered by Heather Alhadeff, planning and transportation assistant director in the city’s Bureau of Planning, who is heading up the Connect Atlanta study.
What is apparently being carried forward from that BATMA study is a concept for improving traffic flow through the intersection of Piedmont, Roswell and Habersham roads.
Paul Moore, a consultant working with the city on the study, explained that the most promising solution for the major intersection is to replace the present road connections with “a grid of many intersections to disperse traffic.”
He explained that the proposed grid would “untangle traffic, create value for neighborhoods and create a village atmosphere. Property owners can get more money through more value.”
However, this does not appear to be a project that would start soon. Moore explained that it could be accomplished over time as the strip shopping centers and other properties in the area are redeveloped. The city would take advantage of that redevelopment to make the improvements, Moore said.
Moore acknowledged, however, that implementing the street grid at Roswell and Piedmont will not eliminate the problems caused by commuter traffic coming into Buckhead from Cobb County along the two-lane neighborhood streets that dump into Roswell at Piedmont.
“The plan does not create a northwest/southeast connection solution from Cobb to Buckhead,” Moore said.
Gordon Certain, the president of the North Buckhead Civic Association, said he believes that problem can best be served by digging a transit-only tunnel — similar to the sewer tunnel that was dug through north Buckhead — to connect Cobb to Buckhead.
Moore said the north Buckhead neighborhoods create a barrier between people and their jobs. “They all come together at Roswell and Piedmont roads.”
Moore said commuter traffic is predominantly two-seat rides (automobiles). He warned the 50 or so people attending the two-hour meeting at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, “If you are in a growing, thriving city, you don’t solve congestion.”
Looking at the broader scope of the Connect Atlanta Plan, Moore explained there are seven goals:
Provide balanced transportation choices.
Maintain fiscal sustainability.
Create desirable places for all citizens.
Prepare for growth.
Promote public health and safety.
Strive for environmental sustainability.
The three strategies involve transit, modernizing connections for economic development and improving street design for neighborhood enhancements — including plans for walking, biking, etc.
In terms of transit, he said the plan is looking at five- and 10-minute walks from available transit stops, which could include a mix of heavy rail, light rail and bus rapid transit.
He suggested one aspect of modernizing connections would be to rethink some of the links to freeways — possibly changing some to connector street grids that create usable, taxable property. Access could be preserved, but speeds would be reduced.
He said the plan is looking at street designs in terms of creating more cross streets and proactively pursuing a core bike path system throughout the city. The city now has about two miles of bike lanes, and they do not connect, he said.
Asked how the city plans to pay for all this, since the Georgia Department of Transportation is broke, Moore responded, “A broke DOT may not be the worst thing in the world.”
Moore said there is a great need to weigh priorities because of the lack of funding available.
He said the three potential sources of funding are taxes, private/public partnerships and fees.
Moore claimed that the most promising answer is in parking fees. He said parking fees capture all metro drivers and correlate policy with driver behaviors, and there is an oversupply and it is underpriced.
He said almost everybody in Atlanta parks free at work. Under a proposal being evaluated by the team, the average monthly parking fees would move from $90 to $120. He said that would cover about 40 percent of BeltLine transit costs.
He predicted that such a parking fee program could generate $2.5 billion by 2030, which is about when it is proposed BeltLine transit would be put in place. He said the proposals being generated by Connect Atlanta would require another $1 billion to $1.5 billion.
But much to the dismay of BATMA’s Starling and others who supported the findings of the Piedmont corridor study just months ago, the plan does not include a solution for the problems involved with the confluence of Ga. 400, I-85 and Piedmont Road.