Are Perimeter Center’s traffic cops really making a difference—or maybe even making things worse?
The Sandy Springs City Council aims to find out with a $2,000 “experiment” in police-free rush hours on part of Peachtree-Dunwoody Road. The council approved the study at the same July 19 meeting where it bounced around other innovative traffic ideas like a possible new city “construction ambassador” who would knock on doors to inform people of traffic-affecting projects.
“We’re emptying our decks, but loading our streets,” said City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, who has complained about possibly ineffective traffic policing–especially serving private garages–on Abernathy and Peachtree-Dunwoody road for more than a year. “We are an inventive city,” Sterling said, calling for the police effectiveness study.
Mayor Rusty Paul supported it as well. “[Traffic police] may be taking care of a problem in front of them,” he said, but worsening a “systemic problem” farther down the road.
Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone was skeptical, asking for assurance that police can intervene in the study period “if it all goes crazy.”
“Traffic control to me is more an art than a science—no offense,” the police chief told Assistant City Manager Bryant Poole, a civil engineer by training.
The Perimeter Community Improvement Districts have been hiring off-duty officers from various jurisdictions to direct rush-hour traffic for many years, starting well before Perimeter Center’s cities incorporated.
Yvonne Williams, PCIDs’ president and CEO, told the council that her organization spends $353,000 a year on off-duty traffic cops for the Fulton County side of Perimeter Center. The original goal of the program, she said, was for officers “to be at key intersections, not to be at individual buildings.” Such patrols are key to the PCIDs “Don’t Block the Box” initiative of cracking down on drivers who block intersections between signal cycles, she said.
Today, some private employers and landlords hire traffic officers, too. Sterling and others are concerned that such officers prioritize traffic getting out of those private garages rather than the greater good of traffic flow on public streets. Sterling said Abernathy/Peachtree-Dunwoody traffic has gotten worse in the past year, since Newell Brands moved its corporate headquarters there, and said officers often wave drivers through lights in the city’s fine-tuned—and expensive—signal-timing system.
A similar situation has emerged in recent months on Perimeter Center’s Dunwoody side as well. A late-afternoon outflow of commuters from the Ravinia complex on Ashford-Dunwoody Road appears to get priority while nearby intersections around Perimeter Mall gridlock during the wait.
Sandy Springs Police Capt. John Mullin told the council he has performed off-duty traffic work in Perimeter Center for 19 years. Mullin said he actually gives priority to through-traffic, and said the traffic duty also plays a role in stopping road rage crimes.
“It’s very unpredictable, what happens out there,” he said of day-to-day traffic conditions. But he agreed it’s gotten worse in the past year.
Poole said he got an estimate from a consultant for a $2,000 study to see what’s really happening with traffic and police—including testing rush hours with and without officers on duty. It will focus on a sample section of Peachtree-Dunwoody between Abernathy and Glen Meadow Court. The study will have to be conducted for weeks, both when school is in and out of session; no proposed timeline for when to do that was discussed. Consultants should be able to study conditions within private garages, not just on the street, Poole said. The city has management authority over private business’s hiring of traffic police under a 2008 ordinance, city officials said.
“I would love to spend $2,000 to figure this out,” said Sterling as the council by consensus authorized staff to come up with a formal study proposal for a future vote.
Capt. Mullin also suggested the timing of the Abernathy/Peachtree-Dunwoody traffic light might be too short. The lack of a protocol for traffic cops to contact the Sandy Springs traffic management center has been another sticking point that City Manager John McDonough said staff will address.
The council also authorized creating a formal proposal for a full-time “construction ambassador” within the Public Works department. The position is part of proposed improvements in the city’s communication of road and traffic projects, including a better interactive web-based map.
“Who would want this job?” asked City Councilmember John Paulson, only half-joking. Mayor Paul brought the police into the conversation again in a different way, asking the chief if he could loan a “construction ambassador” a spare bulletproof vest.