- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - The sprawling Atlanta metro area’s commuters navigate some of the longest trips to work in large U.S. cities.

The average commute for metro Atlanta residents is 30 minutes, higher than the national average of nearly 26 minutes, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent U.S. Census data from 2013. The rest of the state’s major metropolitan areas are below that national average.

Atlanta-area officials say a metro area that sprawls from Roswell in the north down to the city’s southern edge means people often travel long distances to reach their workplace. But state and local organizations and governments acknowledge that congestion remains a challenge, affecting everything from recruitment of new companies to quality of life for residents.

And it could get worse if the region’s population growth continues. One projection from the Atlanta Regional Commission estimates 7.9 million people will call the area home by 2040.

Meanwhile, congestion affects the state’s economy and commuters’ wallets. A state study committee formed during the 2014 legislative session to focus on Georgia’s transportation needs estimated billions of dollars lost in gasoline and time because of congestion.

“Pressure is mounting from residents frustrated by congestion to the point where you’re going to see a backlash against growth and development,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, whose community north of Atlanta is at the intersection of busy I-285 and Georgia 400. “It’s already happening.”

Transportation funding dominated the latest legislative session, with lawmakers ultimately approving a $900 million package. But that additional funding largely is dedicated to maintaining the state’s roads and bridges. A study committee last summer estimated that “the full universe of transportation needs” in Georgia, including large road projects in metro Atlanta and urban transit systems, would cost an additional $3.9 billion and $5.4 billion each year.

Meanwhile, the region is planning or has already begun projects aimed at minimizing some congestion, said John Orr, transportation manager with the Atlanta Regional Commission. A $1 billion rebuilding of the interchange between I-285 and Georgia 400 is aimed at a routine bottleneck and 50 miles of “express toll lanes” are planned around the region.

“I think communities realize it requires a menu,” he said. “It’s a package: roadway, transit and, for some areas, improving bicycle and pedestrian travel in employment centers.”

Commuters using transit in metro Atlanta also experience a longer trip on average than the U.S. figure - 57 minutes to nearly 49 on average nationally. In metro Atlanta, transit user accounted for about 3 percent of commuters, defined as those over 16 and not working from home in the latest data from 2013.

Public transit and specifically Atlanta’s system, MARTA for short, has earned some goodwill in recent years. State lawmakers this year gave MARTA more budgeting flexibility and for the first time made $75 million in bonding available to transit systems across the state. MARTA expanded outside Fulton and DeKalb counties for the first time in 2014 after Clayton County voters approved bus service.

The net effect is positive, but challenges remain, MARTA officials said. The agency is working with cities to encourage development around its existing rail stations and has completed a few construction projects with a better mix of funding sources, rather than just MARTA and federal dollars.

Officials from government to the private sector need to take the same long view that those behind MARTA’s creation had in the 1950s and ‘60s, Chief Operating Officer Rich Krisak said.

“At that time, it probably didn’t look like Atlanta needed this system,” he said. “But if we hadn’t built then, we wouldn’t be the center of the South now.”

But adding rail lines is expensive, and expanding other transit options remains a sticking point in some parts of the region. For instance, officials in Cobb County continue to spar about a proposed rapid bus transit system, with some demanding a public referendum on the projects.

Paul said metro Atlanta leaders overall recognize that transit should be part of minimizing congestion, with encouragement from major employers looking for locations near rail stations. He’s just not sure how government can get unwilling drivers to leave their vehicles behind without expanding where transit systems run. Drivers’ commuting patterns don’t run north to south, following the MARTA rail line, he said.

“Atlanta is stretched out over such a broad area,” he said. “If you have to get in your car and go any distance, it seems like people are not going to stop at a station and take a train the rest of the way.”

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