- Associated Press - Sunday, July 29, 2012

ATLANTA — For decades, Atlanta has been the economic engine of the South, a dynamic city on the move. But if you’ve ever gotten behind the wheel here, it doesn’t feel that way.

The Atlanta metropolitan area has some of the worst traffic in America, with drivers routinely stuck in bumper-to-bumper jams that can turn a 10-minute trip into a miserable, one-hour slog.

Hoping to ease the gridlock, the region’s political and business leaders are pushing for a 1 cent increase in the sales tax to pay for billions of dollars in highway improvements and other transportation projects. The proposed tax is on Tuesday’s ballot.

Civic leaders say Atlanta’s economic future hangs in the balance, with the metropolitan area in danger of losing business to more-livable cities unless it acts now to reduce congestion.

“Tampa, Charlotte, Denver, Dallas … they all hope we lose,” said Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams. “The competition has been taking advantage of this.”

Atlanta’s traffic problems have been 50 years in the making, a consequence of runaway growth. The metropolitan area’s population swelled from nearly 1.6 million in 1960 to more than 5.2 million in 2010, and many of the newcomers settled in suburbs radiating farther and farther from Atlanta’s core.

Now those commuters are clogging the highways that run straight through the city or form a big ring around it. While Atlanta does have a commuter rail system, it is laid out basically like a big plus sign and doesn’t reach many parts of the city. And there has long been opposition to expanding it.

The TomTom Congestion Index, compiled by the maker of automobile GPS devices, has ranked Atlanta the nation’s eighth-most clogged city. According to the 2010 census, Atlanta had the fourth-worst commute in America, with drivers taking an average of 30 minutes to get to or from work.

From billboards to beauty shops, the campaign for the tax has been hard-fought in recent weeks, and polls suggest the vote could be close.

Metro Atlanta is one of a dozen regions across Georgia that will vote independently on the tax increase, which could generate a total of more than $18 billion statewide for transportation projects over the next decade.

Atlanta stands to gain the biggest share. Supporters estimate the 1 cent increase would generate more than $8.4 billion between 2013 and 2022. The sales tax in the region is now around 5 or 6 cents on the dollar in most cases.

Each region developed a list of projects involving roads, bridges, mass transit, ports, airports and bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Metro Atlanta’s list is heavy on road projects — including the widening or resurfacing of highways, the building of new ramps and reconstruction of a busy interchange — and light on mass transit.

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