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Relieving the Gridlock : Governor unveils plan to ease congestion

By Billy Corriher

Read how C-TRAN is doing its part to get people out of cars and on the bus, see Page 3.

Before she took maternity leave from her job in Atlanta, Stockbridge resident Ronda Smith said she was spending hours stuck in her car during rush hour every day.

"With everybody coming off (U.S. Highway) 19/41 and coming out of Henry County? it would take me forever," she said. "The traffic just bottlenecks so bad (on Interstate 75) at the Forest Park area."

Smith said that she's now thinking of switching careers so she can find a more "traffic-friendly" job that would spare her the commute to Atlanta.

Smith isn't alone in her frustration, but some relief could be on the way.

Gov. Sonny Perdue announced a plan on Wednesday to have Georgia spend more than $15 billion over the next six years to improve roads in the state and ease traffic congestion in the metro-Atlanta area.

Perdue's "Fast Forward" transportation plan will allocate about half the money, $7.9 billion, for metro-Atlanta projects and the other half, $7.6 billion, for projects across the state.

Under the governor's plan, traffic delays in Clayton County could be minimized thanks to more coverage from the Highway Emergency Response Operator program, which clears accidents from the Interstate highways. The plan also includes the purchase of rights-of-way for High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes along I-75 by 2010.

To better regulate the flow of traffic on I-75 and other congested roads, the investment program also includes $16 million to expand freeway ramp metering, which allows for staggering of cars that are entering the freeway to reduce overall travel time.

To pay for the projects, Georgia will borrow $3 billion from future federal road payments, a funding mechanism Perdue criticized before taking office. The rest of the funding will come from existing Department of Transportation budgets and $1.5 billion in general obligation bonds.

"This is going to enable us to get more things done quicker," said local Transportation board member Dana Lemon.

Though mainly focused on the Atlanta-area, Lemon said that by moving those projects forward, projects in the Southern Crescent could be expected to advance quicker.

"It's part of the big program picture but a little bit further out than the six years," she said.

Loretta Lepore, spokeswoman for Perdue, said that although the southern Metro-Atlanta area did not receive funding for many projects, the governor's plan also includes establishing a task force to evaluate local transportation strategies.

"Each county will assess their own needs," she said.

Lepore said the task force will look at the unique needs of Clayton and other counties and could fund other projects later.

The governor's plan would increase spending by $25 million on the HERO program to more efficiently clear traffic incidents that cause delays. The plan also includes $116 million for traffic signal upgrades and synchronization, which can reduce travel time.

HOV lanes on congested corridors like I-75 in Cobb County and Ga. Highway 400 will be expanded faster with $1.4 billion in Perdue's plan. Rural Interstate Highways will see $1.5 billion for expanding lanes.

The plan was Perdue's most sweeping measure yet on his plans to reduce congestion and improve air quality in metro-Atlanta, a region that still fails to meet standards of the Clean Air Act under the ratings, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report, expected to be released today, showed that air quality in metro-Atlanta, rated as among the nation's worst for 13 years, has improved to only marginally bad. The ratings are based on measuring ground-level ozone, an ingredient of smog that forms on hot days.

But environmentalists immediately bashed the governor's plan, saying road expansions only encourage more traffic and longer commutes.

"We should focus on getting people out of single-passenger cars," said Colleen Kiernan of the Sierra Club.

Perdue said his plan would help air quality because motorists would spend less time idling in traffic jams with roads expanded.

"This is not simply a build, build, build program," he said. "We're also putting more capacity where we need it."

The governor also pointed to his planned $286 million for high-speed buses to the north Atlanta suburbs as evidence that he was supporting some mass transit projects.

But Perdue said most money should go to roads because that's how most people get around.

Lepore said the new plan would not affect the governor's decision on whether or not he will approve the DOT's plan to implement a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy.

"There are other monies that can address that issue," she said. "We're still looking at rail as an option."

Lepore said Perdue was studying the effectiveness of a rail line and its operating costs, some of which could be funded in next year's state budget and through local governments in Clayton County.

Staff writer Michael Davis and the Associated Press contributed to this report.