ATLANTA - As traffic in the Atlanta region continues to worsen, the hours commuters spend stuck on the highway may have an upside: Their frustration may be the key to finding a transportation solution.
"Congestion can be your friend," Craig Benedetto said. "The worse things get, the better the solutions sound. Desperation can be your ally."
Benedetto, who helped San Diego create a $14 billion transportation plan to improve highways, transit options and local roads, was one of six panelists addressing what other cities have done to ease their traffic woes and what the Atlanta region can learn from their efforts.
With an estimated 2 million people expected to move to the region by 2030, the fourth fastest-growing city in the country spends just two-thirds the national average on transportation infrastructure.
But Sam Olens, president of the Atlanta Regional Commission and chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, said the area is working toward creating a transportation plan - though it is still several years away.
"Twenty-five years ago, no one would imagine that my county would have 675,000 people," he said. "I feel like we have an idea of what we'll look like population-wise when we grow up. We have the energy to solve the problem."
Clarence Marsella, the general manager of Denver's Regional Transportation District, said the importance of including the entire region in transportation plans cannot be overstated. By targeting specific areas when explaining aspects of a plan and allowing feedback before it is finalized, he said, people become invested in a solution.
In Denver, a 12-year plan to add 137 miles of light rail and improve highways will connect the city and its outlying regions. The key to winning wide support, Marsella said, is to include a solution for every area in the region. Within the project, too, there should be unity between different transportation aspects, such as highways and light rail.
"As the region thrives, so thrives the city. We need to look at this together," he said. "We weren't in competition. We were complementary."
Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Keno Hawker said when discussing traffic, people are going to be specific about how they can benefit from projects.
"People are going to locate their house and say, 'What's in it for me?'" he said.
But better transportation is about more than just an individual commute. It can have a role in the economy, as well. Shops or homes could be built along new transit lines or businesses contemplating a move might be drawn to a city that promises improved traffic.
Olens said the region has done a better job of working together recently than it has in decades. Sam A. Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said recent support of initiatives such as the Brain Train means the time is right to explore traffic solutions in Atlanta that may not have been readily accepted in the past.
About 75 percent of people plan their days around congestion, Williams said, and the region cannot wait for a solution any longer.
"The problems we have out here have been an unintended consequence of our success," he said. "We've always been a city of dreamers, a state of problem-solvers. We'll tackle this problem, too."