The lingering impact of COVID-19 on metro Atlanta is something of a mixed bag based on numbers Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry presented to the Gwinnett Chamber on Wednesday.
Commuter traffic is still down in Gwinnett County, but in a twist, truck traffic carrying freight through the area is actually up.
You can thank the pandemic for both of those facts.
“You might be interested to know traffic is only 5-10% down compared to last year at this time,” McMurry said. “If you think back to earlier this year, traffic was substantially down like you wouldn’t believe.
“Interestingly enough, as we think about truck traffic in Gwinnett county is actually up 10-20% on average around the county, and that’s because, guess what we’re all doing, we’re ordering everything online and expect it in two days or less so the supply chain has really flipped and we’re seeing more truck volume traffic than ever. Interesting to note, on one segment on (State Route) 316, truck traffic has grown by 40%.”
The impact McMurry and State Road and Tollway Authority Executive Director Chris Tomlinson said the COVID-19 pandemic had on traffic during the joint presentation to the chamber offered a glimpse into how the mobility landscape changed this year in the metro Atlanta area — and how it’s starting to change back to what it was before the pandemic.
Rush hour periods have been shifting throughout the year, for example.
“We’re not seeing morning rush hour be what it used to be,” McMurry said. “But, we’re seeing that at about (11 a.m.) begin to build and it continues to build throughout the day, and we’re now seeing afternoon congestion. I travel the 85 corridor just about every day through Gwinnett County, all the way through Gwinnett County I might add, and rush hour is coming back in the afternoons.”
Tomlinson said the key now is to figure out how to take advantage of the pandemic’s impact on traffic in metro Atlanta to make some improvements before the opportunity is lost.
“Think of it this way,” Tomlinson said. “Mother Nature has cleaned out our congestion garage (so) how do we keep it from getting cluttered back the same way?”
The SRTA executive director, who also leads the Atlanta Transit Link Authority, said his agency is looking at a multi-modal approach to addressing congestion.
One part of that approach involves Peach Pass, which allows drivers to use the tolled Express Lanes on Interstates 85, 75 and 575. There are more than 1.1 million vehicles that have an active Peach Pass transponder.
Another part of the approach involves transit, particularly the Express buses that carry commuters from the suburbs into Atlanta.
Tomlinson, who acknowledged transit ridership isn’t high now, said a new Express Park and Ride lot is being planned for the Sugarloaf area.
“You look at transit ridership today and you’re like, ‘Why are you doing it,’ “ Tomlinson said. “Well, we’re not doing it for today. We’re building it because, even with everything that’s happening in the economy, the numbers point to more and more people moving to Georgia, and they continue to move to Gwinnett ...
“We’re planning for that future.”
There were also some words of caution in McMurry’s and Tomlinson’s comments about traffic in metro Atlanta, however.
Although traffic congestion is returning, they said the state is still seeing people driving faster on the interstates, both in regular lanes and Express Lanes.
“Slow down,” McMurry said. “We’re seeing average interstate speeds being 70 (mph) plus, plus, plus, plus — I won’t give you the actual number, let’s just say it’s plussed a bunch and one on interstate in metro Atlanta — not in Gwinnett — the average 24-hour speed was over 80 miles an hour.
“So what we’re having now is speed, but now we’re getting building congestion, so that’s not a recipe that we want to have.”
Beyond traffic, McMurry and Tomlinson summarized some transportation projects impacting Gwinnett.
Some of the ones McMurry highlighted are projects that have previously been announced, such as continuing the conversion of State Route 316 to a limited access freeway, the construction of a new interchange exit on Interstate 85 and Gravel Springs Road and an ongoing I-85 corridor study Georgia DOT is working on with Gwinnett County.
The corridor study, which will look the section of I-85 from Spaghetti Junction to the Interstate 985 split, is expected to be completed in 2022.
“It’s really a comprehensive look,” McMurry said. “We’re looking at interchange improvements, managed lane or express lane improvements, arterial improvements, multi-modal solutions. Just looking at the whole corridor and looking at what all things can be done along the corridor because it is a vital corridor.
“There are over 300,000 vehicles per day on 85. Some 11-16% of that is trucks.”
Gwinnettians are also using I-85 for other reasons besides using it as a way to get to jobs and entertainment in Atlanta, though.
“Thirty percent of the traffic on 85 only goes two exits or less, so 85’s not only an interstate, and intrastate, but it’s basically also a county connector,” McMurry said.
He also highlighted some other projects the state is working on Gwinnett County.
Those include a $53 million expansion of State Route 120, from Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to Peachtree Parkway slated to be in the state’s 2023 budget; an expansion of Scenic Highway in the Snellville area; and improvements on State Route 20 in the Buford area.
“There are a tremendous amount of things going on in the county,” McMurry said.