Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Atlanta's Connection to Paulding County: A Confusing Yet Fixable Conondrum

Of all of the Atlanta suburbs, none are more poorly connected than those in Paulding County.  In the past decade, Paulding County was one of the fastest growing counties despite a total lack of adequate routes designated to reach the county.  With no interstate access and few state highways designated to reach the county directly, it is exacerbating traffic problems unnecessarily.  Overall traffic patterns are irregular, routes do not connect correctly, bottlenecks are leading to regular gridlock, major intersections are choking traffic and traffic is to say the least a mess.


State highway routings through Cobb County are too limited and have caused nothing but confusion and congestion for years.  It is time for a major change.

What has changed, however, is the commitment by Cobb County to build roads that funneled traffic onto major routes has succeeded and has been for the most part completed.  While these roads were planned and constructed by Cobb County and are mostly surface arterials, the time has come for those roads to transfer to state authorities along with some badly needed upgrades and changes beyond what the county can afford.  These routes constructed primarily for the benefit of Paulding County commuters include:

  • Ernest Barrett Parkway
  • East-West Connector
  • Richard Sailors Parkway/Powder Springs Road
  • Windy Hill Road Connector
  • C.H. James Parkway (GA 6)
In addition, a new highway connecting I-75 directly to Paulding County is proposed on the Northwest corner of the county providing access to U.S. 41 and existing Dabbs Bridge Road along present-day Third Army Road.  

THE PROBLEM

What stands out in this attempt primary by Cobb County to fix the road situation is that GDOT has shown absolutely no concern about the extremely outdated highway routings throughout the county.  The last major shift in highway routings came in 1983 with the last new state route (former GA 120 Loop) completed in 1989.  Since then, new construction has been primarily a county affair.  These new roads are not just a local concern.  They were built intentionally to transfer traffic to new routes.  When traffic shifts to new routes, state and in some cases new U.S. routes should follow.  That has not been the case.

Marietta in particular has been trying to get commuter traffic out of the city for the past 25 years.  That cannot be done when the state continues to route highways close in to the city instead of pushing traffic to these newer and better roads.  In addition, Paulding County has not placed the emphasis on improving its own connections requiring a greater state focus on fixing these problems.  Heavy traffic congestion on U.S. 278 and a focus on GA 120 as a principal arterial route to I-75 through Marietta has exacerbated the problem.  Even worse is how GDOT let GA 381 go off-system in the early 1990's when it still functions as a major route between the county seat of Dallas and I-75/Northwest Cobb County.  In effect, signage is very poor, state routings are ineffective and traffic is discouraged from using any route to reach the county.  More needs to be done, but the primary focus needs to be on fixing state highway routings as well as creating one to two new U.S. routes passing through the region to better align traffic patterns.  In addition, both the counties and the state need to focus future funding into creating more interchanges and grade separations to move traffic more quickly through the entire region.  Road widening can only do so much when principal intersections routinely hold up traffic.  

THE INITIAL CHANGES: NEW HIGHWAY DESIGNATIONS AND ROUTES

Overall, the list above presents some of the roads that must be transferred to state control as a means of adjusting traffic patterns more evenly across the county.  Unfamiliar motorists and commercial interests are likely to avoid roads they do not know as well or think will slow them down because they are not a major route.  Despite the county's best efforts, in no case are these locally constructed routes signed or marked in a fashion to function as highways.  They lack guide signs, trailblazers and route designations making them no better than any other road.  Google still ignores some of these routes due to their lack of status as an official highway leading people along longer routes unnecessarily.  The changes to each road are listed after the caption:


The map above highlights the proposed series of major route changes in Cobb and Paulding Counties to improve east-west connections.  The map above is one of two options with the description of each change below.  Primarily affected roads include Macland Road, Windy Hill Road, Powder Springs Road, East-West Connector, Barrett Parkway and Dallas Highway.

Barrett Parkway (I-575 to Austell Road/GA 5)

It is fairly obvious to anyone that the route of GA 5 through Marietta no longer has any useful value.  Since GA 5 was moved off of Church and Cherokee Streets in 2007, the highway routing is extremely convoluted making it useless to through traffic.  The intention was clear to remove truck traffic from Marietta, but the route still zig zags through the city with far too many turns to be useful.  Any route through Marietta will not save time, and the only logical routing today is along Fairground Street from U.S. 41 to GA 280.

 

The removal of GA 5 from Church and Cherokee Streets in 2007 created such a convoluted route that it has rendered the highway useless throughout Cobb County while GA 120 is inadequate as an east-west route.  The problem is that GA 5 already has a by-pass, and the state has so far been unwilling to move GA 5 to that road.

In other words, GA 5 needs a new route and Barrett Parkway is more than adequate.  It is four lanes, direct, a designated principal arterial, built to modern engineering standards and connects both ends of GA 5 far more directly than the current route.  The only problem is that the roadway was built by the county and is "not to state standards".  This last line is irksome, because lately GDOT has been placing impossible thresholds on local governments as to what "state standards" are as a means of making sure they can never add any road to the state system.  That is a ridiculous and insulting argument.  If a road carries state highway traffic and is built to acceptable engineering standards it should be a STATE HIGHWAY.  Period.  

Obviously there is one small situation with the portion of GA 5 between U.S. 41 and I-75 and its bannered GA 5 Spur section.  These two stretches of roadway are too expensive to transfer to local control, but this does not mean that GA 5 should keep a stupid route just to avoid renumbering the road.  GA 401 Spur used as a secret designation is an easy solution to this dilemma or GA 3 Spur as a spur off of U.S. 41.  I-75 Business Spur is also a sensible possibility helping to better define the roadway's connection to Marietta. GA 5 through Marietta could also become a business route as a means of avoiding other changes. Obviously also restoring state control to Canton Road (Old GA 5) is a possibility as well, but not as GA 5.  That is also a separate issue that will be later discussed when the broader state system reform plan is unveiled.  

The new Barrett Parkway route is very straightforward.  Since I-575 is already part of GA 5, the route is set up like this:
  • Route starts at I-575 and extends west/southwest along Barrett Parkway replacing GA 5 Connector with GA 5 to U.S. 41
  • South of U.S. 41, the state takes over control of Barrett Parkway along the entire roadway from U.S. 41 to Powder Springs Road
  • East of Powder Springs Road, the road name changes to East-West Connector but GA 5 continues eastward until the intersection of Austell Road
  • At Austell Road, GA 5 turns right (south) onto Austell Road
  • Austell Road north of East-West Connector is transferred to Cobb County, designated with a new route number (most likely reverting back to GA 340) or established as part of a business route for GA 5 through the city along most of the current route
  • If GA 5 Business is established through Marietta, it should be routed along Fairground Street between South Cobb Drive (GA 280) and U.S. 41 in lieu of its current routing.
East-West Connector/Powder Springs Road

In the plan for Barrett Parkway, a portion of East-West Connector becomes GA 5.  However, all of the East-West Connector is a principal arterial with a parkway-style freeway portion between Hicks and Fontaine Roads.  It is also one of two principal commuter routes into Paulding County.  Obviously in its current state it cannot be assigned as part of another route since it really does not replace other routes.  While U.S. 278 could perceivably be routed this way, this route runs too close to existing U.S. 78/278 (formerly Bankhead Highway) and would require restoring Atlanta Road (Old U.S. 41/Old GA 3) to the state system.  The best solution is to assign a new route number to the road from its intersection with South Cobb Drive/GA 280 to GA 5 and then along Powder Springs Road from Barrett Parkway to U.S. 278 in Powder Springs.  The new route would include an overlap with GA 5 between Powder Springs Road and Austell Road.  Potential numbers are numerous, but to avoid confusion probably a new assignment is best: most likely unused GA 386.


Here is what you don't see on one of Cobb County's most major routes.  The altered image above shows this scene in what is shown on the map above as a proposed overlap of a relocated GA 5 and a new GA 386, but today this county-maintained intersection provides no real indication of the shortest and best way for commuters to reach cities in Cobb and beyond.  The result is under-utilization of portions of this major road while traffic clogs streets through Marietta (Image from Google Street View).


East-West Connector opened along this stretch near Mableton in 1997.  It is today a major commuter route from Atlanta to Paulding County, but it remains a county road.

Windy Hill Road/Macland Road

This road is currently a very unique situation.  Prior to the completion of the Windy Hill/Macland Connector in 2012, no direct route existed from Dallas to Smyrna and by extension I-75.  While Windy Hill Road was a major road, its terminus at Austell Road presented no real alternative to anything but local traffic.  By extension, Macland Road was simply an alternate route for GA 120 from Marietta to Dallas with fewer upgrades.  The connection of these two roads changed everything.  Now that this vital connection was created, a full southern by-pass of Marietta exists directly linking I-75 to Paulding County.  The only problem is that it is not a state route and has not yet been classified a principal arterial.  


Obviously upgrades are needed on this two lane stretch of Macland Road in western Cobb County, but since this road was connected to I-75 it has become likely the most major surface highway in the region.  It deserves an upgrade not just to a four lane but to a new U.S. highway.

Another problem is that poor connectivity still exists in Paulding County.  Instead of directly linking to U.S. 278, drivers must take a jog along GA 120 from U.S. 278 to reach Macland Road/GA 360.  A new route is needed that ties together these two routes allowing the option to take either route with only one turn, and this new route should preferably form an interchange where it meets.  In addition, the rerouting of GA 120 through Marietta has made GA 360 a better option for GA 120 than Whitlock Avenue and Dallas Highway.

Furthermore, U.S. 278 along its current route is effectively useless.  It does not connect to I-20, it mostly follows U.S. 78 and it is neither the shortest nor best route.  Two options are available to fix this problem:
  1. Reroute U.S. 278 onto Macland Road and Windy Hill Road so that it connects to I-75 then route U.S. 278 down I-75 to rejoin the existing U.S. 278 in Atlanta
  2. Reroute U.S. 278 onto I-20 so that it connects to I-20, but designate Macland Road and Windy Hill Road as U.S. 278 Alternate along the same prescribed route above.  U.S. 278 Alternate would cover existing U.S. 278 between I-75/85 in Atlanta and Lithonia where U.S. 278 currently joins I-20.
Realistically, until the Macland connection is fixed, U.S. 278 Alternate is the better option.  In addition, U.S. 278 Alternate makes more sense since the route it would take from I-75 eastward is convoluted anyway.  Its current route is also convoluted, but the relocation makes sense in that it separates it from existing U.S. 78 onto a more useful route.  Either way, U.S. 278 is relocated and Macland/Windy Hill Road takes some form of U.S. 278.  

Also, the relocation of GA 120 effectively eliminates GA 360.  However, the new designation of Windy Hill Road requires a state overlap.  The result is that the new road becomes GA 360 while the original route is re-designated.  At this point, the situation is pretty confusing, so it will be further explained like this:
  • All of existing GA 360 becomes GA 120.  Former GA 120 becomes GA 120 Alt along Dallas Highway and Whitlock Avenue.  
  • The short connection between GA 120 and 120 Alt in Marietta becomes GA 120 Connector (note that GA 5 is moved out of Marietta requiring this change).  It would be mostly signed with trailblazers to either route.
  • Windy Hill Road/Macland Road is designated as a new GA 360 upgrading it from a county road
  • Windy Hill Road/Macland Road becomes either a relocated U.S. 278 or U.S. 278 Alternate
  • If Windy Hill Road/Macland Road becomes U.S. 278 Alternate, then U.S. 278 is relocated to I-20 between the Thornton Road/GA 6 interchange and Covington.
C.H. James Parkway/Thornton Road

If the above route changes take place, U.S. 278 is either removed from C.H. James Parkway entirely or is relocated onto Thornton Road to reach I-20.  If it is relocated in that direction, then U.S. 278 and I-20 share a route throughout Atlanta.  Thornton and C.H. James Parkway will not, however, lose their GA 6 designation.

Whitlock Avenue/Dallas Highway/Marietta Highway

If GA 120 is relocated onto Macland Road, GA 120 would have to change designations.  Initially, this could be an extension of GA 120 Alt.  However, if Whitlock Avenue is removed from the state system east of Barrett Parkway, a new route designation will be required west of that.  The recommended designation is GA 258 since the number is available, is not confused with other numbers in the area and was long ago replaced with another route designation on its original routing.  

Third Army Road/Dabbs Bridge Road

It is not enough just to link Dabbs Bridge Road to I-75 and still assume Dabbs Bridge Road is an unimportant county road.  Dabbs Bridge Road will in fact become a major highway when the new connection is built.  Funding will need to be established to rebuild and in some cases relocate this road from U.S. 41 to GA 61, and a new state or numbered county highway route should be established along this road and Braswell Mountain Road to the west.  The creation of this route as a new highway will provide an alternate route for commuters into western Paulding and Rockmart beyond to relieve traffic on other routes into the county including U.S. 278 and Windy Hill Road.  Note that numbered county roads will be discussed in depth at a future time.

U.S. 327: Separate Proposal Included for Future Reference

The maps show a route labeled "U.S. 327" running along part of existing GA 120 and Barrett Parkway.  While not important to this specific plan, the roadway is an idea for a new U.S. highway linking Carrollton to Murphy, NC.  It is designed to alleviate confusion replacing many major routes in the area with a single designation while placing a badly needed U.S. designation along GA 5/515 north of Marietta.


This route is slightly different from the map proposed above.  In this plan, U.S. 278 is completely rerouted to Macland Road/Windy Hill Road, Dallas Highway/Whitlock Avenue east of Barrett Parkway is transferred to local control and Dallas Highway west of Barrett Parkway is assigned a new state highway designation.  The core plan mostly remains in place, but this plan allows Marietta the option to forever cancel any programmed improvements to Whitlock Avenue.  U.S. 327 is also shown on both maps as an eventual two-state U.S. highway providing in part a more unified route across the northwestern suburbs.

THE FINAL CHANGES: NEW CONSTRUCTION NEEDED

The plans presented here relocate roadways to better routes coupled with the ability to create better funding for these roads.  However, long-term road improvements will be necessary to make these routes function properly as highways.  The upgrades and intersection improvements are as follows:
  1. New roadway linking U.S. 278 at GA 6 Business in Hiram to present GA 360/Macland Road west of GA 92
    • Project is shown on the provided maps and includes a short four lane roadway with a major interchange where the new routes of GA 120/U.S. 278 Alt, GA 6 Business and U.S. 278 meet
  2. Widening of Macland Road (GA 360/proposed U.S. 278 Alt) from the new roadway connection to Lost Mountain Road (Old GA 176).  
    • This roadway project is already planned, but this change cuts off widening west of the new connector roadway
  3. Interchanges on Macland Road/Windy Hill Road to remove at-grade major intersections.  Macland/Windy Hill will be the primary movement in all cases.
    • Interchange at U.S. 41 (already long-range planned)
    • Interchange at Atlanta Road
    • Interchange at South Cobb Drive/GA 280
    • Interchange at Powder Springs Road
    • Interchange at Lost Mountain Road/New Macland Road/Old GA 176
    • Interchange at Barrett Parkway
  4. Interchanges on Barrett Parkway to remove at-grade major intersections.  Barrett Parkway will be the primary movement in all cases.
    • Interchange at U.S. 41
    • Interchange at Burnt Hickory Road
    • Interchange at Dallas Highway/GA 120 (will be difficult due to development/lack of space)
    • Interchange at Macland Road (same as above)
    • Interchange at Powder Springs Road (lowest priority)
    • Interchange at Austell Road/GA 5
    • Interchange at Floyd Road
    • Grade separation at Hicks Road
  5. GA 6 Interchanges (includes C.H. James Parkway and U.S. 278 in Paulding County)
    • Interchange at Richard Sailors Parkway
    • Interchanges in Hiram at Bill Carruth Parkway and GA 92
    • Interchange with proposed Macland Road Connector
    • Interchange with GA 61
The list above is not a list to be taken lightly, but is necessary as part of adding these routes as major highways.  The sheer cost of constructing 18 new interchanges in a highly urbanized area is staggering, and it is unfortunate that these were not built into the initial design to reduce future costs.  While the both the state and county have invested heavily in these roads, the fact remains that they were not designed to carry the high traffic volumes they carry and will need additional access control to manage high traffic volumes.  Part of the purpose of adjusting these routes is to provide a means to move traffic quickly through Cobb County away from congested downtown areas.  

A COMBINATION OF SHORT-TERM AND LONG TERM SOLUTIONS

The short term solution proposed here is a massive rerouting of highways through Cobb County to better manage the massive traffic heading from Atlanta into Paulding County.  This will mean that some roads will need to be transferred to the local level to make this possible.  This includes almost all non-overlapped portions of GA 5 between U.S. 41 in Marietta and East-West Connector.  The purpose is to route all highways through and around Marietta onto better routes and add major routes to the system regardless of which agency constructed the roadway.  While this will not eliminate traffic, it will alter traffic patterns so as to reduce confusion and take traffic out of Marietta that is generally not local in nature.  

The long term strategy is that by adding these routes to the state highway system that statewide funding can be focused on improving these roads to adequate levels.  Local funding is simply not available to improve these major corridors to the levels of service needed to handle increasing congestion, so state and federal funding will be necessary to begin to eliminate traffic choke points.  In turn, Marietta can be relieved of disturbing/threatening its historic areas by taking major traffic off of the majority of its streets moving it to roads better suited to handle that traffic.