From his helicopter 1,000 feet above downtown Atlanta, Capt. Herb Emory has a panoramic view of the city's traffic jams. He knows the backups so well that he can predict them by the hour _ the 7 a.m. stop-and-go on Interstate 85 at the Gwinnett Place Mall or the 4 p.m. slowdown on the Downtown Connector.
Yet the dean of Atlanta's radio traffic reporters says he can't predict traffic during the Olympic Games. He has heard the warnings about parking shortages, packed freeways and downtown gridlock. He's just not sure if the stories are real or a scare tactic.
"Nobody can really predict with any accuracy what it will be like," said Emory, a reporter for WSB-AM. "I'm just hoping the scare tactics work."
With three weeks before the July 19 opening ceremonies, Olympic organizers are sending a dual message: They are ready for anything, but it might be a mess anyway.
The Georgia Department of Transportation has a dazzling new traffic management center that can spot backups the second that drivers start tapping their brakes. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games will have 40 park-and-ride lots around the edge of town where spectators can catch buses to downtown events. The MARTA rail system will run around the clock, with fewer seats on each train so more people can stand.
In the downtown "Olympic ring," where most events will be held, ACOG has encouraged businesses to change hours, allow more vacations or let employees work from home.
"The best commuting strategy is "don't commute,' " said one ACOG letter to downtown businesses.
Downtown workers are preparing for the worst. Priscilla Daves will wake up at 4 a.m. each day to get to her desk at the Medical Association of Georgia by 6. A downtown hospital has rented a helicopter to bring doctors to work if traffic gets horrendous. The downtown Domino's Pizza might use mopeds.
But no one can be sure how bad the traffic jams will be.
ACOG is confident it can handle the transit needs of the athletes, coaches, ticket-holders and journalists. But planners are worried about the untold thousands of gawkers, pin traders and souvenir hunters, the people without tickets who will visit downtown Atlanta just to be part of the excitement.
"The average person is not going to be able to load Mom and the kids in the station wagon and drive downtown," said Marion Waters, a Georgia traffic operations engineer. "There's no room to put them."
"A couple of trillion people'
Visitors are being welcomed, but locals have been told to stay away.
The Olympic committee has encouraged downtown businesses to let workers take vacations during the games (July 19 through Aug. 4). ACOG also suggested that downtown employees work at home or at field offices away from the city.
It sounds like ACOG has declared martial law.
"If you must continue to work from your current facility during the Olympic games . . . you will need to make some changes to your routine," said one missive to downtown businesses. The letter said workers should arrive before 7:30 a.m. and depart before 3:30 p.m. Deliveries should be scheduled from midnight to 6 a.m.
"Traveling after 9:30 a.m. also will be heavily congested and should be avoided if possible," said another letter.
Organizers acknowledge it was a scare tactic.
"Instilling the fear of Armageddon has worked in the past," said Paul Kelman, vice president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business group that has assisted ACOG. Similar predictions about the 1994 Super Bowl convinced thousands of Atlanta residents to stay home. Traffic moved smoothly.
But Kelman said the Olympic warnings are legitimate.
"There's going to be mobility like we've never seen before. On the other hand, we've got a couple of trillion people coming. We just don't know what will happen."
Most companies are heeding the warnings. Three-fourths of downtown businesses are expected to change their hours. Kelman said most are willing to cooperate because they recognize the games will give the region a tremendous economic boost.
The biggest challenge will be in the downtown "Olympic ring," which accounts for 80 percent of the tickets. There are 11 venues within a 1-mile radius, including the Olympic Stadium, site of the opening ceremonies and the Olympic flame. Authorities are bracing for a steady stream of people driving by just to see the flame.
Parking should not be as much of a problem at events outside the city, organizers said. But the downtown events pose a huge challenge. On a normal day, about 100,000 people come to work downtown. Planners expect as many as 600,000 each day during the games.
Downtown parking has been sold out for months, so organizers say all ticket-holders must use buses or trains.
"Don't even think about bringing a car downtown," said Waters of the Georgia Department of Transportation.
To prepare for the onslaught, Atlanta police will close streets, eliminate curb-side parking and tow unattended cars.
"That is necessary if we're to even hope of keeping things moving," said Maj. Jonathan S. Gordon, the head of Olympic planning for the Atlanta Police Department.
While others describe the Olympics in more grandiose terms, Gordon summarizes the Games as "the largest gathering of wrecker trucks in the history of Atlanta. If you say, "I'm just going to run in for 10 minutes,' when you come out, your car will be gone."
At the headquarters for the MARTA rail system, they have been rehearsing for bad weather and burning buses.
In the "tabletop" scenarios played out this month, MARTA officials pretended that a bus caught fire at a park-and-ride lot. In another practice scenario, a major thunderstorm shut down the outdoor venues, sending a giant surge of spectators running to the subway stations.
"Most of the recovery time was pretty good _ at least in simulation," said MARTA spokesman Ron Whittington.
The 46-mile rail network is supposed to be the backbone of the Olympic transit system, forming a big plus sign across the city that will serve most of the major venues. The park-and-ride lots also are crucial because they will keep cars away from downtown. Spectators can park for $10 per day and ride the buses and MARTA free, as long as they have a ticket for events that day.
Because there are not enough buses in the entire state for the huge Olympic needs, organizers have asked transit agencies around the nation for loaners. ACOG hopes to have at least 1,350 buses, with five coming from HARTLine in Tampa.
The trains will be packed. Rail ridership should be triple the normal level.
To accommodate them, MARTA trains will run every four minutes at most stations instead of eight and will pack more people inside. By removing 12 seats in each rail car, MARTA officials said they have made room for 36 additional people to stand.
The agency also has extra police officers to handle crowd control if lines become too long at the stations.
Said Whittington: "All we can do is do our best and see what happens."
Pan and tilt
The traffic jams will be 15 feet high inside the red brick building on Confederate Avenue.
This is the Georgia Department of Transportation's new traffic management center, where state employees will follow traffic on big-screen televisions. The state will rely on 311 low-resolution cameras that will keep a constant watch on the major highways, sending a signal to the computers the moment that traffic begins to slow. State employees will then be able to use the 65 high-resolution "pan and tilt" cameras to zoom in on the problems.
Once technicians see the cause of the backup, they can dispatch rescue squads or tow trucks. The state even has 41 "HEROs" _ Highway Emergency Response Operators _ with specially equipped trucks to fix flats, fill empty gas tanks and get drivers moving again.
The center also has an advanced sign system, which can instantly change messages on 41 signs around the city. They will tell drivers what has happened and suggest detours.
The warnings also will go on an Internet web site (http://www.georgia -traveler.com) and be passed on to radio traffic reporters such as Emory.
Every second counts. Research shows that every minute they save in the response time can save eight minutes of traffic backups.
"We're trying to get more information to the motorists so they can make decisions," Waters said.
The traffic center is part of a huge public works program designed to polish the city's image for the games. But the benefits will last for years. Thanks to the Olympics, the city will now have one of the most advanced traffic management systems in the country.
But even the biggest TV screen won't help the Olympic planners if too many unticketed gawkers wander into downtown.
"Don't do it," warned Gordon of the Atlanta police. "You'll spend a lot of time and you'll see nothing."
If you go, take mass transit
For hundreds of thousands of ticketholders and curiosity-seekers who are all headed to the same downtown areas, Olympic organizers have a simple message: Don't drive. There won't be any parking, and roads are likely to reach gridlock.
The MARTA system. Atlanta's rapid rail system will have more trains running more often than ever before. The system will operate 24 hours day.
Park and ride. Ticketholders can park at 40 lots with 80,000 spaces around the perimeter of the city and ride buses to downtown venues. Parking costs $10, but riding the buses or MARTA is free with an event ticket for that day.
Feet. Ticketholders should be prepared to walk "modest" distances of 1 or 2 miles if they want to avoid the congestion.
Atlanta's Olympic ring
It's an imaginary ring around downtown Atlanta, where about three-fourths of the events will be held. Many streets will be blocked off and limited to pedestrians only.
Sources: Olympic Committee, Atlanta police department, Knight-Ridder Tribune.