The Day We Lost Atlanta

Rebecca Burns, Politico, January 29, 2014

On Tuesday, snowfall of just over 2 inches shut down metropolitan Atlanta’s roads, schools, churches, government offices and businesses. Thousands of flights were cancelled at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms. It seemed that the only places open were Waffle House and Home Depot, the former serving hash browns and coffee and the latter opening up its stores as makeshift shelters. People who didn’t camp out in supermarket aisles and hotel lobbies were trapped in cars for 10, 16, 20 hours as they tried to make commutes that normally take just 30 minutes.

Surely to everyone else in the world, the staggering sight of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States brought to a standstill by a few flurries seemed comical at first. Oh, those Southerners, they don’t know how to drive in the snow! {snip}

But before nightfall, the situation in Atlanta had grown more tragic than comic. A baby was delivered by her father in a car on I-285, the “Perimeter” highway that circles the city. Parents en route to pick up kids dismissed from school early were stranded on highways. The Facebook group #SnowedOutAtlanta contained desperate pleas from moms trapped in frigid minivans with toddlers and adults worried about their elderly parents—stuck without medications.

What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather. More than any event I’ve witnessed in two decades of living in and writing about this city, this snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it. It tells us something not just about what’s wrong with one city in America today but what can happen when disaster strikes many places across the country. As with famines in foreign lands, it’s important to understand: It’s not an act of nature or God—this fiasco is manmade from start to finish. But to truly get what’s wrong with Atlanta today, you have to look at these four factors, decades in the making.

1. Atlanta, the city, should not be confused with Atlanta, the region.

Distinguishing between the city proper and the metro region is no semantic quibble. The city itself, population just over a half million, represents only a fraction of the metro’s 6 million residents. Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, is the face you see on CNN and the guy called out by Al Roker, but he’s only one of more than 60 mayors of the towns and cities that make up the Atlanta region, which, depending on whose metric you use consists of 10, 15, or 28 counties (each with their own executive officers).


So on Tuesday, as schools, businesses and governments, announced plans to close early, everyone who works in Atlanta headed for the freeways to get home or collect their children. In a press conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Reed reported that one million vehicles were part of the mass exodus from downtown. We’re not morons, Northerners: The problem was not one of Southerners’ inability to drive on icy roads, but of too many cars headed for congested highways. And that brings us to the next history lesson.

2. Since the 1950s, the car—and the highway—has dominated Atlanta’s transportation system.


3. The transit that eventually was built does not serve the whole region.

In the early 1970s, Atlanta finally got some transit. But the system that was created, MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), serves only the city of Atlanta and the two counties in which its boundaries fall, DeKalb and Fulton. In 1965 and 1971 votes, residents of the other adjoining counties—Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett—rejected MARTA, with votes following racial lines. {snip}


4. Metro voters rejected transit relief in a 2012 referendum.

In a rare showing of regional allegiance, local leaders supported a referendum on a special tax for transportation improvement, known as T-SPLOST, in July 2012. But voters, suspicious of the government’s ability to carry out the plans, rejected T-SPLOST resoundingly.


And that brings us back to Atlanta’s present snowbound state. There was no coordination around school closings, because there are more than two-dozen city and county school systems in “Atlanta.” There was little coordination between highway clearance and service to city streets because “Atlanta” is comprised of dozens of municipalities connected by state and federal highway systems. In one of the most surreal episodes today, Charley English, the head of the Georgia Emergency Management Association, asserted that gridlock wasn’t severe around 3 and 4 p.m. Tuesday, never mind that traffic maps glared red and motorists had already been sitting on freeways for hours at that time. Mayor Reed claimed that the city had done its part getting motorists out of downtown Atlanta, and that getting them the rest of the way home was up to the state. On Tuesday night, Gov. Nathan Deal outrageously called the storm “unexpected,” never mind weather reports warning of the snowfall. {snip}


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