Storm fallout: Transit, planning needed

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

In the wake of this week’s storm and historic gridlock come renewed arguments for bolstering our regional transit system, building and reinforcing our network of roads and highways, and reminding drivers (and officials) that truckers are not to blame for the congestion that hampered storm recovery. The theme? A stronger focus on preparedness and infrastructure is the best way to prevent this mess from happening again.

Note: There are three columns today. Commenting is open.

Real regional transit would have helped

By David Emory

The winter storm that wreaked havoc across metro Atlanta on Tuesday highlighted both the best and worst our city has to offer. Throughout the region, stories of good Samaritans coming to the aid of stranded fellow citizens were an inspiration to us all. That goodwill, however, played out against the backdrop of a regional transportation system that had broken down on an unprecedented scale.

Going forward, there will be no shortage of discussion about what contributed to that failure, from our thin fleet of snowplows to local school closing policy. And while there were many factors at play, there is one issue whose importance cannot be overstated: our lack of a truly robust regional transit infrastructure.

Had such a system been in place Tuesday, the outcome could have looked very different. Mass transit, and particularly rail transit, offers a level of everyday resilience and reliability that simply isn’t afforded by the roadway network. With severe weather events becoming more frequent, building a region that is more resilient to sudden disruptions is of utmost importance. And a more balanced transportation system — meaning less reliance on driving and strengthened regional transit — will be critical to achieving that.

To be fair, we have the start of a solid regional rail network in the existing MARTA system, and it indeed played a vital role this week. At times, it was safe to say that trains were the only part of the regional transportation network functioning at all. MARTA deserves credit for its extraordinary efforts to keep the system running under very difficult circumstances.

For those who take the train to work, Tuesday’s commute was largely a routine affair. My trip home from Decatur to Midtown on the Blue and Gold Lines was unremarkable, despite some lingering disruption from an earlier fire that was quickly contained. There are also stories of MARTA serving as a last resort for stranded motorists. One of our members hosted a friend overnight who, eight hours into a suddenly epic commute from Alpharetta to Smyrna, ditched the car near a rail station and rode into the city instead, where shelter awaited.

As indispensable as MARTA was this week — and is every day to those of us who rely on it — the sad reality is that mass transit in its current state simply isn’t a realistic option for many area residents. And given how we have underinvested in transit amidst the region’s explosive growth, nothing short of a major regional expansion will allow us to catch up.

The challenge of building such a system can admittedly be daunting at first, if for no other reason than cost, which will be billions of dollars. But if we learned anything this week, it should be that the cost of maintaining a heavily car-dependent status quo is even greater. We can’t afford a repeat of what happened Tuesday. In short, we can’t afford not to build the transit system our region deserves.

David Emory is president of Citizens for Progressive Transit.

Better planning can help avert next crisis

By Baruch Feigenbaum

Atlanta’s traffic congestion is bad enough when it is 75 degrees and sunny, but the entire nation has been watching just how awful it gets when we receive two inches of snow.

Clearly the region needs a better plan for winter storms. While the changes made after the 2011 ice storm helped by providing plenty of salt and snowplows this time, poor planning and policy decisions plagued the city this week.

Big storms are more than an inconvenience; they are an economic drain. Because the region couldn’t handle the weather, Georgia businesses are forecast to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. The negative publicity is a major black eye for the region. What Fortune 500 company wants to locate in a major metro area that cannot handle two inches of snow?

The first thing Georgia’s leaders need to do is stop blaming the weatherman. The state and city could create a winter weather advisory board of public sector, private sector, and winter weather experts to help advise government officials on when and how to take action. Schools and non-essential government offices should close immediately when a winter storm warning of this magnitude is issued. While this may result in a few false alarms and an extra ‘snow day’ every couple of years, it is a lot better than kids sleeping in buses.

In situations where weather warnings are issued midday, businesses and schools can stagger the release of their employees and students using a previously agreed upon schedule. All emergency personnel should be activated when a warning is issued so police can monitor employment centers and major highways, directing traffic and ensuring streets do not become blocked.

The state and city needs to be more proactive in closing schools and getting people home so the roads can be treated with salt and sand. Roads turned into ice sheets this week, in part, because clogged streets prevented sanding, salting and snow-plowing.

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) should also consider pre-wetting the worst road surfaces instead of pretreating. Minnesota has found prewetting using calcium chloride, magnesium chloride and acetates is more expensive but also more effective than pretreating. More aggressively pretreating and prewetting before the storm would make deicing roads during the storms easier. During this past storm, as soon as GDOT treated a road it would refreeze.

Local governments do not have the tools to salt and plow all of their roads in a storm like this. But the private sector does. Many construction companies have large trucks perfect for treating side streets. Others have sand and salt. After the 2011 storm, legislation was passed to allow GDOT to team with the private sector to clear roads. A similar law should be introduced to allow local governments to enter into such partnerships.

Atlanta’s had two major storms in three years. It’s time for state and city leaders to realize better transportation planning is vital for the region’s safety.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a Georgia-based transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation.

Don’t blame truckers for storm’s mess

By Bill Graves

There is nothing more frustrating, whether to the truck driver or the commuter, than gridlock and congestion, so it is no surprise that after this week’s winter storms, there are a lot of frustrated people in and around Atlanta.

Trucks are on the road for a reason. Many people expressed frustration at the trucks they saw in the morass around Atlanta this week – but those trucks are doing a critical job in moving the American economy, and insuring Atlantans have the goods they need when they go to the store. Trucks deliver 100% of the consumer goods – the milk, medicine, gasoline, food and clothing – sold in this country. The drivers of those rigs are just trying to get to their destination safely and efficiently. Pointing a finger at them is counterproductive because when the weather clears those drivers will be back on the road making sure store shelves are stocked.

In response to the storm, the Atlanta field office of the American Transportation Research Institute, the not-for-profit research arm of the trucking industry, is conducting an analysis of truck operations and delays caused by the storm, which affected as many as 40,000 trucks.

This week’s events have shown us a few things about our transportation system. First, truckers, like other motorists, were caught in the storm as a result of late or inaccurate forecasts. Better communication and forecasting would’ve lead trucks to use other routes or avoid the area.

Second, this gridlock is a symptom of an overtaxed highway system. Our infrastructure is failing us, and without improvements to increase capacity even minor incidents can lead to incredible congestion and, as we’ve seen, major incidents can cripple a city.

The American Trucking Assocations (ATA) is one of several groups lobbying our elected officials to do more, to find the funds to rebuild and expand a network that was designed in the last century so it functions safely and efficiently into the next one.

The key phrase there is safely. Safety is at the heart of what our industry does every day. That commitment has led to a nearly 40% reduction in truck-involved crashes over the last decade.

ATA urges motorists and truckers to use common sense and appropriate caution when traveling during inclement weather. Our America’s Road Team, a group of professional drivers with millions of accident-free miles of driving under their belts, often talks to motorists and other truck drivers about the hazards of driving in inclement weather.

ATA and the trucking industry are committed to keeping our highways safe and efficient for all motorists. Our commitment means we push for improved roads, safer behaviors and recognition of the critical and essential role trucking plays in our economy and our daily lives.

By working together, we can make sure after the next storm, we’re talking about how well it was handled rather than discussing what went wrong.

Bill Graves is president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.

10 comments Add your comment

Adam Smith

February 4th, 2014
12:42 pm

What I see here is that we are spending too much time focusing on the wrong issues. The reason our transportation system is faulted is because we cannot cut through the political caps of enterprise. Our systems will work if they are allowed to Mayor Reed. Stay in the office and allow your departments to work. You do not need kickbacks – especially from Delta. Stay out of the Paulding Airport’s business. You are not our Mayor, commissioner, or Governor. Too bad politics and greed affects your motives.

lmn

January 31st, 2014
6:59 pm

Chip said: how we should all be forced out of our cars, have our freedom taken away,

I would love the freedom to use another form of transportation! Why would you propose to keep this freedom from those who want it? You can still drive to your heart’s content. Have you been in a city that has an extensive public transit system? People who want to use it, use it and people who want to drive, drive. It’s as simple as that.

Also, regarding your comments that MARTA is a failure- MARTA (as mentioned, the 8th largest system in the US) is the only one that gets no funding from the state. And, the state, while not supporting MARTA, has the power (talk about government…) to tell MARTA how to spend its money (MARTA must spend half its money on capital, they don’t have the freedom (ahem) to upgrade operations if it would like to. So… MARTA is actually quite successful- moves over 500,000 people a day, that would otherwise be clogging the roads.

Bill

January 31st, 2014
3:45 pm

If we had followed thru on the plan to construct the outer perimeter 20 years ago we wouldnt have had the situation we have had to deal with this week. Better late than never, let’s get started!!!

Bob Peppel

January 31st, 2014
12:16 pm

I would like to point out to Mr. Graves that jack-knifed trucks don’t deliver anything. In response to Mr. Feigenbaum I would think that some of the best planning would be for people to remember all the problems we have had previously, and how they haven’t gotten any better, and stay off the roads. Does the state have the authority to tell local school boards that they have to close their schools? In response to Mr. Emory, the state legislature made the decision 40 years ago that roads and sprawl were the solution. Until they decide that they need to change that, which I haven’t seen any indication, we can only wring our hands.

Gerald

January 31st, 2014
11:20 am

Chip:

People like you who get all of their information from ideological echo chambers (whether far left or far right) are part of the problem.

#1. Public transportation systems are a government agency. They are not designed to turn a profit but to provide a public service that everyone – including the private sector – benefits from. So saying that they do not pay for themselves directly is a straw man argument. The reality is that virtually no government agency pays for itself, and this includes schools, foster care agencies, DEFENSE, POLICE DEPARTMENTS, fire departments, hospitals, you name it. It also includes ROADS, as technically ONLY TOLL ROADS DIRECTLY PAY FOR THEMSELVES. In addition, most airports don’t directly pay for themselves either. Hartsfield is one of the few that does, yet people like you insist that it is mismanaged.

2. No one is trying to force you or anyone else to take MARTA. Building a transit system does not remove anyone’s freedom. People who still want to drive certainly can and will. The key is to provide OPTIONS to those who WANT THEM. But it is funny, you are perfectly willing to force people who DO take transportation to pay for roads that they will never use. The way that transportation is funded in this state, college professors and tech workers who ride MARTA in Atlanta and DeKalb every day have their tax money redistributed to pay for highways in rural Georgia that MAY see 100 riders a day. Not even farmers or truckers drive a lot of those routes, yet the GDOT paid to pave them and pays to maintain them.

#3: MARTA is only a failure in the eyes of people who either hate rail, or hate the people who politically controls MARTA. (It is usually the latter, because these same people have no problem with GRTA, the STATE AGENCY that handles public transit in the suburbs, and whose next operating profit will be the first.) Fact #1: MARTA is the 8th busiest transit agency in the nation. Only DC, Boston, San Fran, Philadelphia and two rail agencies that serve the greater New York city area are higher. (Actually the greater New York area has 3 rail agencies and Philadelphia has 2.) Were MARTA to make relatively minor logical expansions (i.e. going further up into North Fulton and adding rail or bus lines to places in DeKalb that want it) it would easily rise to #6. Major (but still cost-effective) changes like connecting to Cobb and Gwinnett areas that already have GRTA (and why are my taxes going to GRTA chip … they really shouldn’t!) and adding BRT to Clayton and it would surpass 100,000,000 riders a year.

MARTA’s only problems were losing money due to mismanagement. Those management issues have long been straightened out, and MARTA’s finances are now in the black. So the only people who continue to claim that MARTA is a failure are those who have ideological reasons to claim so, or those who refuse to acknowledge that an agency whose primary managers and employees are black is actually capable of working. The truth is that the ITP people do a much better job of handling MARTA and Hartsfield than suburban governments are at handling sprawl, and apparently reading weather forecasts for ice storms.

Farouk

January 31st, 2014
10:51 am

One aspect of the winter weather event this week that’s received almost no mention is the fact that throughout it all the power stayed on. Imagine, on top of the transportation debacle, how grim things would’ve been had the lights and heat gone off too. Sure, sometimes the power goes off – seen that happen numerous times in my 50+ years in metro Atlanta – but the power companies are usually prepared and they go to work immediately to put things right. Tuesday the people stranded for hours on the interstates reported they never saw a single cop or any other government type.

Perhaps the City and State governments, where there there seems to be no surfeit of brainpower, could learn a thing or three about planning, logistics and crisis management from Georgia Power and the electric co-ops.

Chip

January 31st, 2014
10:42 am

Well, here we go again… the control freaks just can’t pass up an opportunity to rant about how we should all be forced out of our cars, have our freedom taken away, and forced onto trains. Let’s see… it snowed. And thanks to a combination of bone-headed lack of awareness by certain officials, and an irresponsible lack of situational awareness by some citizens, the metro area grid-locked.

Naturally, the solution is more government! Yes, let’s jack taxes through the roof and borrow borrow borrow for deficit spending, to build a big expensive, over-budget rail system (with urine-soaked bathrooms and train cars) so we can force people into the collective! Let’s waste untold amounts of money on a system that will never make enough money to support itself, all so the control freaks can create another regional layer of governent.

Anyone with even half a function brain can see that these events happen in the Atlanta region once every five or so years… therefore, obviously, it would be far easier, cheaper, and responsible to just stay home a handful of days every decade.

But no… the control freaks and crony contractors just can’t stop, even after the sound, utter, decisive defeat of TSPLOST in 2012… harshly defeated by us unwashed peasant rabble. So, no, let’s don’t be smart and sensible… let’s create another tax-dollar burning black hole of fiscal irresponsibility, so the control freaks can have another layer of unelected, unaccountable, unanswerable government.

After all, we all know what a raging success MARTA has been over the years.

Tom

January 30th, 2014
11:03 pm

Why can’t we start with a simple rule/law/regulation: that as soon as the National Weather Service issues a winter storm WARNING, all schools must close, and all 18 wheelers must idle their vehicles by a certain time after the warning (for example, 90 minutes). This would make sure that children are out of harm’s way, would mean that parents stay home with them (reducing cars on the road), and would get truckers to a safe location. The Trucking Association may object, but in the spirit of “reasonableness”, you can’t make the argument that keeping shelves stocked is worth even one person’s life.

meno

January 30th, 2014
7:42 pm

Very well put Gerald! Any time someone here (esp. on this blog) starts talking in terms of dealing with things as a region the usual characters start crying about “central planning”, and “social engineering”. Clearly, we need to get past being a place where so much power is in the hands of those who see things in such simplistic terms.

Gerald

January 30th, 2014
6:38 pm

What is this “the state and city” stuff? As the suburbanite conservatives endlessly remind us, “the city” is less than 500,000 people. So it should more accurately, “the state and suburban county leaders.” I guess with right wingers, it is “the suburbs” when things are positive (population growth, high-paying jobs, good schools) but “the city” when things go wrong. You can’t blame “the city” for traffic problems in Cobb, Cherokee, Gwinnett etc. county. Why Kasim Reed is allowing himself to be beat up over this instead of pointing it out as loud and often as he can escapes me. Looks like the conservatives only support regionalism when they want to blame Atlanta for their own problems. The suburban counties refuse to even build enough infrastructure to handle their own local traffic, let alone plan for regional traffic (i.e.suburb to city and suburb to suburb).