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.
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.
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.
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.