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Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 1:43pm

Angry Atlantans Get Apologies And Promises

The snow is melting, the ice is retreating and stranded cars are finally leaving Georgia’s motorways. But the blame game is just getting started, and the stakes are high enough to rival Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Two inches of snow brought metro Atlanta to a standstill Tuesday and much of Wednesday. And now people want to know why – the thousands of Georgians who abandoned their cars and whose children had to sleep overnight at their schools. You know, people who vote.

Striking a largely apologetic tone, Gov. Nathan Deal pledged Thursday to make changes in how the state anticipates and responds to weather emergencies.

Speaking at a press conference at the state Capitol, Deal said he’s ordered an internal review of the state agencies involved in failing to adequately prepare for Tuesday’s snow storm.

“I want to start out by apologizing to those individuals who were stranded on our roadways, to those parents whose children were unable to return home in a timely fashion,” he said. “I accept responsibility for the fact we did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences.”

‘I’m Not Looking For A Scapegoat’

He also, at least publicly, avoided pointing the blame at his subordinates, including Charley English, head of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, whom Deal said had given 16 years of “adequate” service.

“I’m not going to look for a scapegoat. I’m the Governor,” he said. “The buck stops with me. I accept the responsibility for it.”
English, for his part, said he wished he had recommended the Governor declare a state of emergency sooner.

“I made a terrible error in judgment late on Monday afternoon and early Tuesday,” he said. “I should have declared the state’s operations center open sooner -- six hours sooner.”

Cable television news shows and the world of social media have pounced on Gov. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for what happened. And much of Thursday’s press conference dwelled in the minutiae of what time each state official learned of the winter storm warning.

Georgia Democrats have seen an opening in the state’s subpar reaction to Tuesday’s snow storm as they scout about for issues in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

DuBose Porter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, believes people who were stuck in traffic on Tuesday or Wednesday will remember it when they go to the polls in November.

And in an interview Wednesday, Porter said a lack of transportation planning is one way the state’s Republican leadership has failed Georgians over the past decade. He went so far as to imagine what it would have been like if a Democrat was in the state’s top office.

“We would have more mass transit,” he said. “Georgia is way behind on this.”

Traffic At A Standstill? So Is Transportation Planning

In the world of coulda, shoulda, woulda, anyone can say anything. Porter and others clearly think if Sonny Perdue had lost in his bid for Governor in 2000, which kicked off the current era of Republican leadership in Georgia, then Atlanta and possibly other cities around the state would have much larger public transit systems.

And that may be true but who knows? What we know to be true, is that most Georgia voters rejected a plan backed by Deal and Reed to bring more public transportation to the state. All but three regions voted against the transportation sales tax in 2012. And since then, any grand plans for fixing Georgia’s transportation system have been shelved.

But transportation experts say what befell Atlanta and to a lesser extent Georgia on Tuesday has roots way beyond a poor public transportation system. It’s nothing less than decades of sprawling development, influenced by economic and social trends, including segregation and then de-segregation.

“The jobs are all over the place and people live all over the place,” said David Goldberg with Transportation For America, in an interview. “People are commuting from suburb to suburb. They may be passing through the city of Atlanta but that’s not their final destination. And that’s the fundamental pre-condition for this crisis.”

Transportation For America is a coalition of elected officials and business leaders all around the country who believe that smart growth – which is to say, not sprawl -- leads to economic prosperity.

Goldberg, a former AJC reporter who’s now based in Seattle, said there are no easy solutions to preventing future snow storms from having a catastrophic human impact. That’s because many people live in places that are miles and miles from basic services, much less mass transit.

He said when he covered Atlanta and Georgia transportation in the 1990s, officials are mired in a particular kind of political gridlock: “Ideological fights over whether transit was good or bad, whether suburbs were good or bad. As if you couldn’t plan for the future with both transit and suburbs.”

‘People Were 20, 30, 40 Miles From Home’

And since the either/or proposition has become the status quo, he said something like Tuesday’s traffic nightmare is inevitable.

“If you completely rely on freeways, you’re stuck. Likewise if you were completely reliant on long distance trains, you’d also be stuck,” he said. “If you have to walk a couple of miles in the snow, it won’t kill you. But these people were 20, 30, 40 miles from home.”

So what’s the solution? Well, Goldberg said the near-term fix has nothing to do with transportation.

“Given Atlanta’s infrastructure, you’ll have to be hyper-vigilant whenever there is any hint of bad weather,” he said. “There will be lots of false alarms. I don’t see any other way.”

How do I know Goldberg’s prediction is sound? Here’s how:

“We will be more aggressive,” Gov. Deal said at the news conference. “We will take those weather warnings more seriously. And there will be as a consequence of that more occasions in which we will declare emergencies where the emergency will not manifest itself.”

And here’s something else you may see, according to Gov. Deal: potentially less truck traffic on Atlanta’s interstates when bad weather hits. He made that suggestion when asked by your GPB News Now correspondent whether now is the time to dust off plans for improving our regional transportation network. The Governor didn't answer with a yay or a nay, but fewer trucks sound like a good start.

State Legislature Back On Friday

The state Legislature will be in session Friday morning starting at 10 a.m. Expect lots of horror stories of traffic jams from Tuesday, and quite a few tales of good Samaritans. But plans to introduce legislation to expand mass transit, or invest more in transportation, or overhaul how people and goods move around the state? Maybe not.

GPB will bring you more expert analysis of infrastructure's role in this week's calamity Friday night at 7 p.m. on On The Story.

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