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Monday, February 3, 2014 - 1:02pm

To Have And To Have Not, Transit Edition

Gov. Nathan Deal named a 29-person severe weather task force Monday in an effort to avoid a repeat of how poorly prepared the state was for Tuesday’s snow storm. It stranded thousands of motorists on roadways for hours and left some children in the metro Atlanta region at their schools overnight.

Deal has made it clear that his administration didn’t respond to the weather in the way it should have or the way he would have liked. He also has said it wasn’t easy to respond properly because the storm’s most-intense snowfall shifted from South Georgia to North Georgia in a matter of hours. And that’s something a Democratic member of his task force, Sen. Steve Thompson of Marietta, echoed.

Deal and other elected officials, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, have said Georgia will have to be more aggressive in the future, and take weather warnings more seriously. And that means, most likely, taking action--such as issuing emergencies and shutting things down--even when it is unclear any action is needed. In those cases, you won’t see any snow flakes when you look outside, but you may see your child because he or she won’t be at school or daycare.

To that end, the task force is charged with ruminating over these issues:

* Preparing for emergency conditions, both long-term and ongoing preparations

* Severe weather warnings and predictions

* Communications and coordination in connection with weather warnings

Gov. Deal said Georgians will be able to weigh in online with their thoughts and concerns as well, although it’s unclear how or where just now.

Task Force And An Internal Review

Deal said the state needs to create a severe weather alert system similar to the Amber Alerts that quickly communicate to all Georgians that a child has gone missing. He has begun conducting an internal review of state agencies involved in what’s been dubbed SnowJam 2014, and he said Monday the findings of that review should be available within 10 days. The task force will report its findings two months after its first meeting, which should take place soon.

So who’s on the task force? You can see all the names here, but briefly, the list includes the heads of the major school districts, the heads of fire and police departments, the head of GEMA, WSB’s Chief Meteorologist Glenn Burns, and several state lawmakers.

One of the lawmakers, Thompson, said he thinks he was chosen because he chaired the Senate Transportation committee at one time. And in his patently folksy way, he said instead of playing the blame game with Gov. Deal, we should dig up the people who dug up the region’s trolley lines decades ago and give them a good working over [Ok, they’re dead already, but you get the idea]. Thompson said more transit would have helped.

Gov. Deal, however, chuckled – I have it on tape, it was a chuckle – when asked by Your GPB News Now correspondent what he could do to get more Georgians out of their cars and off the roadways the next time severe weather hits. [Note, it was a very pleasant chuckle].

Deal: Transit A Good 'Talking Point'

Here’s what he said:

“I know there are those who would suggest that this is an excellent example of why we need more mass transit,” he said at the press conference announcing the task force. “Maybe it is a signal that people would consider that. But the reality is, it would not have caused us to have fewer single occupants in vehicles on the day in question when this happened last week. But I do think it will cause people to think maybe this is an incentive for us to have alternative means of transportation. It certainly is a good talking point.”

Let’s press pause for a moment. The key sentence is:

“It would not have caused us to have fewer single occupants in vehicles on the day in question.”

That’s from someone who spent some political capital on the 2012 transportation tax vote, which is considered largely a failure.

Many experts say the task force and the internal review make sense – we need to know what went wrong, not to play the blame game. And we need to react differently the next time severe weather hits. As Mayor Reed predicted last Friday, Atlanta’s weather has changed for the long term, and that’s going to change how we react to severe weather and more importantly, how often we have to react.

But many are also saying that Tuesday’s snow storm is reminding metro Atlanta and Georgia that transportation remains a problem for the state. They say there is not a single regional transportation network nor are there robust connections between the various transit agencies spread throughout the metro Atlanta region. Even what transit exists is poorly funded after years of service cuts.

And curiously, the lack of a comprehensive regional transportation system has become a problem of haves and have-nots, but not in the way we ordinarily think about it. More on this below.

Acute Problem Shows Chronic Problem

Your GPB News Now Correspondent checked with the guy credited with inventing, for lack of a better word, the idea we in Atlanta now know as the Beltline. In Atlanta, the story is by now legend of how Ryan Gravel was a Georgia Tech graduate student when he came up with the idea of converting 22 miles of underused railroad tracks into a circuit of parks and trails. He turned it into his thesis, and now he works for Atlanta architecture and design firm Perkins and Will.

He said Tuesday’s traffic debacle offers some obvious lessons, and also some food for thought.

First, the obvious part.

“Clearly we need a more robust transportation network,” Gravel said in a telephone interview. “It’s highlighted on a day like Tuesday, but really we see it every day.”

And he says it’s time the region needs to own up to getting what it wanted – maybe not what it said it wanted in words, but in actions. The regional transportation tax that was on the ballot in 2012, for example, passed in only three regions and none of them are in metro Atlanta.

“This is what we’ve all wanted – we as a region. Most of the region hasn’t supported MARTA,” he said. “We’ve had multiple chances to build a more robust system and consistently we’ve decided we don’t want to devote the money to do that. It’s not that it’s wrong or bad. It’s just that there are consequences.”

One of those consequences is that 80 percent of the region has decided it only wants one transportation choice: to drive to work. And Gravel said, given that, it actually could have been a lot worse.

To Have And To Have Not

“Our transportation infrastructure network is vulnerable,” he continued. “We are lucky it was only two inches of snow and not two feet. Or that the power hadn’t gone out."

Sharon Gay, a partner with law and lobbying firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge in Atlanta, echoes Gravel’s remarks.

Gay was an original board member of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. She said she supports the governor’s efforts to form a task force. But without addressing regional transit, she said, it won’t help us solve long-range problems.

“Last week we had an acute problem, but what that did was highlight once again our chronic problem,” she said in an interview at the state Capitol. “We are too dependent on roadways, including this major interstate artery, and we don’t have enough options.”

And then in the space of an anecdote, she sketched the problem of the transit haves and the transit have-nots.

“I walked out of my office at Peachtree Center at 6 p.m. and walked to the Peachtree Center MARTA station, got on MARTA, and I was home in 25 minutes,” she said describing the downtown Atlanta portion of her commute. “I just left my car in the garage. I had choices. But my secretary, who didn’t [have choices], got home at 4 in the morning because she was stuck on I-75.”

Gay said the proverbial silver lining of Tuesday’s storm would be if Atlantans and Georgians start talking about regional transit transit again.

She points to two bills she said are “gaining traction”: the first is from Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth that would allow a few regions to partner to fund transportation projects. There’s also a bill from Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta that would create a regional umbrella organization uniting all of the region’s transit organizations.
She said that would help the occasional transit user.

“Last week if people who don’t normally take transit had been able to figure out how to take it, that would have helped,” she said. “We can’t buy 100 snow plows.”

More Than SnowJam at the Cap

Lawmakers aren’t only scratching their heads over last week’s gridlock. Coming up Tuesday, the state Senate will vote on a resolution about convening a Constitutional Convention. They will also vote on a bill that would set up a maternal mortality review.

And on Wednesday, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Hugh Thompson, will give the annual state of the judiciary address. Stay tuned: It’s always worth the price of admission. And hopefully, he won’t say anything about SnowJam.