More disturbing reports from Atlanta’s epic frozen traffic jam disaster are coming to light today. It’s hard to believe how quickly the situation got out of hand when the region’s freeways got hit with a few inches of snow.
A woman who was trapped in her car for 12 hours on a freeway trying to pick up her kids from school described it this way to the New York Times: “It was like something you would see if they told you the plague broke out and you had to run for your life.”
Historian and journalist Rebecca Burns wrote in Politico Magazine today, “More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms.”
With so many lives endangered, or at least disrupted, people are looking for someone — or something — to blame.
But the problem wasn’t just a matter of insufficient snowplows or poorly timed school dismissals. It lay, in part, with a transportation system overly dependent on highways to connect a sprawling region, where jobs and schools are spread thinly around an enormous area, and most people have no choice but to get in a car if they want to get anywhere.
While some point the finger at Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for lack of preparedness, Atlanta transit blog MARTA Rocks! says they don’t deserve the blame. After all, Reed and Deal were both major proponents of a transportation ballot issue last summer called T-SPLOST that would have provided the region’s residents with more alternatives to highway travel. Unfortunately, the measure was rejected by 67 percent of the region’s voters in 2012.
MARTA Rocks! writes:
Now we know a rail line to Cumberland [Mall] wouldn’t have been built by yesterday if we passed [T-SPLOST], but we might at least have the reassurance that what happened yesterday may be less and less likely to happen over the years as our transit network and walkability could have expanded.
In her Politico Magazine story, Burns makes the case that a lack of political cohesion and decades of car-based development are at fault. She goes back to the construction of the “Downtown Connector” that now bisects the city, which bulldozed tens of thousands of people out of the heart of Atlanta beginning in the 1950s, “further decreasing the density of the city’s population and triggering more sprawl to the suburbs.”
Burns also laments the failure of the transportation tax measure, saying it illustrates a wider regional problem: the inability to act cooperatively to solve problems. ”This snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it,” she wrote.
T-SPLOST was supported by a majority of people who live inside Atlanta’s city limits. But these folks, Burns points out, make up only about 500,000 residents in a region of 6 million. Political power — and sheer numbers — lies in the suburbs.