Snow Jam ’14: The George Washington Bridge of Dumb

By Tom Baxter

What happened last week was a watershed event in the transportation history of the Atlanta metro region, and very likely in the careers of a couple of politicians as well. But it’s important to remember how small a thing it was that touched it all off — small enough to make us the laughingstock of the country, sure, but small enough also to make us worry about how we’d deal with something worse.

The snow and ice that touched off the debacle was comparatively mild compared to the 2011 ice storm. It was more comparable to the 1982 Snow Jam, and that hysterical incident commenced much later in the working day with, if memory serves, much worse conditions.

You just couldn’t blame last week’s disaster on the weather, although it came with snow and ice. This was the George Washington Bridge of Dumb. It demonstrated the extreme fragility of Metro Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure, compounded by a scattered and slow-moving response when the flakes began to fall. It seemed to happen with the speed of a flood tide when the traffic began to pile up, but it had been a long time coming.

For all the hostile questions he’s had to field in his political career, Gov. Nathan Deal must have been taken aback by the ferocity of the questions that met him in his first public attempt to cope with the crisis. He and his team looked flat-footed, not even agreeing with each other on when the mess had become a mess. He made a big mistake in arguing with the weather men. The next day, Deal made a more full-throated statement of responsibility for the disaster that left the interstates looking like location shots for a zombie movie. Some residual political damage is inevitable, but the governor has reason to pray the predictions of more snow don’t come true. As bad as this week has been for Deal, his troubles could get much, much worse.

The drubbing from the national media, much of it borne by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, has been like nothing since the dark days of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Watching Reed getting pounded on “Morning Joe” by the former defenders of Chris Christie, bound not to make the same mistake twice, was to see the flowering of a political metaphor. The traffic jam, whether caused by spite or ineptitude, has become the embodiment of distant, uncaring government, and this week Deal and Reed had a doozie of a traffic jam to answer for.

You live by the brand, you die by the brand. Reed has enjoyed a lot of favorable national exposure as spokesman for not only his city but the entire metro region. And so it was that when the atmosphere on cable turned sour, the mayor was forced to answer for much over which he had no control.

“You’ve got a mid-19th century form of government in a 21st century city that’s got up to 6 million people moving in and around it every day,” former Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, hero of the Katrina cleanup, said on CNN and later to the AJC. There’s a lot of truth to that, although it should be governments in the plural.

“School closing orderly at CMS, unlike Atlanta,” chirped the Charlotte Observer.
“The Weather Channel is located in Atlanta. It’s right there,” Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show.

Talks with the Weather Channel were already going on before Stewart made that joke, Reed said Friday at the Atlanta Press Club, rolling out a cooperative effort with the channel to make Atlanta a model city for weather preparedness. Such an effort would be welcome, along with the reforms announced by Deal at the state level. But without some wider recognition that the system for moving people around the metro area is deeply vulnerable, in fair weather or foul, little is likely to come of these efforts.

By coincidence, the press conference in which former opponents in the fight over the 2012 TSPLOST referendum pledged themselves to a new set of principles for moving forward on transportation concluded Tuesday shortly before the best advertisement for moving forward began.

Some polling after the massive traffic lockup indicates that winning extra tax money for transportation is still an uphill battle, but the effort has got to start somewhere.

The next mega-traffic jam might make this one look like a walk in the park. One hates to plant any ideas, but if Mother Nature can wreak this kind of havoc with a couple of inches of snow, so could a resourceful and malevolent enemy.
Deal, owning up to the gravity of the state’s shortcomings, called this week’s event a “wake-up call.” In reality, we’ve punched the snooze alarm several times already.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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