Snow Jam 2014 reveals to the world that metro Atlanta is a divided region

By Maria Saporta

Snow jam 2014 opened a window for us see ourselves through the eyes of how the rest of nation and the world sees us.

And what they saw was an Atlanta that did not have its act together.

What they could not see or understand was why. From the images of cars and trucks on highways that had turned into parking lots they did not see political dividing lines separating the multitude of counties and cities in our region.

They saw just one city, just one region — Atlanta — in a state of paralysis. They did not see a patchwork of 60 cities and dozens of individual counties and school districts. Instead, the script on the bottom of television screens kept reminding us that we are the ninth largest metro area in the nation.

But for us to really be a region, we need to think and act like a region.

Unfortunately we are much more like Humpty Dumpty’s egg — broken into so many pieces that many of our citizens don’t even want to admit that we are part of one region — that our livelihoods will rise and fall with the success of our combined success.

Some among us falsely believe that they are part of independent governing units, and that they don’t have to worry about economic fate of Clayton County or south Fulton or any other corner of our complex region. That they don’t have to worry about the modes of transportation (or lack thereof) in a non-adjacent county.

Then Snow Jam 2014 happens — and if we’re paying attention, we realize that we are experiencing the consequences of decades of inadequate regional cooperation and governance combined with myopic vision.

This past week we became the region of ridicule by the national media. It was not just a Southern city that couldn’t deal with two or three inches of snow. We became a story of a region that couldn’t work together — of a region without leadership.

How much has that cost us in terms of our national and international image?

Like it or not, the signature of our region is Atlanta. When the world looks at I-285 and I-20, it doesn’t think that it is looking at DeKalb County on the east or Cobb County on the west. To the national viewer, he or she is looking at Atlanta.

Atlanta is the brand — it is the calling card — not just for the 10-county or 20-county or 28-county region but even for the entire state of Georgia.

And yet, when it comes to investing in the brand, protecting the brand and promoting the brand of Atlanta — so many of the elected officials in Georgia as well as the metro counties and the multiplying cities in the region turn the other way.

There are so many lessons we can learn from Snow Jam 2014.

Images shown in the national media reinforced the perception that we are a region of sprawl that has invested primarily in one mode of transportation. Jon Stewart joked about whether there was some law in Atlanta that required only one commuter per car.

Just a few years ago, we had a well thought out regional transit plan that would have offered transportation alternatives in the core 13-counties in our region. The plan actually had been embraced by all the commission chairs in those counties as well as all the local and state transportation agencies.

But ever since the regional transportation sales tax did not pass in July 2012, talk of transit has become a hot potato. (I still believe that if the referendum had been held during the general election of November, 2012, it likely would have passed).

Now there’s talk of a fragmented approach to transportation funding — two or three counties joining up and passing a fraction of a penny tax, which only further perpetuates the sad reality that we can’t think or act like a region.

And a common refrain is that the cost of transit — especially rail transit — is too high. A lesson to be learned from this week — bus transit may be cheaper, but buses really do not offer a true alternative when our roads and highways already are parking lots.

And have we really weighed the costs of not having a robust rail transit system (for both passengers and freight)? Can we really afford to not invest in our future? Can we really afford to continue being a region of ridicule?

In reading news stories and watching television reports, people in metro Atlanta ended up getting out of their cars and walking miles to get to where they needed to go.

There’s another lesson here. Let’s create a city with streets where people can actually safely walk and ride bicycles. Let’s create a city where we don’t have to live so far away from where we work or shop or play.

Actually throughout our region we do have livable communities that encourage walkable lifestyles. But last week’s national window that became our mirror showed we still have a long way to go before we reduce our overdependence on cars and trucks on our roads and highways.

At one time — during the administration of Gov. Roy Barnes — the hope was that the governor of the state of Georgia would realize that he also needed to serve as the mayor of metro Atlanta — as the leader who could bring the region together.

But, for whatever reason or reasons, the governors since Barnes have had little to no inclination to assume the role of metro mayor.

Another hope had been that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed would have stepped up and become the symbolic spokesman for the entire region.

Reed could have acknowledged that we — the Atlanta region and the state — could have done a much better job managing through this snow storm. He also could have used the debacle as a platform to explain why we need more transit and infrastructure investment in our region as well as most metro areas in the country.

Instead, in several national interviews, Reed got defensive and said that the roads in the City of Atlanta were not congested and that the images on television of stalled traffic on streets and highways were either not in the city limits or were the state’s responsibility.

But to the national viewer, that was irrelevant. To them, the images they saw were of Atlanta.

Whether we like it or not, to the rest of the world we are a region. Whether we act like it or not, we are still one region.

And that’s why it’s a shame that our national image took such a serious hit this past week.

After all, Atlanta has worked hard for decades to craft its national and international reputation as a cosmopolitan and enlightened city where people of all walks of life can find prosperity.

We may never know how many companies or entrepreneurs or young creative professionals were negatively influenced by Snow Jam 2014 — discouraged from coming to Atlanta after seeing how poorly we function as a region in a time of crisis.

So what can we do to control the damage?

Ideally, starting today, we would begin to think, plan and act like a region. And we could try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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