Like vengeful Confederate ghosts rising out of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, the city’s past came back to haunt its current population in stunning fashion this week. Nearly 150 years after General Sherman’s troops devastated the city with fire, Atlanta was left traumatized by snow and ice. But it wasn’t an epic blizzard that shut down the nation’s 9th largest metro area; no, it was a measly 2 inches of powder – along with decades of poor civic planning – that precipitated a “snowpocalypse.” As the accounts of what was going on in my hometown started rolling in, it sounded more and more like a 70s Irwin Allen disaster movie, replete with all the requisite human drama: moms trapped in frigid minivans with toddlers and adults worried about their elderly parents—stuck without medications; a father delivering his baby girl in a stranded car on I-285, the “Perimeter” highway that circles the city; more than 2,000 metro Atlanta children separated from their parents and forced to spend the night at their schools and other makeshift shelters; my cousin Keith grounded at the Atlanta airport, two-fisting beer and liquor drinks as he desperately tried to get back to Seattle. It was humbling; the frailty of a vast megatropolis, my hometown, revealed in the serpentine lines of abandoned vehicles that coiled through the interstate arteries of the city. A city of supposed ascendancy left unnerved by a relative dusting of snow.
Contrary to what your Northern and Rust Belt friends may tell you, or what you hear on the news, what happened in Atlanta is not a case of bad drivers, or a certain Southern helplessness in the face of winter weather. What happened in Atlanta is a cluster bomb of missteps, power plays, greed, and civic irresponsibility exploding in the face of the nation’s 9th largest metro area. It is also a cautionary tale for those of us in Jacksonville as we look toward our city transportation and regional future.
Much like Jacksonville, when it comes to Atlanta, it is important to distinguish between those who live in the city core and those who live in the suburbs. The city of Atlanta itself has a population of around a half million, while the entire metro area has around 6 million residents! Atlanta, like Jacksonville, depends almost exclusively on cars. Atlanta, like Jacksonville, does have a commuter rail system (although calling Jacksonville’s Skyway a rail system maybe a stretch), but it doesn’t serve the whole metro area. And therein lies the problem. Last Tuesday, as schools, businesses and governments, announced plans to close early, everyone who works in Atlanta headed for the freeways – freeways that simply didn’t have the capacity to handle that many vehicles. In the event of an emergency here in Jacksonville, it is easy to see a similar scenario unfolding on some of our more clogged traffic arteries.
An expansive public transportation system – one that a significant number of people actually used – might have been able to take the “pocalypse” out of Atlanta’s “snow.” While a recent poll shows that many in the metro Atlanta area support expanded mass transit, the city hasn’t figured out a way to pay for it. The racial and regional politics of the late 60s and 70s permanently hamstrung Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), restricting its use of income for service and operations, meaning MARTA has not been able to add service or frequency even as Atlanta’s population has boomed over the past 40 years. Compounding MARTA’s problems, whenever it’s needed more money for operating expenses, MARTA has had to cut elsewhere or raise fares. As a result, the transit system has raised the fare over the years to today’s $2.50, making it one of the priciest transit systems in the country.
The Jacksonville metro area and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority are uniquely positioned to avoid some of the mistakes that have come back to bite Atlanta. While metro Atlanta is comprised of a patchwork dozens of Balkanized municipalities and their respective transit systems, Jacksonville and Duval County are consolidated, giving us, at least in theory, a more streamlined and efficient means with which to plan for our infrastructure future. In addition, JTA is one of the few multi-modal transit agencies in the nation, meaning it not only provides mass transit, but it also designs and constructs bridges and highways. This gives JTA an advantage that has been lacking in Atlanta where the Georgia DOT and MARTA often have divergent agendas. JTA provides our area with a better opportunity to have an integrated transportation network and cohesive strategy as we address the infrastructure challenges of the future.
Jacksonville must make some smart decisions in the coming years. Our city developed in the decades at the end of the twentieth century when everyone drove alone in their cars from home to office to store. Now it must move beyond what worked in the past to a new era that demands a new way of building, with up to 70 percent of new development oriented around transit. However, JTA’s funding sources face severe constraints in the near future – the most significant of which is the expiration of the local option gas tax in 2016. It is important that we encourage Jacksonville’s City Council to support JTA funding measures, the most pressing of which is an extension of that 6 cent gas tax, in order to ensure that JTA can continue to make significant transit and infrastructure investment and services to the First Coast. It is time for our politicians and our citizens to think about regionalism rather than fighting it. It is critical to find the kind of balance between roads and public transit that Atlanta has not been able to achieve. In the event of a real emergency, the last thing we want to become is a transportation cautionary tale like our northern neighbors in Hot (Cold) ‘Lanta.