Gridlock Guy: Unapologetic wrong turn causes a motorcade to ruin another Friday afternoon

201016-Atlanta-Even though traffic is down, highway fatalities in Georgia have not fallen. During normal times, traffic on the Downtown Connector would be bumper-to-bumper on a Friday afternoon. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
201016-Atlanta-Even though traffic is down, highway fatalities in Georgia have not fallen. During normal times, traffic on the Downtown Connector would be bumper-to-bumper on a Friday afternoon. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Unnecessary traffic jams are frustrating. Necessary closures in which human errors worsen the impacts are even worse. When Vice President Mike Pence made a swing to Georgia on Friday, November 20th, his goal was to campaign for Georgia Republicans in a runoff to keep the U.S. Senate red. But an unforced mistake elongated Friday PM drive interstate closures and caused many Georgia drivers to see red. The lack of accountability and empathy that any organization involved in this boondoggle has shown is both disgraceful and par for the course.

Smilin’ Mark McKay [twitter.com] covered the event with Mike Shields [twitter.com] and Alex Williams [twitter.com] for WSB Triple Team Traffic [wsbradio.com]. With Shields and Williams stationed in the WSB Traffic Center, McKay actually was able to fly in the WSB Skycopter this fateful day, since the flight restriction for the VPOTUS is only a few miles. The POTUS embargo is about ten times larger.

McKay asked the pilot to navigate to where they could follow behind and see freeways begin opening. This is when McKay and the team noticed something smelling rotten in the state of Denmark - er - DeKalb.

“We’re going up I-85 in the PDK airspace, getting closer to Spaghetti Junction and we hold short and this is when everything starts to happen now,” McKay said on the most recent WSB Traffic Podcast. [wsbradio.com] The Georgia State Patrol, Cobb County PD, and the U.S. Secret Service had already begun closures, anticipating Pence’s motorcade’s last leg to Dobbins AFB. “We had already confirmed that they had shut down I-75 and I-285. The problem was - the motorcade wasn’t out of Spaghetti Junction yet.”

That by itself isn’t odd. Officers servicing these kinds of closures often block large stretches of the trek ahead of time, so they are able to flush out the traffic.But a mistake in the motorcade’s navigation made the cost of preparation far more difficult for motorists to bear.

McKay and the team and, as things turn out, the agencies in the motorcade, expected the caravan to take the I-85/southbound ramp to I-285/westbound. They went the wrong direction on I-285 - towards Tucker, instead of Cumberland. Ouch.

“So they held up all the traffic in the northwest, they held up all the traffic at 400,” McKay explained, noting how almost every driver has taken the incorrect ramp before. “It’s a clear shot going that way because the Inner Loop has already been cleared out.” But now this motorcade would have to exit and then come back the other way. The problem was, of course, that I-285/northbound, the Outer Loop, was jammed from being closed up at I-85 to allow the motorcade in ahead of it.

Meanwhile, the Pence caravan went the wrong direction on 285 - east instead of west - and is now back in the right direction trying to ease its way through gridlocked traffic to Dobbins Air Reserve Base. #gapol [twitter.com] pic.twitter.com/80x8ZJMZeA

&mdash [t.co]; Greg Bluestein (@bluestein) November [twitter.com] 20, 2020

AJC political insider Greg Bluestein’s head was full of several big, breaking Georgia political stories that day and he was using his time on the long trip from Gainesville back to Dobbins AFB to write two stories on deadline. At some point just after the wrong ramp choice, both he and AJC photographer Alyssa Pointer looked up and noticed the maneuver. They each had covered many of these visits before and first thought the motorcade chose that ramp for a reason.

“Maybe we were just getting on an access road or something or somehow going that way and cutting over - no we were just getting on I-285 for an exit and then turning around,” Bluestein recalled with slight laughter. “And by then, all the security detail that was blocking the streets - they were out of position.” That is when Bluestein and Pointer both knew for sure there was a mistake.

The foible was painfully obvious when the motorcade had to exit I-285 and go through unblocked traffic on a bridge to come back the other way - with no security to hold back that traffic. “The Secret Service guy in our van, he himself was wondering what the heck was happening,” Bluestein said.

“You know how they did it? The left lane,” McKay nearly exclaimed. “They cleared everybody off to the right as best they could and they moved [the motorcade] in the left lane.” McKay watched the contingent do this from a distance, after it passed I-85 and was on its way in the right direction toward I-75 in Cobb.

“We were in the far left lane and we were not moving at a high rate of speed at all. We were just rumbling through pretty slowly, moving in and out of traffic.” Bluestein recalled. “And then suddenly we hear this, like, avalanche of sirens behind us.” Bluestein said that numerous GSP patrol cars came up behind the caravan to help serve as a buffer between the continent’s caboose and the rest of the traffic they passed. “That I-285 stretch - that was rough,” Bluestein chuckled.

Yeah it was. In fact, Bluestein got a text that night from a friend who was stopped for over an hour somewhere. The stoppage could have been one of many places, since the closures hugged the north side Perimeter between Tucker and Cumberland for over 30 minutes longer than planned.

I tried to find out just who actually made the wrong turn. No one at Cobb PD ventured an answer on the record and GSP could only refer me to the Secret Service, who plans the whole detail..

A U.S.S.S. spokesperson responded curtly to my email on the matter. In it, I asked three things: who made the mistake, was there a security risk in the detour, and if there was no security risk, why cause such big closures?

“For operational security reasons, the Secret Service does not discuss specifically or in general terms the means, methods or resources we utilize to carry out our protective mission,” they said. I asked a follow-up question about whom Atlanta motorists should hold accountable for the wrong turn. They did not respond.

The circle of governmental buck-passing moves much faster than the Great Circle Around Atlanta did that Friday. This is the latest example of a political entourage bludgeoning a Friday afternoon commute. Simultaneous visits from President Trump and Vice President Pence almost exactly a year before caused waves of closures and a premature shutdown of the Downtown Connector. Trump’s March visit to the CDC prompted interstates to be blocked far longer than the time needed for the motorcade to return to Dobbins. The obnoxious closures transcend any political party. Nothing is likely to change in this regard in January of 2021.

That the closures are necessary is not the gripe here. To ensure safety, they are. But the amount of time roads stay closed far exceeds the need. I spoke with someone close to the situation months ago and relayed some grievances. They listened to and understood them, but also said nothing would change. Protocol.

So, Atlanta, no one is going to own the mistake. Not one person from three agencies will apologize for your being late to see your kids or for dinner. They certainly won’t publicly empathize with the time, productivity, and gas money wasted. No. This is top secret protocol and we are not even worthy of eye contact. “We, the people” are merely “we, the subjects” when VIPs arrive.

We musn’t wallow in this. The January 5th Senate double-runoff will soon again bring Pence, former President Barack Obama, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and others to our state, Bluestein said. All we can do is plan and endure. Heck, working from home isn’t such a bad idea.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay [wsbradio.com] on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com .

In Other News