Atlanta unveils part of snow and ice fleet; Leaders say they're better-prepared

At a cost of nearly $1 million, Atlanta has beefed up its fleet of vehicles to clear snow and ice from its own roads and state routes.

Last January, an ice storm slowed much of metro Atlanta for nearly a week. The persistent icy glaze highlighted breakdowns in communication between state and local agencies, as well as a lack of adequate equipment to deal with the massive storm. Inside city limits, parts of state routes such as Peachtree Street stayed icy for days as the state diverted resources elsewhere. MARTA shut down its bus system for two days.

Now, some local governments are adding equipment, while others are conducting emergency simulations with their neighbors and state planners.

On Monday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed joined top managers of Atlanta's public works department to unveil some of the city's new snow plows and spreaders at the Atlanta Civic Center.

Atlanta spent about $4 million on emergency response in January, Reed said. Compared to that, the $931,000 expenditure for a total of 68 new pieces of equipment was a smart investment, he said. The city bought 28 new sand spreaders, adding to seven old ones, and also purchased 40 snow plows.

"The best way is to just stay prepared," he said. "We're in a better position this year to deal with inclement weather. I heard very clearly from citizens of Atlanta."

Meanwhile, the Georgia Department of Transportation has spent $2.5 million to replace old equipment and buy new equipment such as snowplows and spreaders. It is also adding more storage locations for salt and gravel.

The agency came under heavy criticism for its handling of the January storm. GDOT is gathering cell phone numbers of local leaders and helping to coordinate a Web site where crews can see which roads have been cleared, said spokesman Mark McKinnon.

"Communication is one of the biggest tools we've got," he said. "Simple, good old-fashioned coordination between government agencies."

As a schoolboy, Reed said he enjoyed rough weather and days off from school. But voters in the state's business hub expect Atlanta to be running smoothly within a day or two of a storm, and have little patience for delays, he said recently. "That's the new standard," he said.

Atlanta has about 1,700 miles of city roadways, about 160 bridges and roughly 200 miles of non-interstate state routes within city limits.

The city's new snow and ice plan involves a range of city departments, including parks and recreation, public works, police, fire rescue and watershed, said Richard Mendoza, commissioner of the Department of Public Works.

"This really is a collective team effort," he said.

Mendoza said various state, county and city planners are working together more regularly, staging a regional tabletop exercise last week to simulate the region's response to a snow and ice storm. Lack of communication between an alphabet soup of state and local agencies was one reason the response to January's storm was so jumbled, critics say.

There are "open lines of coordination" now, Mendoza said.

Last month, Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook urged Mendoza to make sure that smaller roads in neighborhoods are cleared quickly. If school buses can't get into neighborhoods and parents can't get out, "all your other work will go to waste," Shook said. Mendoza said new garbage trucks with attached snow plows will help clear local roads this winter.

Atlanta has contracts with five outside contractors who have access to 1,900 additional pieces of equipment at pre-negotiated rates. One reason city officials elected to buy equipment was that suburban contractors had trouble getting their equipment into the city during the January storm, Reed said.

"We have to have an internal capability," he said. "We had to prepare in a manner that was reasonable for a major city."

City officials said the first priority when snow and ice hit are hospitals, public safety facilities, major thoroughfares and major bridges. The second priority are minor thoroughfares and other designated routes. Local streets such as residential neighborhoods are the third priority.