Gridlock Guy: Atlanta could have done much worse in season’s first snow

Traffic built up on I-285 Friday as a wintery mixture of sleet fell. Yet again, commuters and school buses poured onto roadways at once when the snow started, but the gridlock was short lived. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Traffic built up on I-285 Friday as a wintery mixture of sleet fell. Yet again, commuters and school buses poured onto roadways at once when the snow started, but the gridlock was short lived. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Forecasts for this past weekend’s winter weather scare called mostly for light snow that would only accumulate on surfaces other than roads. By Friday mid-morning, after many had gotten to work or school, the skies opened for far more snow than predicted. As the giant, fluffy flakes quickly coated trees and grass in the north, west, and southwest metro area (with apologies to Conyers and McDonough), employers and school officials faced a tough decision.

Atlanta immediately had a flashback to Snowmageddon 2014, when tens of thousands got stuck in traffic jams all over town and then frozen in place. Fortunately, this system did not carry with it freezing rain and temperatures largely remained above freezing until Friday evening. But the traffic jams did exist.

Friday morning drive was a snooze fest, as seemingly just enough people called it a day to keep the inbound rush moving. But once schools set early dismissals and businesses began to let out, gridlock ensued and that 2014 nightmare crystallized. Small trips took over an hour and big treks across the metro took three to five hours. But for as much gridlock as there was and as bad as weather conditions deteriorated, there wasn’t a tremendous number of crashes. And by 4 or 5 p.m., the jams dramatically improved. Friday’s ride home was pretty much a really bad and snowy version of a holiday rush hour. It happened early.

The weather being just snow and not ice helped things, but so did GDOT’s preparations. Both state and local crews pre-treated roads, beginning Thursday night and then continued adding brine, salt, and a little mayo (okay, not mayo) for the duration. With some exceptions like on I-20 west of town and Highway 140 at the Fulton-Cherokee line, major roads stayed largely passable and few people got stuck.

When the sun arose Saturday morning, most roads were wet and slushy. Hills, bridges, and overpasses were tough, but people generally could get around, though GDOT urged them to stay off the roads. Just plain rainy, wet roads see increased wrecks, so icy roads surely would see a rash of crashes. Our monitoring from the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center really didn’t pick up that crash outbreak.

The biggest surprise in this December snow was the amount of trees and wires that fell. Even without freezing rain, the timber patrol was in full force, as the heavy snow bent over and pulled down thousands of trees and wires. Crews in Cobb, Cherokee, Douglas, Paulding, and Carroll counties saw the most widespread problems. This makes sense as some of the western suburbs got a foot of snow.

911 dispatchers in some of those counties urged me to tell WSB Radio listeners to just stay off of the roads, because there were so many downed trees and small wrecks. Trees even came down on parts of I-20/westbound in western Douglas County around Post Rd., so many that it was almost impassable Saturday morning. That stretch if I-20 was the worst interstate in this storm, but nothing like in 2014, when trucks got stranded for days.

Considering how much snow fell and how many people went to work and school Friday, Atlanta braved this heavy snow well. There were semblances of all kinds of problems that normally characterize Atlanta wintry weather. But public emergency agencies took the threat seriously, as did the private sector. And North Georgia got good luck in the form of zero frozen rain. All of this combined to make Atlanta’s handling of the storm mostly a success.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive airborne anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at doug.turnbull@coxinc.com