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Gridlock Guy: Procedures for presidential visits must change

AJC reporter David Wickert asked readers how they would solve Atlanta's traffic mess if given a magic wand. Most who responded said mass transit needs to be expanded, not just to outlying counties but also throughout the state. One reader was quite blunt with her solution: "Get your butt on a bus." More than a few people would create tunnels so drivers who don't need to stop in Atlanta can avoid the area. One reader would better enforce the HOT lanes. Two words: "Ziplines everywhere!"

At least there were several days to prepare. And Atlanta needed quite a bit of warning for one of the biggest traffic tie-ups of 2019, as word came four days before that both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would visit the city. But even with several days’ notice, numerous news stories and pleas for forbearance, Friday, November 8th was a horrible date on the roads. And at least some of the backups were avoidable.

» RELATED: President's visit leaves massive delays on Atlanta interstates

Trump would visit a fundraiser for Georgia Senator David Perdue at The Whitley Hotel (formerly the Ritz Carlton) in Buckhead, before speaking at the Black Voices for Trump rally at the Georgia World Congress Center. Pence would fly in an hour later to Dobbins AFB in Marietta and attend the rally before Trump. This meant two different contingencies would move at different routes and times.

All of this added up to five different periods of closures on parts of I-285, GA-400, I-85, I-75, I-75/85 (the Downtown Connector), Cobb Parkway, Lenox Road, Peachtree Road, Piedmont Road, and Northside Drive. This list doesn’t include the entrance ramps along the routes and the closed overpasses to allow the motorcades to pass safely. These closures started occurring during the lunch hour, on a Friday, with bouts of rain threatening — in Atlanta. There were sets of very expected and unexpected consequences and closures between lunch and dinner that Friday.

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Typically, the Georgia State Patrol and GDOT HERO Units shut off interstates and exits just before motorcades start rolling. The consistency of when those closures start and how long they last varies. Both Trump’s and Pence’s arriving motorcades caused closures only on the roads they were on just before and just after they traveled those roads. For example, I-75/southbound in Cobb County stayed closed between Delk Road and I-285 until the motorcade exited I-75 onto I-285/eastbound. Then it re-opened. That was the standard for Pence’s arrival also.

In the past, the WSB Traffic Team has seen closures begin far sooner and last longer. The protocol seems to vary, but the brief closures were the right way to do this.

Law enforcement did not shut down GA-400/southbound, I-85/southbound, or I-75/southbound extremely long for Trump’s middle trip between Buckhead and Downtown Atlanta. And because the freeway was completely free of vehicles, the motorcade moved quickly and minimized the closure pain. This was not the case for Trump’s return trip.

When Pence finished speaking and left town in the 3 p.m. hour, the motorcade strangely did not shut down the entire freeway for its trip. GSP blocked I-75/85/northbound only long enough to allow the motorcade onto the freeway and then released traffic. Trump’s exit more than an hour later was the opposite.

GSP and HEROs starting shutting down I-75/85/northbound, I-75/northbound, I-285 in both directions, and Highway 41 around Dobbins well before Trump left the Congress Center. In fact, he was still on stage and had begun speaking off the cuff. So entire freeways ended up staying closed 20 minutes longer than needed during the 4 p.m. hour of a Friday rush hour. That is absurd.

To add salt to the wound, our job as traffic reporters is far more difficult for each event of this type. First, the WSB Skycopter and many other aircraft are not allowed to fly in a 30-mile radius during the entire time. And then sometime during the Obama years, the Secret Service began forcing GDOT to disable all of its traffic cameras for security reasons. Soon after that, GSP began speaking in code or using different channels to communicate about the closures, so we couldn’t follow them on police scanners. All of this secrecy severely limits our ability to track exactly when and where the many closures are. The interruption of so much information just pours fuel on the fire of the big time delays.

» RELATED: Metro Atlanta transit plan: Here's the project list

We got around some of these difficulties by using a couple of different cameras stationed in key areas, and we also relied on the traffic flow data inside the WSB Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to see when closures began and ended and the delays behind them. We also got calls from our Traffic Troopers stuck in the backups. We staffed up early, broke into programming often, and took the time we needed to share what we knew and what to expect. If you needed to know the status of your likely terrible ride Friday, 95.5 WSB was the place to turn.

But taking a diagnostic of such a stark set of closures shouldn’t be so difficult. The Secret Service being, well, secretive of some things is understandable. But disabling all traffic cameras is an unnecessary overreach and just adds to the problem. If they’re worried about anyone seeing the motorcade in real time, then they need to empty both sides of the roads, evacuate every building, and confiscate every smartphone. Not happening.

And law enforcement was far too hasty in shutting down the freeways so far ahead of Trump’s departure. Could they not have waited for the speech to end? Traffic was going to be bad enough; it didn’t need to get any worse.

The commuting public and employers could have done more to help their fates also. That fateful Friday was a perfect excuse to telecommute, take a half-day, or work flex hours Monday through Thursday. These aren’t options for many jobs, but a few thousand fewer cars on the roads still makes a difference. Many treated the day normally. And those who did not deserve praise.

The procedures for handling the Trump and Pence arrivals seemed perfect; they were only as disruptive as necessary. Business returned to normal soon after the roads opened. But Trump’s departure back to Dobbins was a boondoggle. And not having cameras, real-time communications from law enforcement, and the WSB Skycopter left us tasked with helping people avoid these jams at a deficit. Consistency, sensible security, and better coordination need to be tenets of the next Air Force One or Air Force Two trips to Metro Atlanta.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 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@coxmg.com.