Atlanta’s icy gridlock could heat up talk about transportation funding

Traffic was grid locked on the connector Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as many employers let their employees off all at the same time. The winter storm that paralyzed metro Atlanta and other parts of Georgia prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon, Jan.28, 2014 for all 159 counties. In a matter of hours, snow blanketed the area. But any hopes of a winter wonderland were dashed by a more miserable reality. Take rush-hour traffic in Atlanta, add inches of slushy, slick mess and the result is gridlock on interstates in all directions. For hours, roads and interstates have remained jammed stranding some drivers, and there were too many wrecks to count Tuesday afternoon as a winter storm continued to dump snow across metro Atlanta. Many school systems dismissed early, sending some parents scrambling home. Others seemed to hit the roads, too. But it was anything but a typical commute, even by Atlanta standards. Drivers reported commutes of more than three hours. Some school buses couldn’t run routes and were forced to return to schools. And teachers and students were faced Tuesday afternoon with the real possibility of spending the night in the classroom. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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Traffic was grid locked on the connector Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as many employers let their employees off all at the same time. The winter storm that paralyzed metro Atlanta and other parts of Georgia prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon, Jan.28, 2014 for all 159 counties. In a matter of hours, snow blanketed the area. But any hopes of a winter wonderland were dashed by a more miserable reality. Take rush-hour traffic in Atlanta, add inches of slushy, slick mess and the result is gridlock on interstates in all directions. For hours, roads and interstates have remained jammed stranding some drivers, and there were too many wrecks to count Tuesday afternoon as a winter storm continued to dump snow across metro Atlanta. Many school systems dismissed early, sending some parents scrambling home. Others seemed to hit the roads, too. But it was anything but a typical commute, even by Atlanta standards. Drivers reported commutes of more than three hours. Some school buses couldn’t run routes and were forced to return to schools. And teachers and students were faced Tuesday afternoon with the real possibility of spending the night in the classroom. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

This week’s icy gridlock underscored metro Atlanta’s reliance on cars and congested interstates. It may have also thawed debate on whether state leaders should increase funding for road and mass transit projects.

Georgia’s GOP leadership has shown little appetite to revive a discussion over funding in the wake of voters’ defeat in 2012 of a $7.2 billion transportation tax referendum to pay for projects regionwide. Now it may not have a choice, with lawmakers noting that some of the strongest opposition to the referendum came from parts of the region where thousands of people sat this week trapped for hours in their cars.

“Maybe something positive will come out of it,” said House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla. “Maybe this will get some people talking about transportation, about whether we should be spending more on transportation.”

Friday was the first day back at the Capitol for state lawmakers and employees since the storm, and it didn’t take policymakers long to hit on the need to take a serious look at improving Atlanta’s transportation system.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, has already filed House Bill 195 to allow two or more neighboring counties to create special districts to enact a transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST. Roberts said another bill could be filed in the next week or so to boost transportation funding. In the Senate, state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, is pushing Senate Resolution 735 encouraging the region’s four separate transit providers to create a unified website. It’s a baby step toward his desire to consolidate them under a single governing authority rebranded as “The ATL” (The Atlanta Transit Line).

About $15 billion is budgeted for projects in the 18-county Atlanta area over the next 26 years to fix traffic bottlenecks and improve transit. But planners at the Atlanta Regional Commission have said that level of infrastructure investment won’t be enough to keep up with the expected growth in congestion from the addition of 3 million more residents by 2040.

Nationally, Georgia ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in per capita transportation spending. State Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Marietta, implored colleagues Friday to rethink their lack of state commitment to transportation funding.

“We didn’t fund transit because we never could convince the rural areas — even though 65 percent of the money in this state comes from 20 counties (in metro Atlanta), 65 percent of that money goes back to rural Georgia,” Thompson said. “So we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the head. And we’ve never really explained it or had the dialogue we’ve needed to back at the legislative branch and the executive branch. In the next three years, we better get off our proverbial cans and do something or everybody’s going to go home.”

During his post-storm press briefings, Gov. Nathan Deal refused to say whether it’s time to revive the transportation funding debate. Instead, he pivoted toward a more general idea of restricting truck traffic during weather emergencies.

Jack-knifed trucks contributed to metro Atlanta’s traffic nightmare, said Jim Messerly, president of Marietta-based Courier Express, which operates throughout the Southeast with about 750 vehicles. But he said there was enough blame to go around.

“When the entire workforce of Atlanta decides they have to get home at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, trucks or no trucks, there’s going to be problems,” Messerly said.

He added: “The trucking industry didn’t cause the issues. The circumstances did.”

Transportation analyst David Goldberg said the ice storm proved that the more options you have in a situation like this, the better off the entire region will be. He calls the storm a “Sprawlageddon” that once again exposed the city’s dependence on long suburb-to-suburb highway commutes.

“You can’t completely undo that at this point, but for the region’s long-term economic viability and quality of life — as well as resiliency in the face of climatic events — you have to provide more extensive transit to connect suburban centers as well as the city,” said Goldberg, an analyst with Transportation for America.

In the 2012 transportation referendum, 63 percent of metro Atlanta voters voted no.

Now, “I think we have seen a conversation begin since the events of Tuesday that we really do need to look at infrastructure,” said Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a new advocacy group pushing for transportation improvements that includes those who opposed the referendum two years ago.

“We need to fund our priorities and transportation funding needs to be a priority,” Harper said. The group, which includes members of Georgia Tea Party Patriots, plus the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, wants all the state’s motor fuel tax to fund transportation. It also wants to let counties and cities hold their own sales tax votes for transportation, rather than grouping them with their neighbors in a regional format similar to the T-SPLOST proposal.

Currently there’s a 4 percent state tax on fuel — 3 percent goes to the Department of Transportation and 1 percent to the state’s general fund. Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, is pushing legislation to make sure it all goes to transportation.

Some political veterans, however, are skeptical that voters will be transformed in their thinking about transportation funding after having spent long hours trying to get home Tuesday and early Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, thinks the storm will lead to more conversation about how to improve the transportation system. But no quick action.

“I think the effects of this will linger, and we will have conversations, but I don’t think there will be any immediate action from either body (of the Legislature),” Abrams said.

“Do we need more money for transportation? You’re doggone right we do,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former Republican state lawmaker. “Is the storm going to change all the emotion and politics of it? No. If you expect them to change their general attitude toward taxes, it is not going to happen.”

AJC editor Matt Kempner contributed to this report.