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Archive for January, 2014

Snowzilla 2014

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Atlanta is slowly coming back to life.  I’ve lived here since 1965, and I’ve seen my share of Atlanta in freezing weather.  And, I’ve had a child-like innocent attitude toward this sort of event, discussed here.  This time, however, things are different, and the reasons why are interesting.

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Whenever Atlanta freezes up like it did at the end of January, 2014, I always look back and remember that those days were extraordinary and unique.  It all comes down to where I was and who I was with.

History

  • The first storm that I remember was in 1973.  I had been visiting my parents in Athens and suddenly realized that I needed to get back home before the storm.  I crept into town that Sunday afternoon, headed toward my apartment in Buckhead.  There was a 1/2″ patina of ice on my car.  During the night, the electricity went off as thousands of ice covered limbs fell onto power lines.  I was relatively fortunate, since the power came back on a day later, but many parts of town were dark for a week, if not longer.  After that event, Georgia Power became more aggressive in maintaining power line rights of way.
  • In 1982, I was sitting in a bar on Irby Street in Buckhead drinking beer with a friend.  We looked out to see snow falling heavily; he headed home and I found myself making a choice as to where I would go.  I could go home to my little cottage in Brookhaven or I could go be with the woman that I loved.  By the time things had firmed up and I was granted permission to stay with her, the roads had become barely passable.  I ended up walking to Sandy Springs in the snow.  Nearby, I-285 was completely shut down, with cars parked all over the place.  I’m glad that I was with her, even though we had to walk to the local 7/11 to buy groceries as things dragged on.  I would eventually marry that lovely young woman.
  • By 1993, we were married and living in Brookhaven when another storm hit town.  We were without electricity for five days.  Fortunately, my wife treated it as a camping adventure, and we cozied up near the fireplace under blankets.  The family cats hung nearby, too.  The big discovery in that storm was that we still had hot water; I had assumed that because there was no electricity, there was no ignitor for the water heater.    Fortunately, the heater had a pilot light and we were able to warm up in the bathtub.

There have been other storms, and there have been some false alarms, too.  I remember there was the threat of bad weather in the early 1980’s; everybody left town and went home to prepare for the oncoming storm.  It never happened and there was some finger-pointing about it after the fact.  Employers and schools were embarrassed.

Through it all, there has been a sense of “Well, this stuff happens from time to time.” and that’s been it.  This time appears to be different.

Politics

Certainly, politics has something to do with it.  Governor Nathan Deal is running for reelection.  Like him or hate him, the first Deal administration has been remarkably quiet.  There have been a few dust ups along the way, but the Deal administration has generally cruised right along.  Of course, with an impending election, opponents are eager to drum up whatever campaign rhetoric is available.

One of our neighbors, an all-politics all-the-time sort, had this to say:

I was just told by a friend that her son saw our Governor, Nathan Deal at the Varsity at lunchtime yesterday right as the snow was starting. He even took a picture of him. I guess a chili cheese slaw dog and a frosted orange took precedence over Georgian’s lives.

We can only speculate as to what she would have had to say if she had gone into the Varsity’s men’s room.  And, now that things are over, opponents are looking for anything that will stick.  I don’t remember previous governors getting this kind of flak; usually the Atlanta mayors get hit with it.

What is different this time is that popular expectations have changed.  We’ve been going through a five-year cycle of significantly increased governmental presence in our lives.  We are being told that government will be there to solve our every problem, and that only government has the tools to make such changes.  It was inevitable that popular expectations would rise as the government’s presence in our lives also rose.  Now you hear people asking “Why wasn’t the National Guard called out sooner?”  This on the second day of the storm.

Social Media

In spite of the constant drumbeats of anger over the traffic situation, there were some distinct bright spots.  Facebook proved to be an extremely useful tool, especially when someone set up a page that helped people find shelter:

enhanced-20286-1391019806-29All those little white markers  indicate someone who is willing to give shelter to strangers in this emergency.  Likewise, others reached out to strangers stuck on the highways:

enhanced-buzz-30973-1391023549-8More about those kind souls, here.  Home Depot and local grocery stores let people sleep inside where it was warm.  Not exactly the best, but at least acceptable.  Chick-fil-a reportedly gave out food to those stuck in place.  This sort of stuff is Atlanta at its best.  And, there was dry humor:

Stay off Johnson Ferry.  Seriously.

Stay off Johnson Ferry. Seriously.

Social media has not only been the font of information for people affected by the storm, it has also been the source of discussion.  Some it has been very good:

Lisa Engle I think no matter the call made, right / wrong, pockets of people will find “fault” and reason to highlight how it “should” be done different. After 25(ish?) in “the system”, I’ve seen that there is always controversy about the choices made. Julie – The call made a few weeks ago was bc of the buses not having the fuel “supplement” for the diesel to deal w/ the cold.. (from what I’ve been told)…wasn’t a “kids in the cold” issue…more a “can’t have kids stranded bc our buses won’t run” issue. Personally, I think the call to cancel would’ve been best in hindsight, but sure as that happened the snow would’ve arrived at 6:PM instead and the system would be made to look like idiots who caused parents trouble w/ childcare. Moving on…

There already has been major discussion online and in the newspapers.  This includes an article titled “Why the South Fell Apart”.  There is sure to be a lot more, including this blog item.  Yet, there is one other matter that has not been discussed…….

The Trucks

As I opined on Facebook:

At the mere mention of ice and snow, when everybody is racing to the store to buy bread and milk, that is the time to officially embargo all tractor trucks from passing through Atlanta. The city trucks are given enough time to get home, and then they too stay put until the storm has passed. Almost every scene in the year’s debacle includes shots of tractor/trailer rigs folded up, blocking lanes of traffic.

The presence of tractor trailer trucks significantly made matters worse.  A couple samples:

3223154_G 3223220_GAtlanta is a major transportation crossroads, and the tractor trailer traffic is significant in this town.  If you don’t believe me, go over to I-75 near Cumberland and count the number of trucks passing by in the span of five minutes.  Certainly, these trucks should be kept off the highways and away from Atlanta until the weather clears.  The truckers are sure to blame the auto drivers, and they’re probably right.  But it doesn’t sound so good to hear them complaining about the cars when nobody’s moving.

Long term, the truck situation in Atlanta needs resolution, regardless of the weather.  Looking to Europe, there are certain highways that are so congested that the tractor trailer trucks are hauled past the congested areas by train:

ger_bls_re485nr005_weilamrhein_2007_1_LIt’s called a “Rolling Highway“.  And it’s worth a look.

The Trains

Those who read these pages regularly know that I am a train enthusiast.  No apologies from me on that score, for I know that steel wheel on steel rail has some inherent advantages, both with fuel economy and system reliability.  For while MARTA buses were not able to run, the heavy rail portion of the system operated reliably, even with a fire at Five Points station.  My nearby Norfolk Southern line to Washington kept operating in its same reliable fashion through the storm.  It’s hard to improve on that.

Aftermath

There is sure to be a lot of discussion about this, but one thing keeps coming back to me.  Atlanta gets one of these storms every other year, with pretty much the same outcome every time. Fox News is saying that we only have perhaps a hundred sand / plow trucks, while Chicago has four times that many, if not more. Is it necessary for us to have hundreds of sand trucks for an event that happens every other year?

Be as the reed in the wind; bend but do not break.

I’m sorry for those who got stranded, and I know that we can do better, but this all needs a grain pf practical judgement. This is not Duluth, Minnesota. And, we’re lucky that it is only snow on the ground, no ice in the trees. Which means that the electricity is still on, so we still have heat and can watch Fox tell us how bad things are.

And, when the next storm threatens and the DoT starts spreading salt and sand on the roads, who will be the first person to complain about its affects upon the environment?

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151572326Atlanta, Traffic

Everybody talks about Atlanta’s traffic problem, but nobody seems to be able to do very much about it.  The premise of this blog item is “What happens if you offer something so attractive that they willingly choose?”  That is to say, people are often forced to choose something and people resent being forced.  In recent years, commuting has become a forced choice.  Allow me now to discuss what if?

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MARTA Heavy Rail System - 2013

MARTA Heavy Rail System – 2013

In looking at the MARTA system map above, you will note that virtually all of the heavy rail system is within the limits of I-285.  There are possible explanations for this, such as here.  Regardless, the original concept of the MARTA system was regional in nature:

MARTA as originally conceived

MARTA as originally conceived

You will note the little arrows pointing outward from the center of Atlanta.  Atlanta wants to be the center of the world, but that is an opinion which is not shared by all.  And the mere mention of MARTA to those outside of I-285 often produces a visceral negative reaction.  Simply put, those outside of I-285 view MARTA as representing everything that is wrong.  And MARTA represents a path for bringing what is wrong into their communities.  So they resist being forced to accept this state of affairs.

Not that MARTA hasn’t helped things along by allowing the system to become hostile to its customers, but that is not a permanent condition.  There are indications that the new General Manager, Keith Parker, is taking steps to remedy this problem.  One example is a new “Ride with Respect” campaign to make the transit environment friendlier.  Another example is a new smart phone app that gives you not only schedule information but also real-time locations of trains and buses.  While this app may not have come from MARTA, the Authority has been willing to share its data, a turning point for them.  It’s going to take a while for this to soak in, and Fulton and DeKalb counties will benefit, but the problem of negative perceptions outside of I-285 will remain.

Wrong Direction

To me, the problem is that we have been thinking about this in the wrong direction.  Rather than having a system map which shows arrows going outward from Atlanta, we should actually have a system map which also has arrows pointing inward to Atlanta.  That is, rather than MARTA reaching out into the Atlanta region, the MARTA heavy rail system really should become a conduit for the region to reach Atlanta’s assets.  I’ll spare you the breathless Chamber of Commerce invective; we’re not talking about making Atlanta into the largest Stuckey’s in the world.  We’re talking about facilitating the region’s ability to conduct business.  We’re talking first about the Airport.  Then maybe the State Capitol, Georgia State and Georgia Tech.  Use your imagination.

What I’m suggesting is that the heavy rail system of tracks currently operated as “MARTA” should be opened up to rail vehicles from around the region.  Since the MARTA tunnels are designed for a certain size electrically powered train, any train traveling on MARTA tracks would have to fit within its standards.  At the same time, this approach allows different parts of the Atlanta region to customize their rail vehicles to meet their specific needs.

An Example

Consider a train leaving the airport, headed toward Doraville.  Externally, it looks like a MARTA train but is decorated in a different livery.  It could be up to eight cars long, and operates from electric power supplied by the third rail of the system.  Yet, this train has major differences from a MARTA train.  It is more like a conventional railroad passenger car, with coach seats and doors at the ends of the cars.  Each car has retention tank toilet facilities.  There might even be special cars with a conference room, a small lounge area that serves beverages and snacks.  This train makes only a few selected stops; say at Fort McPherson, Five Points, Peachtree Center, Arts Center, Lindbergh Center, then Doraville.

Arriving at the Doraville station, the train continues to the current end of track.  At that point, it couples to a conventional diesel-powered locomotive and disconnects from the MARTA third rail.  From there, this train continues on the Norfolk Southern tracks, making stops at Norcross, Pleasant Hill, Buford, Flowery Branch, Mundy Mill Road and finally Gainesville.

The costs for starting this service would be lower than for constructing a conventional transit right of way.  Since the Norfolk Southern right of way that this train would operate on already has passenger train service in the form of Amtrak, upgrading the railroad to accommodate commuter service would be less expensive.  While the Standard Gauge used by most railroads in North America is 4′ 8 1/2″, MARTA is supposedly 4′ 8 1/4“, but this is within the margin of error for railroad operations.

All of this is proven railroad technology, it is solely a matter of design and funding.  And the popularity of the idea.

Connection Points

In addition to the current end-of-track points for the different MARTA heavy rail lines, the MARTA system also has several expansion points which were incorporated at the time of initial construction.  They are located near Arts Center, East Point and Edgewood / Candler Park Stations.  The point near Edgewood / Candler Park Station could provide access to CSX tracks which lead to Tucker, Lawrenceville, Winder and Athens.  The point near the East Point Station, could provide access to NS tracks that lead eventually to Macon (this would be the vaunted commuter train to “Lovejoy, Georgia” that keeps rearing its head).

The MARTA Green Line could be extended to Cobb County, running down the middle of South Cobb Drive.  In this case, the “train” could be a self-propelled diesel railcar that also has electrical third rail shoes for operating on the MARTA right of way. The Green Line could also provide access to NS tracks that continue westward toward Birmingham; as with the Gainesville train, this trackage is also rated for passenger service.

Political Will

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of the recent TSPLOST referendum for the Atlanta region was that the transportation projects identified for funding by the tax were a melange of dribs and drabs.  There was no coherent plan, no larger vision.  In many cases, people were voting on projects for places that they did not know existed.  The voters recognized this and voted the tax down accordingly.  We keep looking for long-term solutions to our regional transit problem.  Perhaps this idea will get the political juices flowing toward a solution that is acceptable to the region.

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