Thursday, January 30, 2014

Atlanta's Snow Troubles: Are a Lack of Regionalism and Transit to Blame?

The Atlanta region was hit with a winter storm that covered the city in a few inches of snow and caused massive disruptions, congestion and essentially brought the region to a halt. This is unfortunate, and as many metro areas deal with a few inches of snow on a regular basis it seems that the situation in Atlanta should be avoidable. As a technical issue, sure, the technology exists to clear snow and train drivers. As a political and economic issue, the case is less clear.

There are many articles quick to blame automobility on Atlanta’s weather related troubles. Here is one, and another. Two themes stand out in these critiques. First, the Atlanta region doesn’t practice regionalism adequately, and second, because of a lack of regionalism there is inadequate transit. From the Politico piece:

If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it. And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around—and out of—the city other than by car.

Again, there are lots of regions that are fragmented politically and are auto dependent that deal with a few inches of snow on a regular basis. It is not obvious that these are the real problems here.  

Let’s say Atlanta suddenly discovers regionalism and builds lots of transit. What can be expected? Judging by other regions, probably a situation very similar to what has happened. A few rails lines at a cost of many billions of dollars will not do much to alleviate traffic. The existing transit (MARTA) was unable to maintain operations as it was. So is there anything Atlanta can do?

Consider all those pesky auto oriented metros around the country. What they have that Atlanta doesn’t are lots of snowplows with drivers, sand and salt, and plans in place to clear the roads. This is what is missing in Atlanta. From a CNN piece:
"I've been on the road for over 16 hours now. I've not seen anybody out," he said. "They've done nothing. I have seen literally hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road. I saw a lady carrying her kid in a blanket down the side of the road. I mean, people going the wrong way on major, major interstates. It's scary stuff."

This highlights the real trade off. How much should Atlanta pay for equipment they will rarely need? Also from CNN:
"We simply have never purchased the amount of equipment necessary," he said Wednesday. "Why would you in a city that gets one snow event every three years? Why would you buy 500 snowplows and salt trucks and have them sit around for 1,000 days, waiting for the next event?"

Is investing in such equipment a good deal? We can do a cost benefit analysis of this if we want, which I don’t want to right now. I will say that buying 500 snowplows and salt trucks is probably an investment of around $50 million. That is enough to keep Atlanta running in the occasional event of snow. It is also far cheaper than building new transit as a redundant system to manage the same snow events.

None of this is to say that transit in Atlanta is a bad investment. I’m sure that it is worthwhile. The point is that transit is not a cost effective or timely solution to the problems Atlanta faced this week. Even if Atlanta starts building transit now it will be a couple of decades before it makes much of a difference at a regional scale. There are far cheaper ways--such as owning plows and salt--that would have improved the lives for most people in the region rather than the small share who would have actually been able to take advantage of a hoped for transit system.

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