The ice storm that shut down Atlanta this week was a "fiasco" that was "manmade from start to finish," according to Atlanta Magazine's Rebecca Burns, writing for Politico. But we have to note that, in part, the men who made the fiasco were white ones.
One of the recurring reasons given for people being stranded on roadways on Tuesday night, staying the night in stores and schools without a route home, was the decision to close schools and businesses at about the same time. That move sent huge numbers of people onto the roads simultaneously. Burns points out that a million vehicles tried to leave the city of Atlanta proper to get back home to the suburbs, in a region that is heavily car-dependent.
Some areas, like Cobb County in the northwestern part of the metro area, had a harder time than others. In Cobb, schoolchildren were stranded at schools. At one point, a police dispatcher warned, "Don’t come into Cobb County," since at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, "all major roadways and some intersections in [Marietta] were still gridlocked with traffic."
You can see Cobb County on the map at right; we've shaded it gray to show its relationship to the city of Atlanta itself. This is a transit map, from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA. Burns notes that MARTA doesn't serve much of the region, though it was a good route out of the city during the storm. (It's how Burns herself got home.)
But: "There are few connections between MARTA and systems such as Cobb County Community Transit (CCT), which mostly operates bus routes between major commercial centers in Cobb and the heart of downtown Atlanta," Burns writes. Notice that the lines within that gray block of Cobb County are purple, and not the orange on the rest of the map. That's CCT, the separate transit system within Cobb County. Cobb County doesn't use MARTA because Cobb County has consistently blocked expansions of MARTA into its jurisdiction. And that is at least in some part because of race.
When the Atlanta Braves announced their intention to move to Cobb County last year, the issue of transportation came up. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman outlined the debate, noting that it was a continuation of longstanding fears. This is a long quote, but an important one:
When the Braves’ decision was announced, the head of the Cobb Taxpayers Association immediately worried that it was merely a Trojan horse used to disguise the larger goal of smuggling MARTA inside the county walls, with all the “crime” that would bring. That’s an odd leap of logic, but it tells you a lot about how visceral that issue remains.
The chairman of the Cobb Republican Party, Joe Dendy, was equally blunt:
“It is absolutely necessary the (transportation) solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”
Emphasis added to highlight the concerns: 1) crime being shuttled into Cobb County by MARTA and 2) moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta. Cobb County is 66 percent white. Atlanta is 54 percent black. Burns notes that 1965 and 1971 efforts to expand MARTA into Cobb County (and other suburbs) failed, "with votes following racial lines." This is talking around the issue. Cobb County spiked an expansion of public transit because it was worried about black people funneling in.
A 2012 effort to improve MARTA met a similar fate as the earlier initiatives. The following February, the Associated Press reported on a proposal to revamp the organizational structure of MARTA proposed by a local Republican. Its story was titled, "Fight over Atlanta mass transit raises race issues." The reform proposal (which wasn't enacted) would have, in part, shifted power away from black representatives.
"It's the fear of white people and black people," a white store owner told the AP reporter. A black Democratic lawmaker noted the argument used by the Cobb Taxpayers Association leader above: that the surrounding area thought black Atlantans would shuttle to the suburbs, steal, and head back into the city.
Nick Holman, a local resident told the AP that "taking public transit was easier than driving on crowded highways and cost less than city parking." But he knew the perception of any proposed expansions: "A lot of the northern suburbs don't want MARTA because they think it could bring an undesirable element. But that's stupid."
In retrospect: Yes. It was.