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Atlanta’s ice follies offer lessons for Charlotte

For as long as I can remember, people around Charlotte have been using Atlanta as the measuring rod for all that’s good or bad in Charlotte’s future.

Depending on who’s doing the talking, Charlotte’s either destined to mushroom into a top-tier U.S. city like Atlanta, with enough international clout to land the Olympic Games, or it’s doomed to repeat Atlanta’s mistakes – complete with horrific traffic and sprawling, disjointed suburbs.

So when Atlanta found itself paralyzed by 2 inches of snow Tuesday, I wasn’t surprised to find my Facebook friends citing it as a cautionary tale of what could lurk in the future if Charlotte doesn’t handle development challenges smartly. They circulated an article in which Rebecca Burns, author of three books on Atlanta’s history, asserted that thousands of motorists and schoolchildren got trapped in schools and on freeways because of poor transit planning and regional factionalism, not simply bad emergency management.

Perhaps if the Atlanta metro area had a coherent transit system and didn’t have 60 mayors, she argued, the exodus from the city center could have been handled smoothly.

With Mecklenburg County having reached the 1 million mark in population last year, you don’t have to look far to see the growth pressures here.

Ballantyne’s explosive expansion overwhelmed Interstate 485’s southern loop before the asphalt even dried, it seems. We’re building the second leg of the Lynx light rail system, but other parts of our long-range regional transit plan still lack money. Folks in the northern and southern suburbs have been talking for years about splitting from the city of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

I asked City Manager Ron Carlee and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Debra Campbell what they thought. Is there a cautionary tale for Charlotte in Atlanta’s sad snowstorm saga?

Campbell said she felt it was more of an emergency preparedness planning issue. Atlanta is a great city that just grew too fast, she said, without an accompanying infrastructure strategy.

Carlee said with so many people trying to leave central Atlanta, the city would have been slammed regardless of the car-train mix.

“I feel for the people of Atlanta and for their leadership there,” he said. “They got hit very hard.”

He added, though, that as a metropolitan region grows, regional planning and cooperation become increasingly critical.

With that in mind, he and newly named Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio recently met with the managers from surrounding counties.

“We have to think beyond our borders,” he said. “We have 100,000 people commuting into Charlotte every day to work. We have 40,000 people commuting out of Charlotte every day to work. We’re already a regional economic sector.”

There are some strong, if perhaps early, signals that Charlotte’s growth pattern won’t sprawl as thoroughly as Atlanta’s. It’s not uncommon to hear local developers talking – as Johnny Harris of Lincoln Harris did at a recent conference – about how the next generation of workers and consumers want a more urban, walkable, transit-friendly environment than their suburb-dwelling parents did.

Folks in Charlotte are planning ahead, often with Atlanta in the back of their minds.

RealityCheck2050, part of a regional planning project powered by a federal grant of nearly $5 million, attracted about 400 people from around the 14-county area last year to help craft a regional plan for guiding growth and economic development over the first half of the century.

But turning plans into trains or highways or new development compacts won’t be simple. It calls for urban, suburban and rural areas to find common ground. It calls for leadership. And given the needs of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s long-range plan, it could call for lots of money, too.

Charlotte’s leaders won praise for their handling of the snowstorm. Carlee said he feels for the leaders in Atlanta who are dealing with the fallout there.

“I don’t fault them. I have empathy for them,” he said. But “we’re going to work very hard to learn all the lessons from it we can.”