Valdosta Daily Times

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February 2, 2014

Atlanta mayor defends using emergency lanes

ATLANTA — Atlanta’s mayor is defending his use of emergency lanes at the height of Tuesday’s icy traffic jam so he could do an interview at The Weather Channel’s studios.

Mayor Kasim Reed’s spokesman Carlos Campos said Saturday that he, Reed and police officers normally assigned to the mayor traveled in two cars equipped with blue lights to reach the station’s suburban Atlanta headquarters.

It happened early Tuesday evening on Interstate 75, at a time when emergency responders were trying to help the thousands of motorists stranded on the jammed highway.

“We had no issues getting up there. There was never a moment when — I don’t believe there was ever a moment where we interfered with anything,” Campos told The Associated Press. “The emergency lanes were pretty clear.”

The mayor’s use of emergency lanes was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The action has sparked anger from motorists who tried to stay warm in their cars or abandoned them to seek shelter in businesses along I-75 and other freeways around metro Atlanta.

Campos said they believed that communicating to the largest possible audience during the crisis was important, and an interview with The Weather Channel was a way to accomplish that.

“The Weather Channel asked us to come up and we did,” Campos told the AP.

“I thought it was important that he communicate often and that he be visible,” Campos added. “People expect to hear from their leaders during crisis.”

Campos said one aspect of the trip “needs to be made super clear.”

“We did not take any police officers off their beat,” he said. “These are plain-clothes officers that are assigned to him all the time.”

Asked about what would have happened if the mayor’s vehicle or the one he was riding in had become stuck, further complicating the traffic mess, Campos said “that’s a hypothetical.”

“I’m not going to speculate on that — we didn’t get stuck,” he said. “We made a choice and we stick by it. I’ll allow other people to speculate all day about what we could have done. Decisions were made. We were in a crisis. People can speculate and pontificate all they want about what we could have done.”

Campos declined to say whether Skype, telephones or other means of communication were considered, rather than traveling to the network for an in-person interview.

He recounted details of the journey for the AP on Saturday, saying that he and the mayor traveled in separate cars with Campos arriving at The Weather Channel early to make preparations for the interview. He said they used Interstate 75 — one of the interstates hit hardest by the ice storm — to reach the network about 12 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, just outside the city limits in Cobb County.

“We used the lights to let people know we were coming,” said Campos, who is interim director of communications.

“If we encountered a vehicle in the emergency lane, we went around it,” Campos said. “We didn’t push anybody out of the way, we just went around it. With the blue lights, we just edged around the vehicle.”

Campos recalls seeing a Georgia State Patrol car and a HERO unit — a specially designed truck used to help stranded motorists. He said his car was able to get around them because both of those vehicles were in a “gore” area — the triangle-shaped areas where roads split.

The mayor went on the air around 6 p.m., and he used the opportunity to urge drivers to stay off the roads.

The interview request itself was routine, and the network often speaks with city officials when severe weather strikes, said Shirley Powell, a spokeswoman for The Weather Channel.

“We do it all the time. Our news desk would have made the request,” Powell said in a statement Saturday.

Some motorists have reacted angrily at the mayor’s action, calling it self-serving and unnecessary.

“He’s worried about his national exposure when the whole city is in gridlock?” Scott Albertson told the Atlanta newspaper. “He’s worried about his chances to run for Senate or president some day.”

Albertson’s trek from Atlanta’s Perimeter to his home in Woodstock took more than seven hours Tuesday. Other drivers were stuck on I-75 as long as 20 hours.

Rafael Garcia was among drivers trying to stay warm in the massive traffic jams on I-75 when the mayor passed by. By that time, Garcia had been on the road four hours and would have eight to go before arriving home to Woodstock.

“I think it’s adding insult to a bad situation,” Garcia told the Atlanta paper. “The more I thought about this, the more upset I get in every respect.”

 

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