The other morning, while catching up on the world, I came across a New York Times article that caught my attention. It was linked to a tweet that mentioned the outrageous commute times that many New Yorkers are having to deal with in order to get to work. My first reaction to the tweet was that this is due to the inordinate number of persons being enamored by "big city living and a voodoo woman named Phyllis." Reading the article added another dimension to the problem entirely. The swelling of the American city due to the never ending quest for wealth and power is still very much involved. But the people in this particular article are the victims of this quest rather than the perpetrators.
The article tells the stories of service workers, security guards, laborers, good honest blue collar folks, who find themselves moving further and further from their jobs in order to have rents more in line with their incomes. Some of these people have had to relocate so far out that they are commuting up to 2 hours one way to get to work. This isn't your typical Atlanta commute. These people are using transit - buses, subways, combinations of the two, often having to switch back and forth more than once. People putting in eight to 10 hours a day making $11-$15 an hour simply cannot afford to live near their job...anywhere near their job. Throw in a two way commute that might equal as much as a half of their work shift, they've lost more than 12 hours just to pay the bills. An 8 to 5 worker could lave home at 6 am only to return around 7 pm.
As cities continue to drag in more large employers that pay high salaries and property values climb in response to the housing market shifts, the problem continues to worsen. And transit isn't making the situation any better, so it can't really be the answer.
Closer to home, we see Atlanta trending that way with many claiming that transit will ease the pain and make the problem evaporate. People float the ideas of minimum wages and rent control and a thousand other schemes to try to solve this issue. But there are resource issues - water, energy, air pollution, affordable food, disposal of refuse, all of these are stretching the capacity of Atlanta and nearly every other American city. Throw in the regional types of natural disasters (i.e. Los Angeles fires or flooding in Houston) and the cities don't have the resources and infrastructure to deal with what they have, much less more.
It isn't sustainable.
There is only so much urban sprawl that a plot of land can withstand. I've mentioned before that we need to be using our new connectivity and new technologies to spread out some, use our resources more wisely, and create more sustainable communities. We don't need a mom riding a subway for two hours to make a living and then ride two hours back, missing PTO meetings, dinners with her family, and whatever practices or activities she can afford for her kids to be involved in. She can't have an effective family this way. This isn't life. This is survival. Nothing more.
We have to change our thinking - as individuals, as a society, as a nation. No one is ever going to win the Rat Race. The only way to not lose is to not run. It is time to look for us to quit chasing shiny and start pursuing meaning. Why are we doing what we are doing?
By Sam Burnham
This story was born atop a wood table alongside gas station food. I'm not talking the gas station biscuits we've discussed on Twitter, I'm talking country fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Fordhook Lima beans. But this isn't a food critique. So I'll shelve that talk for now.
The establishment in question sits adjacent to a paper mill and coal-fired power plant. So just about everyone else in there eating was driving some sort of truck. Some guys haul pulpwood in and others hauling coal ash out. That is where the story got interesting. A conversation on outgoing coal ash, some headed to become a cement ingredient, the rest to specially designed landfills, grew into this article.
As we talk about jobs and the land we live in, the rivers we fish on, the air we breathe, and what we leave our kids, I think this is a discussion we need to have. We don't need a lot of Greenpeace slogans or chanting or left-wing politics, but we do need some realistic talk about this coal thing. In all the talk of President Trump ending the War on Coal it is easy to pick a side, Left of Right and stand there. It is another to see what this means in reality and make a decision independent of political parties altogether.
So I'm looking at one plant. Just a small portion of a major utility in The South. Plant Hammond in western Floyd County, Georgia came on line back in the 50's. It was pretty advanced for its time and helped to electrify rural areas of Georgia in the post-war era as well as providing some solid, good paying jobs in the northwest Georgia area. But technology has changed. The Southern Company has begun to diversify its generation facilities. Hammond has become a sort of peak usage reserve generation plant. Basically, they only operate when there is the heaviest use on the system. Often when they fire up Hammond's boilers it's to meet demand for The Southern Company's customers in Mississippi or Alabama. It may even be to sell power to another agency such as Oglethorpe Power or perhaps a local co-op.
The aging plant is just not vital to Georgia Power's operations any longer. As the road is being cleared for expansions to continue on nuclear fueled Plant Vogtle and natural gas becomes more affordable and easier to access than coal, modernizing a plant like Hammond starts to make less and less sense for a stockholder operation like the Southern Company. It's not a big secret that Hammond is close to joining sister facilities such as Plant Yates and Plant Kraft in being decommissioned and demolished. At normal operation, the coal pile at Hammond sat high and level from one end to the other - 30 days of coal for regular operations. This week a meager pile sits at the front end, just under the chute, while a small stack remains for the length of the rest of the pile. A rough guess at the size suggests it might last 4-5 days.
But here is one major reason that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Coal ash. This is a broad term being given to the solid byproduct of burning coal for power. The new air quality scrubbers take the particulates out of the exhaust from the plants. This material used to fly up the chimneys and out into the air high above the plants to be scattered by the wind. This material is now collected and hauled off on dump trucks to be dumped. This is an additional cost to the use of coal in generating electricity. This makes natural gas and renewables more attractive since the byproducts are easier and cheaper to deal with.
And let's face it, I don't really want to be breathing stuff you can haul in a dump truck. I also would prefer that it isn't necessitating landfills and eating up real estate that could have much better purposes. So the old way is not a great choice and the new way might be even worse. This is not helping me want to see a coal-fired revival. To be honest, I don't think it is making the southern Company want to see it either. They are following market pressures and real estate prices into a future in which coal just doesn't make much sense.
And I know that there is a concern for the miners and the life that they've led as well as their prospects for the future. That is a very real concern that those of us who care for the people of rural America will have to deal with. But I'm afraid the miners and their families have found themselves as pawns between rival factions for their own gain and never them pawns'. Same old story we've always heard. Finding an economy to help these folks make their own way seems to be a better option.
Honestly, I don't think it matters if the Clean Power Plan stays or goes. I think it is just a political football for the two factions to kick around to make us think they are doing something. In reality, they're just wasting our time and money. The point is, coal is on the way out of the electricity business. And that's just reality.
I leave with the words of John Prine singing of a place close to his heart and a land that will never be the same. I used to think it was environmentalist whining. I know better now.
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
By Sam Burnham
There is a lot of buzz being generated right now over the possibility of Amazon opening a secondary headquarters campus (HQ2) in the Atlanta area. There have been several rumored sites for the theoretical Atlanta location. There area several other cities in contention and each has its own strengths and weaknesses based on a list of Amazon's preferences in regard to infrastructure and quality of life.
Many Georgians living outside the metro are casting a skeptical eye on this development and not because we think Atlanta can't pull this off. On the contrary, it's because we know Atlanta is the best choice on the list.
When you look into the quality of life -museums, concerts, entertainment, sports, restaurants, bars, Atlanta is a magnet. Georgia's business friendly laws and regulations are specifically geared for this campaign. The presence of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the portion of Kennesaw State formerly Southern Polytechnic offers an Amazon River of entry level employees just minutes, perhaps only blocks, from the proposed locations. Atlanta's airport puts the employees of the new site within two hours of 75% of the US population and most major US business centers.
This leaves only Atlanta's traffic and relatively meager transit system as a drawback for Amazon, who includes ease of commute and transportation in their list of preferences. With the City of Atlanta and Governor Deal both scrambling to do whatever it takes to get this deal done, the upcoming push for improved and expanded transit is all too predictable.
Who Stands to Benefit
As with all economic development in the Peach State, Atlanta stands to reap major benefits from this deal. While Cobb, Dekalb, and other metro counties could actually be the host of the site, the amenities of Atlanta are the draw and will be raking in the cash spent by an estimated 50,000 employees averaging $100,000 annually.
If we do see the expanded transit it will take to seal this deal outright, Cobb, Dekalb, (wealthy northern) Fulton, Gwinnett, and perhaps Hall counties on the north end will see new transportation options to better connect them with the new jobs and the amenities we've mentioned. There would be similar benefits for Douglas, (growing) southern Fulton, Clayton, and Henry counties. These counties are where the incoming Amazons will live, work, and play.
The annual influx of $5 billion in salaries alone would be a economic boom for the state. There is no denying the actual numbers of the deal. Add in the operational costs (theoretically spent locally) for maintaining such a campus would fund vendors and other businesses in the area well beyond the foreseeable future. This is a very big deal.
The Unseen Costs
Georgia Changed forever on September 18, 1990. An announcement in Tokyo, Japan proclaimed Atlanta as the host of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta was a growing city and showed much economic promise. But the Olympics changed the game forever. In the years leading up to the games, Atlanta grew rapidly. The city was on the map. The whole world was talking about it. Businesses and people came in droves. They loved the climate, the economy, and everything else Atlanta was coming to offer. They stayed. And more came behind them. In 27 years Atlanta has gone from a big city by the standards of the South to a world class metropolis. It has been an amazing transformation to say the least.
But what people living in the non-metro areas have learned in that time is that there is no wall around that metropolis to keep it in. While many other world class cities have grown up and up towards the clouds, Atlanta has grown up and out, spreading across the landscape like a patch of concrete kudzu, covering everything in its path.
This is where the perceptions of the people of outlying Georgia come into play. This is where understanding the concerns of "fly-over" or even "drive-past" Georgia will make a difference if there must be a state-wide push to make this deal happen.
Everyday, Atlantans sit in traffic possibly thinking that they are beginning or finishing a day of productive economic activity that benefits the economy of the state. What they don't know is that there are a multitude of people in the TV market area that are watching the traffic updates on channels 2, 5, 11, and 46 and laughing at the "fools" sitting in traffic. It is like the zoo where people observe captive species and wonder at their mannerisms and behavior. But mostly they just hope to never live in such a manner. Pile on the crime, lack of affordable housing, the small building lots, and lack of exposed earth, count us out. We don't want that. Not in our back yard.
But that is what we see every single time the strip malls, overhead superhighways, and office parks pop up just a little closer to the house. And there is no Roundup for that sort of kudzu. There is no way to resist it as farm after forest falls under the bulldozer, never to be seen again.
Ironically, the people in the bulldozers and those who follow, immediately begin to lecture us on the environment, climate change, emissions, recycling, "sustainability." It becomes the Once-ler giving the Lorax a good lesson on conservation.
This is what folks outside Metro Atlanta hear when Atlantans tell us about the economic benefits of this deal. When Atlanta booms, it lands on us. And we don't necessarily want it.
Reaching for Cooperation
I don't want to finish this article without covering a Twitter conversation I had on Thursday with Teri Anulewicz on this very topic. Teri is a Democratic candidate for Georgia House District 42 as well as the former Smyrna Ward 3 representative and Mayor Pro Tem. She was reaching out to me in search of understanding after I had tweeted about my diminished enthusiasm for the Amazon HQ2 Atlanta plan. This was a honest search for understanding and the genuineness of the conversation was refreshing in these times.
The transit improvements will require some regional, if not state-wide, cooperation. Atlanta cannot do this alone. But selling the plan to the outlying areas is going to be difficult. There would be some greater access to transit for many Georgians. But will the cost be worth the amount of times we plan to use the improvements? As long as we see Atlanta transit (again, perception) as a place to pay to get mugged on an inconvenient time schedule, we're going to drive our own cars and pay to park. If the parking disappears, we just won't go. It won't be worth it. If you want to sell transit improvements to us, show us how it makes our lives better directly or we will never agree to help pay for it.
That is where the conversations like the one Teri and I had this past week become vital in our future. Metro folks need to listen to our concerns, understand that we don't always see their idea of economic growth as beneficial to us. We often see it as counterproductive and dangerous to our communities and our way of life.
It also won't hurt us to listen as well. Perhaps in doing so we develop a better relationship between the "two Georgias" and can find benefits for both sides in the discussion. For example, in our discussion Teri and I agreed that the expansion of the Port of Savannah benefited the whole state. Projects like that can be cooperative and everyone can win a little. Both of our ideas of good economics are represented.
If we can create new ways for Atlanta to thrive without paving the entire state, that can be a similar situation. I don't think we have to have it one way or the other. Honestly, I think Atlanta is too far gone for us to ever have it "our" way. I don't think our economy or environment can withstand having it only "their" way. So now we are faced with the reality of the metro and the rural partnering for a healthy coexistence. But that requires respect, trust, communication, and some willingness that I saw Thursday. And thank you, Teri, for being a part of that.
Let us look to the future: trust but verify.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire