Political Insider

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Unlike New Jersey, Georgia’s traffic scandal involved gunfire

The Washington crowd is still mulling over the impact of a manufactured traffic jam on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s potential as a 2016 GOP presidential candidate.

The Post today is skeptical, saying polling isn’t showing any abrupt decrease in the big guy’s popularity.

It would be tempting to say that only in the New York-New Jersey corridor could such things happen. But an AJC colleague has reminded me that we had something similar erupt a few years ago.

But, this being the South, gunfire was involved. Deer slugs, more specifically. A traffic signal died under mysterious circumstances. The piece below dates to July 1997, and was written by AJC reporters Carlos Campos and Scott Marshall.

I’ve lost track of Marshall, but Campos is now directing communications for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Take a read:

Police are trying to figure out who shot the traffic control box at the intersection of Johnson Ferry Road and Riverside Drive, the epicenter of an increasingly hostile commuter feud between Cobb and Fulton counties.

But Fulton County traffic engineers said Wednesday's early storms, not a pair of slugs, probably put the traffic light out of action. Workers had the signal operating a few hours later.

In a move to show some willingness to compromise, Fulton County increased by 10 seconds the length of green light that Johnson Ferry Road motorists will have to the cross into Sandy Springs.

On Monday, Fulton County Transportation Administrator Nayef Haddad reduced the length of the green light from two minutes to 50 seconds, causing more gridlock than usual on Johnson Ferry Road.

Haddad was condemned by Cobb motorists for his action but hailed as a hero by homeowners in Sandy Springs who contend the traffic pouring in from Cobb makes it difficult for them to get out of their driveways in the mornings.

The feud took a dark twist Wednesday, when Fulton County police discovered someone had fired two bullets from a "large caliber" weapon at the intersection's traffic control box.

Police were notified about 6:30 a.m. that power had been knocked out to the intersection. Two officers directed traffic in a steady drizzle for the next four hours.

A public works crew arrived at 10:15 a.m., and snipped off the padlock on the metal box. One shot had ripped through the steel cover, creating a hole 3 to 4 inches wide and an inch and a half high.

"That's an elephant bullet, man, " exclaimed crew member Anthony Riggins when he spotted a large, slightly crushed slug lying inside the box.

Police reported no suspects and no leads in the shooting, nor could they immediately identify the weapon that fired the bullet. Spokesman Capt. Donald Cook said the bullet ---only one was recovered ---will be sent to the State Crime Lab. Cook said whoever fired the bullets could be charged with interfering with government property, criminal damage to property and discharging a weapon too close to a road.

However, later in the day, Haddad said none of the signal box's digital and electrical equipment was damaged by the gunfire, which is why he is nearly certain the light was actually knocked out by Wednesday's storm. "We had other signals knocked out too," he said.

A footnote to Wednesday's drama: Cars on Johnson Ferry Road out of Cobb County appeared to move much more smoothly with two Fulton County police officers directing traffic at the intersection. "They were applauding, " Cpl. E.C. Johnson said.

Haddad, however, said he thinks Wednesday's lighter traffic was due to fewer drivers using Johnson Ferry Road.

Meanwhile, politicians renewed attempts to take the discussion to a less violent level. Fulton and Cobb had reached an agreement last year to solve the traffic problem by widening Johnson Ferry and Abernathy roads on the Fulton County side, to give commuters a more direct path to Ga. 400. However, restrictions of the federal Clean Air Act have indefinitely blocked construction.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis, who cut short a vacation in Greece and will return to Atlanta today, has ordered a letter sent to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) asking for help in exempting the project from the federal restrictions. Gingrich represents both sides of the river.

On the Cobb County side, Commission Chairman Bill Byrne again said he plans to meet with Gov. Zell Miller, to ask him to intervene.

As I recall, the shooter was never caught. Skandalakis did end up going to prison, but not for anything associated with the above event.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.