Passengers stranded as COVID forces metro Atlanta transit services to cancel trips

MARTA announces some train and bus trips are canceled on Tuesday. A spike in COVID-19 among employees has contributed to disruptions in metro Atlanta transit services in recent weeks. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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MARTA announces some train and bus trips are canceled on Tuesday. A spike in COVID-19 among employees has contributed to disruptions in metro Atlanta transit services in recent weeks. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Danen Highsmith of Stone Mountain used to catch a MARTA bus to the Indian Creek station, then take a train to work.

But MARTA has seen a spike in employees testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, and it’s had to cancel bus trips unexpectedly. Highsmith said the service has become so undependable he now walks 45 minutes to Indian Creek. What used to be an hour-and-a-half commute now lasts more than two hours.

“Something has to change for the people that depend on MARTA to get where they need to go on time,” Highsmith said.

A lot has changed for transit passengers, and not just at MARTA. Transit agencies in metro Atlanta and across the country are struggling to maintain service as the coronavirus pandemic takes a toll on staffing.

Bus and train operators are getting ill, staying home with sick kids or quarantining after being exposed to someone with COVID-19. That’s played havoc with transit schedules as drivers call in sick, leading to last-minute cancellations.

Transit officials say they’re doing what they can to make service dependable. And though ridership has plummeted, they believe transit will rebound when the pandemic is over.

“We’ll come up with more and more effective ways to address the pandemic, and we’ll make adjustments long term,” said Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, which operates the regional Xpress bus commuter service. “But transit will still be needed.”

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Denny Wyatt checks that his train is safe to depart from Five Points Station on Tuesday. Some MARTA train and bus trips have been canceled because of staffing problems amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Denny Wyatt checks that his train is safe to depart from Five Points Station on Tuesday.  Some MARTA train and bus trips have been canceled because of staffing problems amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Denny Wyatt checks that his train is safe to depart from Five Points Station on Tuesday. Some MARTA train and bus trips have been canceled because of staffing problems amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

COVID-19 has pummeled transit service for nearly two years. Passengers disappeared when schools and businesses shut down in early 2020, and many have not returned.

On Thursday, MARTA bus ridership was still down 58% from pre-COVID levels, and rail ridership was down 60%. Other local transit agencies have seen similar declines.

Transit agencies stepped up cleaning, provided masks and took other steps to protect passengers and employees. MARTA eliminated most of its bus routes for a year to focus service on its busiest routes. The idea was to increase the frequency of service on remaining routes to allow passengers to spread out and prevent the spread of disease.

MARTA resumed normal bus service in the spring. But COVID-19 has taken a toll on staffing as new variants spread, leading the agency to reduce the frequency of most bus routes in December. The idea was to give riders more predictable — if less frequent — service, rather than leave them guessing whether the scheduled bus would appear.

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In the last month, about 500 MARTA workers have caught COVID-19 leading to canceled trips and longer waits for riders.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

In the last month, about 500 MARTA workers have caught COVID-19 leading to canceled trips and longer waits for riders.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

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In the last month, about 500 MARTA workers have caught COVID-19 leading to canceled trips and longer waits for riders.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

But service is still unpredictable — MARTA has canceled hundreds of bus trips recently, and rail trips have also been canceled. Though they weren’t all canceled because of COVID-19, the pandemic has been a significant factor.

Other local agencies have also been affected. Xpress recently reduced the frequency of many of its commuter routes to account for fewer passengers. It has also canceled trips, though Tomlinson said it has provided follow-up trips to ensure passengers aren’t stranded.

Cobb County has temporarily suspended two commuter routes due to low ridership and staff absences. It has diverted resources to keep local routes operating.

Gwinnett County has canceled some commuter bus trips but has been able to maintain local bus service. Natasha Tyler, Gwinnett’s transit division director, said the agency is better able to handle problems than it was at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Everybody is more mentally able to handle what’s going on and are more knowledgeable,” Tyler said.

But some problems persist, especially at MARTA, the region’s largest transit service.

Henry Lee of Atlanta uses MARTA five or six times a week for shopping, doctor appointments, and visiting friends and family. He’s been stranded several times in the past month because buses didn’t show up. He pays for ride-sharing services when he can justify the $25 cost.

“The financial cost is bad, but the time cost is so much worse,” Lee said. “It has forced me to allow for an extra hour or so for even local trips, since I never know how long I will have to wait for the bus to arrive.”

One challenge MARTA faces: Though 76% of its 3,056 employees are vaccinated, there are still plenty who are not. COVID-19 has taken a bigger toll on the unvaccinated, but even those who are vaccinated can be infected.

MARTA requires employees who are not vaccinated to submit to weekly COVID-19 tests. But Britt Dunams, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, said all employees should be routinely tested to protect employees and the public.

Dunams said employees have had a hard time scheduling tests and MARTA should provide on-site testing. He said some employees who test negative have had a hard time reaching MARTA to confirm their results, so they can’t get back to work.

Luz Borrero, MARTA’s chief administrative officer, said the agency recently held an employee testing event and plans to expand that effort. It also has held testing at rail stations for employees and the public. She said she is unaware of any employees who had tested negative for COVID-19 who couldn’t return to work.

To address staffing shortages, Borrero said MARTA is offering hiring bonuses and other incentives. It also plans to raise employee pay by 3%.

Borrero said MARTA is committed to providing safe, reliable service.

“We are very much aware of the fact that providing the service is the most important thing we need to do,” she said.

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