Atlanta weather | MARTA's storm response leaves passengers in doubt

As Lisa Bobo waited for MARTA buses to start running again, her mental health medication ran out and by Wednesday, she was starting to hear imaginary voices.

"It's scary," she said, waiting in front of Grady Memorial Hospital for one of the few buses MARTA had back on the road Thursday.

Tianna Dixon has missed a week of work at McDonald's, hasn't made money and could not pick up her previous check.

"I got a light bill that's 360 dollars and I can't pay it," said Dixon, 19, of Decatur. The bill is overdue.

For many MARTA riders, its historic decision to shut down bus service completely this week might as well have shut down the food supply or access to the hospital. While few have questioned the agency's unwillingness to put buses onto dangerously slick roads after a wintry storm hit Sunday night, it is unclear how much MARTA planned for the catastrophe and how effective its response has been.

By Thursday, MARTA had only resumed a limited number of routes. Trains,a lifeline through the city, were running with delays and passengers complained of sheets of ice at station parking lots and pedestrian approaches.

MARTA officials said half its workforce was stuck at home. Customer service lines rang off the hook without answering or simply came up busy. Asked whether MARTA had requested emergency state assistance to keep even a few priority bus routes open, MARTA declined to make any staff members available for questions Thursday, saying they were working "feverishly" to restore service.

Late Thursday, a MARTA spokeswoman, Cara Hodgson, said that MARTA staff had worked closely with the state Department of Transportation and the city of Atlanta throughout the storm, and that bus routes started to re-open Wednesday because of that coordination.

It is unclear whether the overwhelmed state DOT would have sent crews to arterials had MARTA requested it, since the state agency was overwhelmed with just the interstate highways. DOT's supplies were likewise overwhelmed and the state rejected at least four counties' requests earlier in the week for sand and salt, state emergency officials said. It's also unknown whether the National Guard would have sent guardsmen to extricate MARTA employees trapped at their homes, since deploying the guard is "expensive," a spokesman said.

In any case, as of Thursday, MARTA had made no request for assistance of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which fields requests for state emergency aid, according to Ken Davis, a spokesman for GEMA.  And if MARTA had a specific plan drawn up for this particular storm, the agency could not provide it Thursday, referring only to its 120-page general emergency weather plan.

The decision to shut down the buses was a staff decision and did not require a board vote, said Harold Buckley, who chairs the MARTA board’s safety and security committee, which he said has direct oversight over emergencies like the ice storm. He said MARTA had a contingency plan for storms in general, but he did not know whether MARTA had written a specific plan for this one once it was forecast.

“I’m not completely aware of any additional planning but I’m sure there was some anticipation of what else was needed,” Buckley said. “I can’t say I personally have had a copy of it because of the fact we have a plan for inclement weather and stick to it unless conditions dictate otherwise. And they did.”

He said MARTA staff had updated the board frequently on the status of the roads.

“Really, you have to play it as things evolve,” he added. “You have to reevalute this, you have to look at the conditions as it reveals itself. As it reveals itself, you take the appropriate actions. In this particular instance I feel the appropriate action was taken.”

Buckley said he had not personally made any calls to DOT board members or elected officials on MARTA's behalf regarding the storm.

Other transit agencies in the region shut down too. Cobb Community Transit shut down Monday through Wednesday. Gwinnett County Transit canceled service Monday and Tuesday and is gradually restoring it.

MARTA is not just another government agency to those on the lower end of the economic scale. Forty-six percent of MARTA passengers report having no other means of transportation. MARTA officials who have been with the agency for decades can not remember a total shutdown ever happening before.

Before service cuts this year, MARTA had 142,000 daily passengers.

MARTA has a much bigger transit-dependent population than regional Xpress buses, which are usually a choice of convenience for people who already own multiple cars, but who don’t want to park downtown or be the driver battling congestion.

Unable to catch a bus, people's troubles piled up like falling snow.

Waiting at a cold bus stop outside Grady Thursday, Kiana Williams' voice rose in anger as she described this week's troubles of a metro Atlanta bus rider.

"I waited two hours for a bus this morning that didn't come. I had to take a cab and it cost me almost twenty dollars," she said, shuffling to stay warm.

Williams, 22, has the flu. Her futile attempt to get to Grady Wednesday didn't help her condition. That included waiting three hours for a bus that never arrived, hitching a ride that didn't couldn't get her to the hospital and having to walk three miles to get home.

"It's been worse than a nightmare," Williams said. "I don't understand why the roads are not clear."

Many bus riders expressed bitter anger as they shivered and sniffled at bus stops. At the Grady stop, assurances that the buses were running felt, as time crawled on, more like rumors. Some people just walked on, hoping for better luck at another stop down the road.

Many bus riders live at the margins financially and when they lose their only means of transportation, they also lose their means to a livelihood, medical care and so much else.

Ken Mitchell, who heads an advocacy group for passengers who use MARTA’s “Mobility” service for the disabled, said he had been unable to figure out when Mobility started up again and what service it was providing. Mostly he can’t get through the phone lines.

“Even people with dialysis, they couldn’t get out,” Mitchell said, referring to a friend who had to skip treatment on Monday. “Hopefully they went today.”

At the MARTA station in Decatur, Michael Turner wondered about the agency's preparation.

“They could have the buses running. A lot of people are losing money and can’t get to their job because the buses aren’t running,” said Turner, 50, who works as a custodian. “A lot of people can’t get home because of the bus. You have to prepare more. If you know something’s coming, then you prepare for it,” he said.

Henry Riley, 48, couldn’t believe MARTA had let ice pile up at the walks into stations. At the Ashby Street station, “When you come out of the station, it’s bad,” he said. “My buddy’s on a walker. It was icy and I had to help him.”

At the Grady stop, assurances that the buses were running felt, as time crawled on, more like rumors.

Tony Jones, 50, walked miles to see his doctor Thursday.

"It was appalling," said Jones, 50. "They could get some salt down. They knew this would happen a week ago. I blame MARTA for the buses not being out and I blame the street [cleaners] for not cleaning it up."

Staff writers Megan Matteucci, Janel Davis and David Wickert contributed to this article.