GDOT latest to raise concerns with Atlanta Streetcar

Staff writer Andria Simmons contributed to this report.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is the latest agency to point out shortcomings in the operation of the Atlanta Streetcar.

A draft report, released on Jan. 8, provides yet another snapshot into the chaotic first year of the $98 million system, the subject of blistering safety audits, security breaches and high staff turnover.

Among the top findings: The city and MARTA lack clarity when it comes to their roles in running the streetcar; nearly 50 percent of “safety-critical” positions were unfilled; many workers have received inadequate training; maintenance deficiencies exist; the city has failed to implement the random and post-accident drug and alcohol testing required by federal law and, furthermore, hasn’t properly documented and reported accident information to state officials.

GDOT conducted the review of the streetcar’s safety and security practices in late October 2015 — about two months after city officials executed an emergency contract to turn over streetcar management to a private firm. GDOT, the state’s safety and oversight agency, was tasked with assessing the streetcar in conjunction with the Federal Transit Administration. In the end, the state proposed 55 action plans to correct the myriad problems.

Mayor Kasim Reed and streetcar officials have repeatedly acknowledged what they call “growing pains” in the city’s efforts to become a transit operator and say they’re learning from early mistakes.

City officials have until Jan. 29 to issue a formal response to GDOT and declined to answer several specific questions about the report. But based on the city and MARTA’s initial review, “We believe much of the report will be helpful in making continued improvements in operations and documentation,” said Melissa Mullinax, a senior adviser to Reed.

A spokesman for MARTA, which provides active management of the streetcar, said the transit agency is still reviewing the assessment.

“We appreciate the comprehensive and constructive criticism that it has provided,” spokesman Lyle Harris said in a statement. “We are working closely with our streetcar partners to make any and all improvements that are necessary to ensure the continued success of this important project now and in the future.”

The 129-page report contained few surprises about the streetcar’s now well-documented troubles.

Last September, the FTA warned in a letter that it had "continuing concerns with the safety and operation" of the system. That's in addition to an internal audit conducted last July that found deficiencies in the streetcar's management and safety operations.

The GDOT report comes at the same time that Atlanta has begun charging riders $1 to use the 2.7-mile system, a move that will test the streetcar's true popularity with residents and tourists. The city has ambitious plans to grow the system to include more than 50 miles of tracks.

The city and MARTA were first informed of GDOT’s “immediate concerns” in a Nov. 5 letter that called for them to provide “stable and adequate” staffing to carry out the system’s safety and security plans and to clarify employees’ roles and responsibilities.

What’s more, the transportation department advised Atlanta to develop a comprehensive training program and an action plan to build long-term capability to safely operate the streetcar.

Interviews conducted by GDOT with streetcar employees reflect internal worries, with two employees identifying lack of staffing, supervision, equipment, knowledge and training as top concerns. They also identified concerns with managing homeless riders, an issue that many suspect will subside now that Atlanta is charging a $1 fare.

A third worker bemoaned the lack of qualified employees.

“He was equally concerned about the system’s inability to attract and retain supervisors as evidenced by the series of resignations in recent months,” the report states. “On the maintenance side, he was concerned that soon only he and the operations superintendent would be available to cover all shifts which would require them to work 12 hour shifts for 7 days a week. This was viewed as an unacceptable long term staffing solution.”

In a Nov. 16 response to GDOT, Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Dan Gordon and MARTA Chief Operating Officer Richard Krisak said the system is safe and has made “significant progress” in meeting GDOT standards and adopting safety and security plans.

The men said the streetcar also has made progress in formalizing its training program and in beefing up its pool of operators.

They acknowledged employee turnover — chalking it up as a “fact of life at any organization” — but said, despite staffing challenges, “there has not been a single day of operation without sufficient qualified staff to safely manage operations and maintenance.”

In December, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the streetcar's inaugural year found that that streetcar boosters have overstated the system's economic development impact and that ridership has fallen short of early projections, even though the streetcar was free for its first year.

Like GDOT, the AJC also found that underlying many of its troubles was confusion over who was in charge of the system, the city or MARTA. Reed officials have said they’re working on streamlining a top-heavy management structure.

Atlanta is also considering permanently turning over streetcar operations to private management, city officials have said. A final decision has not yet been made.