MARTA’s reputation, development on the line as Atlanta hosts Super Bowl

MARTA has performed well during recent events at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, including the MLS championship game in December. MARTA’s performance during the upcoming Super Bowl could affect its reputation amid a growing push for transit expansion across the region. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

MARTA has performed well during recent events at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, including the MLS championship game in December. MARTA’s performance during the upcoming Super Bowl could affect its reputation amid a growing push for transit expansion across the region. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis was hours away. The local transit agency was about to launch a special service to carry more than 20,000 people to the game — service it had spent months planning down to the finest detail.

Then the power went out.

“We couldn’t move a train, much less see where we were going inside the building,” recalled Mark Benedict, director of Metro Transit’s light rail operations.

It was a transit chief's worst nightmare — a crisis at the worst possible time, on the biggest possible stage. And it's the kind of potential catastrophe that MARTA officials hope to avoid as Atlanta prepares to host hundreds of thousands of visitors for this year's Super Bowl and related events.

Tens of thousands of people will take transit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Feb. 3 game. And there’s reason to wonder whether MARTA can pull it off.

Just last week direct service to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was down for days after an out-of-service train derailed. MARTA ferried passengers from College Park to the airport via shuttle, causing delays. Some irritated passengers wondered whether MARTA was ready for the Super Bowl.

A year ago, when the stadium hosted the college football national championship, hundreds of passengers were stranded at Five Points Station long after the game ended because trains couldn't depart. Witnesses described a frightening scene, with some passengers pushing and shoving on an overcrowded platform while trains went nowhere.

MARTA blamed medical emergencies at other stations for shutting down the trains, but later admitted it was short-staffed and unprepared to handle the crowds.

The agency has performed well at more recent events, including the SEC football championship and Atlanta United championship games in December.

There's a lot riding on whether MARTA gets it right during the Super Bowl — and not just for football fans. The game comes just a month before Gwinnett County voters decide whether to join MARTA after decades of resistance.

MARTA has been riding a wave of enthusiasm for transit across the region and at the Gold Dome in recent years. A successful Super Bowl could show that last year's debacle was just a blip for an agency that has worked hard to put financial and other problems behind it. Problems at the game could revive long-standing criticism that the agency is poorly run, dampening enthusiasm for transit expansion.

MARTA officials say they're ready for the big game. For months they've prepared for everything from terrorist attacks to mechanical problems.

The agency will expand service and deploy hundreds of additional employees during the big game and the 10 days of events surrounding it.

"We're prepared," said David Springstead, MARTA's chief of rail operations. "The tenor at MARTA is excitement, not concern. We want to shine."

But interviews with transit agencies in other Super Bowl cities show things don’t always go as expected. And it takes a tremendous amount of preparation to ensure the unexpected doesn’t derail the best of Super Bowl plans.

Plan for the worst

Like MARTA, the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit spent months preparing for last year’s Super Bowl. Among other things, the agency prepared for a dozen or more specific types of incidents, like protests that might shut down the rail line leading to U.S. Bank Stadium.

That protest, in fact, happened. But Metro Transit was ready, with buses standing by. When protesters blocked the tracks, transit employees loaded passengers onto the waiting buses, bound for the stadium.

“They didn’t lose a minute,” Benedict said. “We just let the train stand where it was while the demonstrators blocked it.”

Metro Transit and an electric utility also were prepared when a power failure struck many of the agency’s operations just an hour before it was set to launch its Super Bowl rail service. The power company fixed the problem in time for the first electric train loaded with Super Bowl fans to depart. In the end, the transit service worked well.

Metro Transit officials said an almost obsessive level of planning was the key.

“There’s nothing you can over prepare for — all of these contingencies that you might need, or that you think that you don’t need,” said spokesman Howie Padilla.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California echoed that emphasis on planning, planning and more planning. Three years ago, the agency carried some 10,000 passengers to Super Bowl 50 via light rail.

The VTA developed a detailed playbook — half-hour by half-hour — that included schedules, personnel, phone numbers and other resources. Mindful of out-of-towners, the agency also deployed 160 transit “ambassadors” to stations, hotels and other locations to guide passengers to and from the game.

“That paid off in the end,” said Jim Unites, VTA’s deputy director for transit planning. “We didn’t have a lot of confused folks.”

Such preparations don’t come cheap. The Santa Clara agency spent $1.5 million on Super Bowl preparations. MARTA budgeted an extra $2 million for staffing and other resources needed for the big game.

Metro Transit’s Padilla noted that fans also spend a lot of money to get to the Super Bowl, and they have high expectations as a result.

“There was a lot of pressure,” he said, “to make sure they were going to get there.”

MARTA feels the heat

MARTA officials say the agency has learned lessons from transit agencies in other Super Bowl cities, but also from its own mistakes during last year’s college football championship. Among other things, it will:

  • Expand service hours and frequency in the days leading up to the game.
  • Staff every entrance to every train with "load and go" teams to ease boarding.
  • Add more than 600 transit "ambassadors" to guide passengers.
  • Supplement vending machines with employees selling Breeze Cards at numerous locations.
  • Supplement the MARTA police force with other uniformed officers.

MARTA has also held several exercises to prepare for terrorist attacks and other events. And it's adding new signs to direct fans to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

MARTA officials feel the pressure to get it right.

"From what I observe, the Super Bowl has gotten attention at MARTA every day for months," said MARTA Board member Robbie Ashe, who just stepped down as chairman. "We are quite aware of the opportunity and the challenges, and we're committed to making sure we deliver."

CEO Jeffrey Parker was more succinct.

“We’re ready,” he said.