MARTA is scrambling to hire the police officers it needs to cope with the huge crowds expected to descend on Atlanta for the Super Bowl in less than three months.
The agency is about 40 police officers short of full staffing as it prepares for the big game on Feb. 3, MARTA said in response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. Though less pressing for the Super Bowl, the agency also needs to hire scores of bus drivers.
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Still, CEO Jeffrey Parker says MARTA will have the staff it needs when hundreds of thousands of visitors begin arriving for Super Bowl LIII in late January. And he said the agency has taken other steps to ensure there’s no repeat of the debacle that followed last January’s college football championship, when hundreds of fans were stranded at MARTA’s Five Points Station until the early morning hours.
“Preparation for the Super Bowl has been something we’ve been focusing on for well over a year,” Parker said in an interview Thursday. “It goes well beyond just staffing.”
Indeed, everyone from the Atlanta Police Department to the FBI is involved in planning for the NFL’s biggest game of the year. Last month, MARTA hosted a police exercise to practice for a possible terrorist attack.
Far from a one-day affair, it’s a 10-day series of events, stretching from Jan. 26 to Feb. 4.
MARTA has struggled to staff its police force in a competitive economy that has seen many departments competing for officers.
While it has hired more than 20, turnover has hindered the agency’s effort. MARTA has 256 officers and considers 295 to be full staffing.
MARTA spokeswoman Stephany Fisher said the agency is “aggressively recruiting” additional officers. Among other things, it has sought candidates from the military and from as far away as Puerto Rico.
In addition, MARTA will get assistance from 26 other police departments from across the country during the Super Bowl, Fisher said.
The agency also is short about 140 bus drivers. MARTA says it’s a chronic problem affecting transit agencies across the country. But because the Super Bowl is expected to impact rail service far more than buses, the bus driver shortage should not be a factor, Fisher said.
She said MARTA has enough train operators to carry out its plans to provide round-the-clock service at the peak of Super Bowl festivities.
Staffing is critical to managing crowds during big events, as MARTA learned last January.
After the college football championship at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Five Points – MARTA’s main hub for transferring between rail lines – became a scene of chaos. Hundreds of fans leaving the game became stranded because northbound trains weren’t departing Five Points.
MARTA said two medical emergencies at other stations sparked the delays. As more fans arrived, they packed into Five Points, pressing up against idle northbound trains. That caused automatic train doors to open, preventing the trains from leaving the station.
Some passengers told the AJC they looked in vain for MARTA employees, whom they hoped would provide information and control the crowd. The passengers said they feared being trampled as some fans pushed and shoved. A few fans crawled over cement barriers to escape the swelling crowds.
Eventually, the northbound trains started running. But video reviewed by the newspaper showed the station didn’t clear until nearly 2 a.m.
MARTA later acknowledged that many employees didn’t show up for work during the event. Freezing rain that day prevented some employees from getting to work and forced others to stay home with their kids, who were out of school.
Parker said MARTA will be prepared if inclement weather strikes during the Super Bowl. Among other things, the agency has stockpiled sheets and beds, in case it needs employees to spend the night at work so they can be available for duty.
MARTA added $2 million to its budget this year to ensure it has the staffing and other resources needed for the big game. Among other things, it plans to have employees at every entrance to each train to ensure passengers can get on and off.
“MARTA and the city and the entire region are focused on being prepared,” Parker said. “Preparation is the key.”