MARTA was ready for its Super Bowl close-up

Learn more about metro Atlanta's bus and rail transit system in the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

Sunday night after the Super Bowl, MARTA's Five Points station was packed and getting fuller.

Several hundred people lined the northbound platform, waiting for a train to whisk them home or to their hotels. Dozens more were streaming down the escalator.

Then the train arrived. And though it was standing room-only for many who boarded, it carried most of the crowd away. Another train arrived a few minutes later, and it cleared the platform.

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That’s how it went most of the weekend for MARTA, which carried hundreds of thousands of people to the Super Bowl and related events in recent days.

On Friday, passengers took 208,000 trips on MARTA rail. On Saturday they took a whopping 260,000 trips, and on Sunday they took an additional 150,000.

Passengers arrive at the Georgia World Congress Center MARTA stop before the Super Bowl 53 football game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in Atlanta. (BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL)

Credit: Branden Camp

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Credit: Branden Camp

By comparison, passengers took 150,000 trips on MARTA last July 4, which featured The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race and other festivities. They took 190,000 trips the day of the MLS All-Star Game in August — including regular weekday riders.

For the most part, it went well this weekend. There were a few train delays. Ongoing labor unrest disrupted some bus routes. And the Atlanta Streetcar became bogged down in traffic, forcing MARTA to shut it down Saturday night.

But in a city where a bomber terrorized the Olympics, a tornado blustered through a college basketball tournament and an ice storm pelted the Super Bowl in 2000, MARTA was determined not to be the thing that went wrong for Atlanta this time.

“I’m ecstatic about what we did for our customers, for our visitors and for the city,” CEO Jeffrey Parker said Monday. “I think we delivered the service people should expect from us.”

Passengers arrive at the Georgia World Congress Center MARTA stop before the Super Bowl 53 football game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, in Atlanta. (BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL)

Credit: Branden Camp

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Credit: Branden Camp

You could almost hear metro Atlanta breathe a collective sigh of relief because for a while it seemed that MARTA might be the weak link in its plans to make 1 million visitors feel this was the best Super Bowl ever.

Last year, hundreds of passengers were stranded at Five Points — the rail system's hub — after the college football national championship. A week before the Super Bowl, a train derailed at the airport, knocking out direct rail service for travelers for days.

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Then scores of bus drivers started calling in sick — apparently to protest the terms of a new labor agreement. The sickout didn't disrupt rail service, though it was one more thing to fret about.

But MARTA prepared for two years for this week and budgeted an extra $2 million for the Super Bowl. It launched 24-hour rail service and staged mechanics at key spots to respond quickly to problems. It drilled employees in late-night exercises and installed signs to direct people to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

MARTA’s Dome station, adjacent to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was packed at times Saturday and Sunday with passengers bound for Super Bowl festivities. (David Wickert/AJC)

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And all that preparation showed Super Bowl weekend — the transit agency's biggest stage since I-85 collapsed nearly two years ago, forcing thousands of people out of their cars and onto trains and buses.

The agency deployed more than 600 employees to assist passengers. At times, dozens of yellow-vested police officers and other MARTA employees lined platforms at key stations, including Five Points and the Dome station near the stadium.

They barked directions and helped out-of-towners buy tickets at vending machines.

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Julie Buse and Barb Daum, Rams fans from Evansville, Ind., were impressed. They said the assistance at the vending machines was especially helpful.

“I’ve never seen anybody do that before,” Buse said after Sunday’s game.

“And they were all very friendly,” Daum added.

New York resident Michael Kennedy, a Patriots fan, took MARTA to the game Sunday. He said MARTA is “far nicer” and much cleaner than New York City’s subway — though he noted his train from North Springs was jammed full of passengers by the time he got to the Peachtree Center station.

Indeed, the trains were packed at key times. But for the most part, they kept moving.

MARTA installed permanent and temporary signs to guide visitors to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (David Wickert/AJC)

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There were hiccups. On Saturday night, small fires beside its tracks forced MARTA to suspend Gold Line rail service north of Lenox station in Atlanta. The agency used a bus to carry passengers up to Doraville and other stations for about 50 minutes before rail service was restored.

Also Saturday, a passenger hopped on the rails at Peachtree Center station, forcing MARTA to shut down a train and causing a 45-minute delay.

Also problematic was the Atlanta Streetcar, which MARTA took over from the city of Atlanta last summer. Though it was packed with passengers at times Saturday afternoon, it became bogged down by pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

At times hundreds of passengers lined the northbound platform at Five Points station after Sunday’s Super Bowl. But MARTA kept the trains moving, and the crowds thinned out quickly. (David Wickert/AJC)

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One 2.7-mile round trip took an hour and 45 minutes, and passengers cheered when they were finally able to get off at Centennial Olympic Park.

“They should at least have police officers hold traffic so we can move,” said Reggie Davis of Atlanta, who rode 45 minutes on the streetcar to go two stops.

MARTA suspended streetcar service Saturday evening. It resumed Sunday, but fewer passengers apparently used it.

Parker acknowledged the problems, and he pledged an “after-action review” to see how the agency could have done better. But he praised employees who “worked their tails off this weekend and did a phenomenal job.”

“It went as well as we could have performed,” Parker said. “I think we did a phenomenal job moving a lot of people.”

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