Atlanta Super Bowl: How MARTA’s preparing to handle the massive crowds

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In 200 days, a giant swarm of fans, tourists and media will descend on Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. Hundreds of thousands of them are expected to use MARTA during the 10-day occasion that culminates with the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

With an event of this magnitude, officials at the transit agency know they have their work cut out for them. That was made clear in January, when delays and crowd control problems ensued at MARTA's Five Points Station after the college football national championship. Officials later said inadequate staffing was among the reasons for the issues.

» Follow: AJC's Complete coverage of the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta

The agency is preparing for the Super Bowl in ways that will hopefully prevent the kind of problems that took place early this year.

Tabletop exercises

One course of action is a series of tabletop exercises that focuses on topics such as safety and security, managing crowds on train platforms and communicating clearly to riders.

The first exercise, attended by the entire MARTA executive team, was held June 21. Senior directors from each department worked through scenarios, and exercise participants dealt with simulated situations such as severe weather, protests, service disruptions and station overcrowding, said Stephany Fisher, MARTA’s acting senior director of communications.

More tabletop discussions and a full-scale exercise will be held over the next seven months. Officials will also assess MARTA’s preparedness during large-scale events being held before the Super Bowl, such as the MLS All Star Game on Aug. 1, Labor Day weekend events including Dragon Con and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff; as well as Music Midtown in September, the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1 and the Peach Bowl early next year.

Police presence

In May, MARTA held a job fair to hire 40 officers to staff up for the Super Bowl. The department is also still accepting applications, Fisher said in an email last week.

During the Super Bowl, the department’s Emergency Preparedness Unit will deploy a 45-foot mobile command vehicle to give police “enhanced communications and command-and-control response capabilities during any major operation,” Fisher said. “Officers will be highly visible in special uniforms throughout the system and off days will be canceled.”

Bomb-sniffing K-9s and MARTA's Special Operations Response Team, which has tactical police, counter-terrorism capabilities and the ability to respond to chemical weapons, will also be on hand. Police will monitor 15,000 cameras covering the transit system from its Emergency Operations Center.

"Intelligence gathering and cybersecurity will also play a very active role in the preparations," Fisher said. She added that riders should download the free See & Say app, which lets users anonymously send information to the communications center in real time.

Addressing overcrowding 

A playbook detailing service and staffing during Super Bowl events will be prepared and communicated to the public, Fisher said.

“At this stage in our Super Bowl planning, we have assessed the proximity of MARTA stations to NFL security zones and event venues, analyzed expected attendance at events and our parking needs, as well as taken a close look at ridership data and current walking patterns in downtown Atlanta, and discussed rail capacity,” she said.

MARTA will have additional service for events surrounding the Feb. 3 game. That means more more rail cars and buses that arrive with more frequency, plus extra rail cars and buses strategically placed so they can enter into service immediately if any issues — mechanical or otherwise — arise.

“Load-and-go” teams — MARTA workers who stand on the platforms to help quickly load trains — will be on site, and crowds entering the station will be managed so platforms don’t become overcrowded.

“We will also be deploying our transit ambassador program where members of MARTA’s 5,000 strong staff will be at rail stations, bus stops, and near event venues to help those who may be unfamiliar with our system,” Fisher said. She credits the transit ambassadors and load-and-go teams for helping the system run smoothly during July 4th events.

MARTA plans to release specific service details closer to the event.