Gridlock Guy: Transit numbers down one year after I-85 bridge collapse

VIDEO: On March 30, 2017, Atlanta drivers on I-85 north found themselves in a stunning situation when materials stored beneath the interstate overpass spanning Piedmont Road and Monroe Drive caught fire. The overpass then collapsed.

This last week-plus has been filled with remembrances of the I-85 bridge collapse one year ago. Tens of thousands of people had to alter their commutes on a dime, jamming the side roads in northeast Atlanta, but also increasing MARTA ridership. The I-85 closure awakened many to the conveniences — and then the necessity — of Atlanta’s decades-old mass transit service. The closure could have lasted for months, but GDOT commandeered a rebuild that opened I-85 by mid-May.

MARTA stats show more rail usage during the closure in April, peaking at nearly 6 million mid-month. But then it gradually tapered down to the time of the bridge’s re-opening in May, and bottomed out at 5.4 million during the summer travel season in July. Bus trips decreased during the bridge’s closure, since the roads were so jammed. Interestingly enough, the most-traveled time for MARTA in 2017 was the end of October — far-removed from the I-85 closure. MARTA rail ridership is down to 4.9 million, as of February, lower than any number in 2017 before, during, or after the I-85 closure.

“That decline in overall ridership is seen in systems nationwide,” MARTA’s Senior Communications Director, Stephany Fisher, told the AJC. “There are several factors driving this trend, including lower gas prices, more affordable car prices and good financing rates. More on-demand transportation options are available, such as Uber and Lyft, and while more people are moving back into cities, they are depending less on public transportation.”

April 3,  2017 - Atlanta - MARTA passengers at Lindbergh Center wait for an arriving southbound train.  Passengers on both the Red and Blues lines were saying parking lots were full.  A portion of I-85 remains closed because of Thursday's fire and bridge collapse. BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Armed with new CEO Jeffrey Parker (no relation to previous agency head Keith Parker), MARTA is working to revamp main bus line routes and its Emergency Operations Center, so they can better handle situations that interrupt rail service, Fisher said. The State Legislature’s passing of the transportation bill adds more push to mass transit expansion in Metro Atlanta.

GA Commute Options is an agency that works to decrease people driving alone in cars, thus improving traffic and air quality. Their Senior Marketing Administrator, Joel Wascher, said they went in to hurry-up mode when I-85 shut down.

“We certainly saw a spike in program participation and registration, not only in that month, but the following months as well,” Wascher said of the incentive-based programs they offer to acquaint commuters with mass transit, carpooling, walking, biking, and telecommuting. Like MARTA, GA Commute Options saw spikes a year ago, but also fluctuations in their programs outside of the bridge collapse, Wascher said. “A lot of our incentives are temporary. It’s hard to say we kept all those users.”

One program success story is that of Suzanne Breedlove, who, with her husband, David, had driven every day from Newnan to Georgia Tech, dropped him off, then slogged up to her job in Buckhead. Then I-85 literally crashed and burned and she knew they had to try something different. The Breedloves decided to drive from Newnan to the College Park MARTA Station, take the train to Midtown, and then have her ride it the rest of the way to Buckhead. She couldn’t believe the results: their collective commute decreased an hour to an hour and a half each day.

“It just cut our travel time tremendously. It went to where we could get in in about an hour and a half now, on a not-so-good day and about an hour and 15 [minutes] normally,” Breedlove said. And they had the added benefit of stress-free quality time together, so they stayed with MARTA after I-85 re-opened. “We were able to ride up there together, so we were able to talk and catch up, I guess — what’s going on in the week and that kind of thing. It really ended up working out better for us.”

The Breedloves are saving money on gas and wear and tear on their vehicle. And they are saving even more, because both of their employers subsidise their MARTA cards.

Wascher said that is the biggest growth he has seen at GA Commute Options.

“I think one of the lasting factors has been the way that employers have thought about working with their employees on commuting options.”

Wascher said they offer consultation for companies that not only want to leverage deals on MARTA costs for their employees, but also for teleworking. GA Commute Options offers worksite advisors that share best practices with companies’ HR staffs or managers on how to implement teleworking. With technology evolving at a breakneck pace, teleworking programs are on the rise, which will hopefully cut the number of vehicles on the roads.

So the verdict on Atlanta commuting habits after the I-85 collapse is mixed. Some people have stayed with mass transit and many went straight back to the pavement. But the forced need of a traffic plan has leveraged changes on macro levels. Georgia has passed more measures that could expand transit, and employers are more keen than ever to improving their workers’ commutes.

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