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Gridlock Guy: MARTA survives emergency and is admirable in big Super Bowl test

In this space two weeks ago and in AJC transportation writer David Wickert’s late January column, we agreed that MARTA’s reputation was at least partially on the line by how it operated during Super Bowl 53. Super Bowl week was a complicated one for Atlanta’s bus and rail service, but judging by the traffic flow and the positive reviews of Atlanta from out-of-town visitors, MARTA seems to have performed very well on the world’s stage. And this is despite several big obstacles along the way.

» RELATED: MARTA was ready for its Super Bowl close-up

The biggest problem MARTA faced was completely out of its control. A fire near the tracks close to the busy Brookhaven Station caused big service interruptions Saturday evening. But it wasn’t just one brush fire on another property that forced MARTA to set up a bus bridge between the Lenox, Brookhaven, Chamblee, and Doraville rail stops.

“A Rail Supervisor had all trains use the track farthest away from the [initial] fire,” MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher told the AJC. So, the trains were still running at that point. “That Supervisor then reported a second fire, again, not on MARTA property, and ordered all rail service through that portion of the Gold Line suspended.”

Firefighters ran out of water fighting the fires, which then caused the conflagrations to rekindle as they searched for another water source. Fisher said this caused the bus bridge to last an hour and five minutes, with seven northbound trains stopped at Lenox and their passengers sent to buses.

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MARTA was feeling the burden of not only its busiest travel day in decades — 270,000 riders, which MARTA said is more than double that of a normal Saturday — but also a shortage in bus drivers, some of which were still calling out sick in a union dispute. But MARTA was prepared for that also, Fisher said.

“MARTA experienced delays on some bus routes because of the bus operator sick-out. Supervisors were pulled in to operate buses to minimize the impact to customers. We were not anticipating a significant increase in bus ridership surrounding the Super Bowl since the majority of our customers accessed the event venues on the rail system. The sick-out did not have an impact on rail service,” Fisher said, adding that operators from other Metro Atlanta bus systems provided buses and workers to help with last Saturday’s emergency bus bridge.

» RELATED: Super Bowl 53 Wrap: How did Atlanta do?

While people were upset by the delays, the whole thing could have gone much worse. If MARTA had not staffed up, the rail system would not have been able to handle the crowds even without an emergency. If the agency hadn’t collaborated with CobbLinc, Gwinnett Transit, and SRTA — as they are doing in a broader way with the new ATL transit system — then they wouldn’t have been able to quickly implement a plan to move those commuters to alternate routes.

The Atlanta Streetcar, now run by MARTA, has often been lightly used. But Fisher said that was a different story last weekend: “The Streetcar saw heavy ridership the entire three-day Super Bowl weekend, with rail cars filled to capacity on almost every trip.” But it had its own difficulties. “On Saturday night, service was suspended when cars and overflow crowds turned away from Centennial Olympic Park filled the streets, making it impossible for the Streetcar to move safely through the downtown area,” Fisher said.

We saw those hordes on the WSB Jam Cams all weekend along Marietta St. and Centennial Olympic Park Dr. Driving down there was nearly impossible; moving a streetcar through there would seem unreasonable as well. Fisher said that service resumed by 8 a.m. Sunday.

MARTA actually saw significantly fewer riders on Super Bowl Sunday — an estimated 155,000 — than on Saturday. And Mass Exodus Monday saw 161,000 use the rail system. The security-line waits at the fully-staffed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport saw many more delays than did MARTA.

Atlanta traffic and transit endured a million visitors, double the amount of MARTA riders, tens of thousands more air travelers, a winter weather scare, a bus driver sick-out, a fire near the tracks, and several big game-related road closures. Locals either stayed away or rode the rails. Atlanta traffic was light, considering the large crowds in town. And MARTA game-planned enough to zig and zag with the problems. Atlanta gets at least a solid B, if not better, for how it handled travelers on Super Bowl week. And MARTA was a big part of that. 

» RELATED: Opinion: MARTA: Playing hard outside M-B Stadium

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.

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