Proud of work, fixes needed

Last week’s crippling snowstorm is thankfully behind us. Long before the next storm arrives, however, MARTA executives and employees are assessing our performance and reviewing kudos and criticisms from our customers that will help make us better.

By many accounts, our employees did a remarkable job keeping the transit system running. From the first snowflakes Tuesday until roads and highways became more passable Thursday, MARTA transported roughly 400,000 people. While many of those customers were regular riders, others were occasional or first-time customers who eventually realized that taking MARTA was the difference between getting stuck and getting home.

MARTA rail operators and staff worked around the clock to ensure no customers were left stranded at stations and ran trains continuously to prevent the tracks from freezing as temperatures dropped. Although rail service was limited at times, it never stopped.

Customers shared personal stories of bus operators who expertly navigated snow-covered roads to transport them safely to their destinations, or welcomed motorists who were also stuck in traffic to take refuge aboard their idling buses. As other businesses were advising their workers to leave early, many dedicated MARTA administrative employees stayed on the job, sleeping in their offices overnight and reporting to their assignments the next day any way they could.

Consistent with public safety instructions to keep vehicles off roadways, MARTA cancelled all bus service Wednesday. By Thursday morning, when some roadways were clearer, MARTA implemented an inclement weather service plan that initially restored 27 “lifeline” bus routes that provided access to hospitals, job centers and key commercial corridors. As road conditions improved later that day, we restored dozens more routes to get our customers moving again.

Weeks in advance of the storm, the MARTA Police Department was making preparations based on existing inclement weather plans, readying our Emergency Operations Center at the Edgewood-Candler Park Station and making necessary provisions as the forecast worsened (including stocking up on sand and rock salt). Police coordinated MARTA’s activities with state officials and local jurisdictions, including the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency and our regional transit partners. Officers were dispatched in four-wheel-drive vehicles to shuttle snowbound MARTA personnel with mission-critical jobs who otherwise couldn’t get to work on their own.

In the storm’s aftermath, MARTA assisted in recovery efforts by offering the West Lake Station parking lot as a staging area for the Georgia National Guard to rendezvous with motorists trying to retrieve cars they had abandoned on the highways when the storm first hit.

As CEO, I’m deeply grateful for the commitment and professionalism many employees displayed last week, as they do every day, year after year. I also appreciate our customers who were patient about the weather-related delays and continue to support and encourage us. MARTA Board Chair Robbie Ashe also provided counsel as important operational decisions were being made.

While I’m proud of the work we did under such extraordinary circumstances, there were several areas where we need improvement.

For example, we heard complaints about the lack of adequate and timely information about weather-related changes to rail and bus schedules. We’re also implementing a major update of our public-address system to resolve concerns that rail customers couldn’t hear important announcements clearly. We need to re-treat ice-slicked sidewalks at our stations and facilities more quickly, and we must upgrade our customer service telephone system to handle large spikes in call volume.

Last week’s storm underscores how critical MARTA is to the Atlanta region, whether we’re providing service to workaday customers or offering a vital transportation link in critical situations. In other words, MARTA matters.

That’s why we’re determined to learn and grow from the lessons of the recent past so that we can continue to be vigilant in preparing for the challenges we’ll undoubtedly face in the years ahead.

Keith T. Parker is CEO/General Manager of MARTA.