State cites MARTA safety issues; MARTA blasts investigation

A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks.  A MARTA train pulls into the Avondale Transit Station on Friday, Aug 6, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks. A MARTA train pulls into the Avondale Transit Station on Friday, Aug 6, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Safety concerns at MARTA have sparked a dispute between two of Georgia’s largest transportation agencies.

A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated numerous safety rules. Among other things, the investigation found MARTA has not effectively implemented safety monitoring in the wake of a contractor’s death in 2018 and has allowed safety officers — who investigate accidents, inspect facilities and help ensure the safety of employees and the public — to work around the clock without required breaks.

The investigation report, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also found evidence that MARTA had created a toxic culture where officers were afraid to report violations. And it criticized MARTA managers who “continually challenged and questioned GDOT’s oversight authority.”

MARTA blasted the investigation as “flawed and biased” in written responses obtained by the AJC. It said GDOT didn’t bother to interview MARTA managers and produced a one-sided look at what, in some cases, are essentially labor relations issues.

“I don’t see anything that suggested that employees were put in harm’s way or that there was anything the public would need to worry about,” Ralph McKinney, MARTA’s chief of safety and quality assurance, told the AJC.

The GDOT investigation isn’t the only scrutiny MARTA faces. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating a whistleblower complaint that raises allegations similar those examined by GDOT. And a former MARTA safety officer has filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court, saying he was fired for speaking up about safety violations.

Caption
A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks. Avondale Yard supports MARTA’s rail system and is located next to the Avondale Transit Station on Friday, Aug 6, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks.  Avondale Yard supports MARTA’s rail system and is located next to the Avondale Transit Station on Friday, Aug 6, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks. Avondale Yard supports MARTA’s rail system and is located next to the Avondale Transit Station on Friday, Aug 6, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

GDOT launched its investigation after it received complaints about MARTA last year. Under federal law, GDOT oversees MARTA compliance with safety and security rules.

GDOT issued its final report in May. Among its findings:

  • MARTA has not effectively implemented safety monitoring recommendations made by a task force following the death of a contractor in 2018. The contractor was struck by a train at the Medical Center station. Federal investigators later said human error by MARTA employees was to blame for the accident.

The task force recommended numerous changes, including unannounced and announced safety audits, inspections and better outreach to employees. GDOT’s investigation found MARTA had not made sufficient progress.

In its response, MARTA said it began mandatory safety training within a week of the accident and took numerous other steps to prevent similar accidents. It said it will develop a plan to assess the effectiveness of those steps and will address any unresolved safety risks.

  • MARTA is not following its policy for assuring safety officers get adequate breaks. Safety officers ensure MARTA facilities and operations are safe for employees and the public. They operate on an on-call basis, responding to accidents and other incidents.

MARTA’s policy requires employees get at least eight consecutive hours of time off in a 24-hour period. But officers told GDOT they sometimes exceeded the maximum hours allowed and feared they could be disciplined if they didn’t. GDOT found MARTA managers were aware of the violations.

In its response, MARTA said managers never directed officers to work too many hours and denied that officers routinely worked more than the maximum allowed. But it said it’s revising its on-call scheduling procedures based on employee feedback.

  • Evidence MARTA has created a toxic work environment for safety officers. Among other things, officers told GDOT that “fear of speaking out leads to the failure of employees to bring forward potential hazards and unsafe conditions observed on the system.”

In its response, MARTA said it is “deeply concerned” that GDOT would offer its opinion when OSHA — not GDOT — has jurisdiction over such labor-management issues and is already investigating them. MARTA said it is cooperating with the OSHA investigation.

Caption
A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks. Avondale Transit Station provides train and bus access to patrons Friday, Aug 6, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks.  Avondale Transit Station provides train and bus access to patrons Friday, Aug 6, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
A recent Georgia Department of Transportation investigation found MARTA violated several safety rules, including allowing safety officers to work around the clock without required breaks. Avondale Transit Station provides train and bus access to patrons Friday, Aug 6, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

In all, the GDOT report includes 11 findings of violations and directs MARTA to take numerous corrective actions to comply with safety regulations. Among other things, it said MARTA must hire an independent contractor to perform a comprehensive analysis of safety on its rail system.

MARTA said it’s already hired two consultants to help implement its safety plan.

In addition to its formal response, MARTA hired a private consultant to review the GDOT investigation. The firm’s report said it could not substantiate GDOT’s findings.

Among other things, the consultant’s report said GDOT never interviewed MARTA safety managers and ignored information MARTA provided about various issues that cast them in a different light.

The consultant concluded MARTA “has been subjected to a flawed and biased investigation.”

Meanwhile, former safety officer Harold Wyatt filed a lawsuit in Fulton County last month, saying he was illegally fired in retaliation for pointing out some of the safety violations substantiated in the GDOT investigation.

“Mr. Wyatt was a dedicated safety officer who was unlawfully terminated because he raised legitimate safety concerns,” said Robert Khayat Jr., Wyatt’s attorney. “Those safety concerns directly affected MARTA operations and passenger and public safety.”

MARTA said it could not comment on the pending litigation except to say it was filed by a disgruntled former employee.

McKinney, who was hired recently as MARTA’s safety chief, said the agency takes safety seriously and has made substantial progress. And despite the heated words exchanged on paper, MARTA and GDOT say they are working together to resolve the safety concerns.

“MARTA’s chief safety officer has been working cooperatively with GDOT to address the corrective actions outlined in the report,” GDOT said in a statement. “Safety of the traveling public, on road or rail, remains the number one priority of GDOT and our transportation partners.”

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