I-85 bridge collapse: Is MARTA ready for its close-up?

Day after day and year after year of punishing commutes have not convinced hordes of metro Atlanta drivers to step away from their cars and give MARTA a shot.

RELATED: After I-85 re-opened, Atlantans went back to their cars

For a while, $4-a-gallon gasoline did. As gas prices spiked nearly a decade ago, many motorists turned to MARTA. But fuel prices eventually fell again, and the transit system botched its opportunity by raising fares and cutting service. Ridership plummeted yet again.

But the recent collapse of a huge slab of I-85 — combined with a freakish onslaught of floods, chemical spills and other assorted traffic calamities—might finally change that. MARTA trains have been crammed with passengers scrambling to avoid Atlanta’s highways. Still, the question remains: Will they stick with it when the section of I-85 that collapsed last month reopens?

RELATED: I-85 bridge collapse: Who is to Blame?

MORE: Cause or client? Homeless man charged in collapse galvanizes support

The answer could help determine whether commuting in Atlanta becomes more bearable or returns to the mundane kind of misery that passes for normal.

Some transportation experts doubt that even Atlanta’s recent catastrophic traffic woes can break commuters’ love-hate relationship with their cars.

“It may not happen immediately,” said Michael Hunter, associate professor of transportation systems engineering at Georgia Tech. “But maybe in six months (Atlanta’s commute) will look like what it looked like before.”

Still, MARTA is determined not to blow its latest chance to convert harried motorists into loyal customers. It may have a shot with Laura Phillips, who was taking MARTA on Thursday from her home in Reynoldstown to a business meeting in Sandy Springs.

The 31-year-old freelance graphic artist would drive to such meetings in the past, but following the interstate collapse finally got on board with MARTA.

“It’s really pretty easy once you learn your way around,” she said.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker said the the transit system is ready for the fresh attention.

“We are going to make them feel welcome,” Parker said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are going to really hype the customer service.”

If things go well, the old “normal” may seem less appealing than letting someone else do the driving. If they don’t, well, misery loves company on the region’s highways.

A land of drivers

Atlanta is a land of sprawl — and drivers. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, 86 percent of people in the region drive alone to work. Another 6 percent use carpools or vanpools. Just 5 percent take public transportation.

But driving comes at a cost. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the average commute in metro Atlanta is 31 minutes. But 13 percent of commuters travel an hour or more to work.

The interstate closure has also compounded other emergencies. Last Monday a truck hauling chemicals crashed on the Downtown Connector, shutting down one of the remaining highways into the heart of Atlanta for hours.

That same day, a utility accident apparently caused I-20 to buckle in DeKalb County, shutting down another highway and severely injuring a motorcyclist. The state wasn’t able to reopen all lanes until the next morning.

Torrential rains flooded a portion of the Perimeter on Tuesday. And Wednesday dawned with a sinkhole erupting on 5th Street in Midtown, further snarling traffic diverted to Atlanta’s clogged surface streets.

As the mishaps have piled up, anxious commuters are left to wonder: Are we cursed? When even the pavement of our highways rises against us, what are we to do?

Public officials like Gov. Nathan Deal have answered: Ride MARTA.

Not long ago, it would have been surprising to hear a Republican governor promote the transit agency. Though it has provided rail and bus service in Fulton and DeKalb counties for decades, MARTA has remained a dirty word in many suburban communities.

In recent years MARTA’s fortunes have improved. Under Parker, who arrived in 2012, an agency long seen as bloated and wasteful has shored up its bottom line. It expanded bus service into Clayton County in 2015 and last fall convinced Atlanta voters to approve a sales tax increase to pay for an expansion.

Fulton and DeKalb counties are considering expansions of their own. Even Cobb and Gwinnett counties – which have rejected MARTA multiple times – seem to have warmed to the idea of mass transit, if not MARTA itself.

So when a stretch of highway that carries 250,000 vehicles a day went up in flames, commuters who had never ridden MARTA decided to give it a try.

One of those was Phillips. She said she’s always felt overwhelmed by the thought of figuring out MARTA stops, transfers and Breeze cards. But she finally broke down and used MARTA to get to a doctor’s appointment outside the Perimeter days after the I-85 collapse and was pleasantly surprised.

Will she continue to use MARTA once the interstate is repaired?

“I think I probably will,” she said. But she added there was one thing that would limit her use: “It doesn’t go enough places.”

Phillips wasn’t alone. Though the agency does not have complete statistics yet, preliminary statistics show weekday MARTA rail ridership was up 8 to 17 percent the week after spring break, depending on the day. Bus ridership held steady.

Other agencies and private companies have made it easier to take MARTA. Gwinnett County and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority added express bus routes directly to MARTA’s Doraville and Chamblee stations. Uber and Lyft have offered discounts on rides to and from MARTA stations.

Challenges and opportunities

What remains to be seen is whether those new customers will stay with MARTA when I-85 reopens and the sense of impending apocalypse fades. There’s reason to doubt they’ll stick around.

Research shows commuters are creatures of habit. In Atlanta, that means people drive because they’ve always driven. Breaking that routine requires something as dramatic as, well, the collapse of a bridge on a major highway.

MARTA’s own history shows a boost in ridership can be fleeting. But the transit agency is trying to avoid self-defeating blunders. After gas prices hist$4 a gallon in 2008, MARTA cut service and raised prices.

“That’s a recipe for declining ridership,” MARTA’s Parker said.

Other factors – including some people’s perception that MARTA is not safe – could hinder the agency’s ability to capitalize on the I-85 shutdown. The April 13 fatal shooting on a MARTA train pulling into West Lake station could reinforce that perception. Parker said the shooting apparently was not a random act of violence and could have happened anywhere.

Phil Rubin, CEO of the Atlanta-based marketing firm rDialogue, praised MARTA’s handling of the shooting and other recent violence. The agency has highlighted statistics showing MARTA’s declining crime rate, but has also beefed up security.

Rubin sees opportunity as well as challenges for MARTA. To attract new customers, he said the agency should make the experience of existing customers as pleasant as possible.

“It’s not enough to get somebody to ride once,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure they come back. You’ve got to make it really easy to come back. Part of that is fundamentally providing a good experience.”

MARTA seems to have gotten the message. When I-85 shut down, it increased the frequency of trains, added parking and boosted staffing to improve customer service.

Even before the shutdown it was making improvements. It has opened fresh food markets at some stations and outfitted buses with Wi-Fi. Later this year it will introduce a mobile ticketing app.

Rubin said MARTA’s biggest selling point may be that it lets commuters reclaim their time. You can’t work or read a book when you’re driving a car. Even if it takes longer to get to work on MARTA, he said it can still be more productive or pleasant than sitting in rush hour traffic.

The contrast has only gotten more dramatic recently.

“It’s stressful driving around in Atlanta,” Rubin said. “All you have to do is look at any social media feed over the last few weeks. It’s mind-boggling.”

Long-term expansion plans

It may be months before MARTA knows whether it has retained a significant number of its new customers. Some say they’re not likely to stick around.

Since the I-85 collapse, Chris Byrne has added the train to his commute to his government office in downtown Atlanta. He used to just ride a Georgia Regional Transportation Authority bus from the Hamilton Mill area in northern Gwinnett. Lately he’s been trying to beat intown traffic by taking the train from Doraville downtown.

“I never had a reason to take MARTA before,” he said.

And he doesn’t intend to take it after I-85 is repaired. His problem isn’t so much with MARTA, though. He said he’s been unimpressed – and often frustrated – by how GRTA and MARTA work together to keep commuters using both services.

Hunter, the Georgia Tech professor, thinks many commuters will return to their old ways, though it’s too soon to know for sure.

Navigational apps are giving motorists new information about commuting routes they might not have tried before, he said. And driving may still be faster and more convenient for many commuters than catching a bus or train.

“People do a fairly decent job of figuring out what works for them,” Hunter said.

In the long run, MARTA may have to expand its service to draw more customers. Parker said the agency is well positioned to do that.

Thanks to last November’s referendum, MARTA will expand local bus service in Atlanta in the next few weeks, reaching new neighborhoods. The referendum also could help pay for expanded rail services like the proposed Clifton corridor.

Fulton and DeKalb are considering their own expansion plans. And MARTA is trying to create demand for its own services by promoting development near its transit stations.

But not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of more MARTA passengers. As she boarded a northbound train at the Five Points Station, Keisha Walters was irritated by a what she said was a larger than normal crowd squeezing aboard.

“Who are all these people?” Walters muttered. “I want them to go on back to their cars so I can get a seat again.”

Staff writers Shannon McCaffrey, Joshua Sharpe and John Perry contributed to this report

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