Snow-induced worker shortage slowed MARTA, but didn’t stop it

As the roads and interstates that snake through metro Atlanta sat paralyzed in last week’s frigid grip, MARTA, for the most part, kept moving.

No, the mass transit authority wasn’t unscathed by the three days of ice and snow. Trains ran less frequently because many MARTA employees couldn’t make it in through the epic gridlock, and bus service was canceled entirely one day because it was unsafe to go out on the road.

“Staff doesn’t have a supersecret highway to drive to work on,” said MARTA Chief Operating Officer Rich Krisak.

But while leaders in Georgia — from Gov. Nathan Deal to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to Georgia Emergency Management Director Charley English — are under a microscope over their handling of the crisis, MARTA decision-makers are largely out of the spotlight.

“The ice storm was a difficult set of circumstances for every governmental entity throughout metro Atlanta, and MARTA was no different,” said state Sen. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, the MARTA oversight committee chairman and a critic of the agency in the past. “I don’t think it is appropriate to lay any blame at MARTA’s feet.”

Riders’ reviews about service were mixed.

Bibiana Antoine, 35, waited an hour and fifteen minutes at the Buckhead Station for a train to her Ellenwood home Tuesday night. She said MARTA did an “OK job” but “the trains were a little bit slow.”

Blogger and digital strategist Jared Degnan, 33, of Midtown Atlanta, called his transit system experience on Tuesday night “absolutely flawless.”

Degnan said he usually only rides MARTA to sporting events or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race. But after it took him three and a half hours to travel a quarter-mile in his car Tuesday afternoon in the Perimeter Mall area, a light bulb went off.

He saw the Dunwoody MARTA station. He pulled off the road, parked and hopped onto a train less than five minutes later. Within 40 minutes, he was walking through his door.

“Though MARTA won’t be my primary mode of transportation, I have to say I am going to use it much more often,” Degnan wrote on his “Just Friggin’ Peachy” blog.

MARTA instituted a weekend schedule as metro Atlanta became increasingly snowbound Tuesday and kept it going through Thursday. On weekends the wait time between trains is 10 to 20 minutes, versus a regular weekday wait time of 7.5 to 15 minutes.

Seventeen trains are needed on a typical weekend schedule. But because some train operators were unable to make it to work during the “snowpocalypse,” waits were extended by five to 10 minutes across the system, Krisak said — although some riders, such as Antoine, waited for far longer.

Buses were a bigger challenge. Weather-related gridlock stranded bus drivers and their passengers Tuesday, and service was eliminated entirely Wednesday, although about a third of MARTA’s typical weekday bus-driving crew had made it in.

There are 91 bus routes on a typical weekday, Krisak said, adding that the 142 drivers who made it to work Wednesday would have been enough to operate at least 27 core routes serving area hospitals, industry/service centers and the airport.

But as that day dawned, officials learned 102 buses and 22 mobility vans were already stranded around the metro area. So MARTA, after consulting with the Georgia Department of Transportation, decided not to doom any more vehicles and passengers.

The transit authority operated 39 priority bus routes by Thursday and resumed normal operations on Friday.

Service frequency, however, wasn’t the only complaint. Riders cited a lack of communication about wait times at some station platforms, confusing signage, and announcements over speakers that were too garbled to comprehend.

Robbie Ashe, MARTA board chairman, said he expects to be briefed at a board meeting this week about what went wrong and lessons that could be learned.

“We continue to strive to improve our signage and in-station communications,” Ashe said. “That’s true on a regular day. Under stressful circumstances, I can certainly understand why people would want us to do even more.”

Krisak said an effort to replace the 30-year-old public address system is already under way. A contractor will be selected this summer, he said, and new message signs and speakers will be installed in phases over the next three to five years.

As for workers who couldn’t make it in, they will not be faulted or disciplined, Krisak said. In at least 84 cases, MARTA police went to essential employees’ homes to provide transportation, and many workers stayed and slept in buses, trains and station facilities so they could keep the mass transit system running.

The chief operating officer also noted that MARTA contended not only with ice on Tuesday but fire — specifically a rail car fire that stymied trips just as the snow started falling around midday.

The flare-up, caused by a mechanical problem, was small enough to be quashed with a fire extinguisher. But the entire system was shut down in the vicinity of the Five Points Station while all six cars on the train were inspected, Krisak said, causing a major disruption of service on the north-south lines for about three hours.

Staff writer Dan Chapman contributed to this article.

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