Moderated by Tom Sabulis
In the aftermath of last week’s winter storm, which paralyzed the region, metro Atlanta transportation and business leaders write to assess their performance and prepare for the future. MARTA CEO/general manager Keith Parker writes about where the transit agency succeeded and fell short, and Perimeter businesswoman Yvonne Williams suggest ways local business groups can coordinate to form new strategies for the work force.
Commenting is open.
By Keith T. Parker
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 on Tuesday until roads and highways became more passable on 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 that 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 on 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 with 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 the 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 the 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.
By Yvonne Williams
We appreciate Gov. Nathan Deal coming together with agencies of the state and schools, local police, legislators and local meteorologists to create a Severe Weather Warning Task Force. The Perimeter Community Improvement Districts (PCIDs) — a 4.2-square-mile area surrounding Perimeter Mall — would like to be part of that process to explore how we might best maximize our business network to make sure that we too have a more coordinated plan.
Central Perimeter, one of the Atlanta region’s largest office submarkets and employment centers with 123,000 daytime employees, is a significant factor in top-end transportation and traffic flow.
Commuters living outside the Perimeter area fill 110,000 of the jobs in Central Perimeter, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. In addition, 52,000 residents in the Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Brookhaven portion of the Perimeter market commute outside the area to work.
The highest concentration of employees is within the PCIDs. When these commuters hit the road at one time, we see major traffic jams regardless of the weather. So for some time, the PCIDs have been considering staggered work hours and how we pull that idea together with our business partners.
Through a coordinated effort with the state, the PCIDs can play a substantial role in reducing traffic congestion during future emergencies. The goal would be the development of a communications strategy and messaging system to businesses. We can transmit weather alerts to large employers in our area and encourage staggered employee release times.
The PCIDs already have a system in place to communicate information weekly from the Georgia Department of Transportation to Perimeter businesses and employees about weekend construction work that can impact them in the metro area. We also communicate lane closures for projects the PCIDs or cities in our area have underway, as well as improvements we are making to enhance traffic flow.
Other projects that the PCIDs have been advocating for could also reduce traffic during emergencies.
The availability of a managed lane on I-285 for bus rapid transit would be especially beneficial, and this is something that we have been urging. School buses could be allowed priority access to an expedited collector/distributor system along Ga. 400 that would let them move faster. The state has planned a four-lane system from Hammond Drive to north of Spalding Drive for construction in 2030.
As plans move forward to improve emergency preparedness, the PCIDs are anxious to assist however possible. We are closely attuned to the transportation needs of our employers and commuters and provide a natural vehicle to assist in the development of a business communications outreach that can help prevent chaos on our roadways in the future.
Yvonne Williams is president and CEO of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts.