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The Better Way - Atlanta - Transit 'tricks' helped Atlanta get the Olympics

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter
Toronto Star - Tuesday, November 3, 1998


TRANSIT CHIEF: George Turner Jr., general superintendent of rail transportation in Atlanta, stands at the Peachtree Centre subway station with its exposed granite platform walls. 

ATLANTA - The atrium in Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis rises, loop upon curving concrete loop, 50 storeys above the hotel’s glistening convention centre floor.

Bulging out from its base and tapering like a candle flame as it soars for the sky, the atrium’s craning configuration seems a monumental meeting of Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Moore in the middle of the city’s financial district.

It’s a truly majestic structure.

And it was here, to this towering place, that Atlanta’s Olympic bid committee took the people who would soon award them the 1996 Games to begin a tour of the city’s … well … subway system.

“We were taking the members of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) on a tour of the system and we decided, because this space is so impressive, to start here,” says George Turner Jr., general superintendent of rail transportation for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority or MARTA.

“Then we took them down into the subway where we had a few more tricks up our sleeves.”

Those “tricks” would significantly help the Georgia capital in obtaining the centennial Olympics back in 1990 over Toronto, Athens and several other contenders.

And they showed a fundamentally good system at its very best. They showed a clean, efficient, artistic, wealthy, young and expanding public transit network to IOC mandarins, who place such facilities near the top of their list of a city’s qualifications for the Olympics.

They showed a system that could transport passengers by subway from downtown sports venues right into the giant Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport - America’s second largest - in a mere 20 minutes.

‘They tried to do things half way and that caused a lot of problems. For me, I had very old buses so I had a lot of electrical problems.’

—Tom Labbie, 
lead technical director at Olympic satellite garage.

They showed a system that has been made totally handicap accessible, on both its buses and subways.

What the illusions hid, however, were some of the real shortcomings of a rapid transit system that has had to dig its path through the racial and economic troubles still rooted in the social soil of the deep south.

They were shortcomings that - in a land where stock car greats like Jeff Gordon are gods - are also based on Atlanta’s worship of trucks and cars.

And they hid the reality that, in the end, the city would be unable to efficiently move millions of Olympic guests to distant sites.

With the City of Toronto bidding for the 2008 Games, a look at Atlanta’s Olympic transit turmoils might prove enlightening.

But first, the bit of subway subterfuge that so impressed the IOC’s stony-eyed elders.

Gathering in the hotel atrium for their subway tours, the committee members were led through a glass covered walkway that connects the hotel complex to the Peachtree Centre station and its beautiful, exposed granite platform walls.

“The plan was they would walk down this corridor here and the (tour leaders) would call me on the radio and I had two specially prepared cars for them and we would meet them on the platform,” Turner says.

“So what we would do is we would time it. We’d say, ‘Okay they’re leaving the Marriott now, it takes them two minutes to walk over, another minute to come down the escalator so that’s three minutes so start the clock.’ “

The clock started, Turner would eye his watch, mark 90 seconds, then order the special train - festooned with the Olympic insignia - from its spot in a tunnel siding 1 1/2 minutes from the station.

“And just as they’d come to the bottom of the escalator on to the platform, the train would magically appear,” Turner says. “And once on board we’d have made sure the train up in front had gotten ahead a little bit so we could get up a bit of speed and we told them the system can get up to 70 miles an hour and deliver every two minutes in each direction.”

While IOC members were likely well aware that their magically appearing carriage was a setup, Turner says it showed them MARTA’s efficiency and the system’s ability to carry 2,000 people every two to four minutes to Games events on subway trains.

Unfortunately, the city could not rely solely on its sleek 74-kilometre 36-station subway to move large numbers of its estimated 2 million Olympic guests.

“We had to get over the notion a lot of folks had (during Games planning) that the rail system could carry the loads,” says MARTA customer relations director David Williamson, who was heavily involved in Olympic transit planning. “I mean there are limits to what that system could do in terms of equipment and frequency of service.”

As would surely be the case here if Toronto won its bid, Atlanta had to rely on buses to carry spectators to distant venues during the two-week Games.

And because most of MARTA’s own 713 buses and their drivers would be tied up with their regular routes and passengers, those buses would need to come from other cities and other systems.

This is where Atlanta’s Olympic transit plan began to unravel.

After arranging to reroute all their normal buses to avoid the predicted traffic pandemonium on the city’s major streets, MARTA looked outside for help.

“I think I figured out about a year prior to the Olympics that it would take 1,167 extra buses to provide the service they wanted,” says MARTA consultant Phrase O. Johnson, who was in charge of the system’s bus scheduling at the time. “But we only got 1,000 and out of that 1,000 we did have mechanical failures.”

Even more harmful than the bus shortfall, Williamson says, were the woefully small numbers of qualified people MARTA was able to attract to drive and service them.

“The most difficult element we ran into were just issues getting enough people,” he says. “When you make the decision to get in 1,000 buses then you probably need 3,000 drivers, you need supervisory staff, mechanics, you need field level support, dispatchers, garage managers, the whole thing.

“We were building our system up from about the 10th largest in the U.S. to about the third largest and we needed qualified people.”

But because of moves by the city’s own Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), which paid for the extra help, those qualified people did not come.

“I think ACOG made some mistakes and they admit they made some mistakes in believing people were going to come out and work for the Games just because it was the Olympics,” Williamson says. “I think they were initially offering drivers $6 an hour to come out and drive and they were hoping to pull from the school system here in Atlanta or the Metro area to fill that need.”

University students and others in the area, however, balked at the measly payments, Williamson says, and MARTA was forced to turn farther afield for their hired help.

“Although ACOG revised the dollar number upwards, they’d just left such a bitter taste in a lot of people’s mouths that culling from the Atlanta area became difficult so we had to reach out from here and pull them in from all over the country,” he says. “And the problem with doing that is you have all these people coming in from Chicago or somewhere who know nothing about the Atlanta area, the streets or anything else.”

‘They supplied these things called mechanics … and hired all these turkeys to run the buses’

Of all the hits that Atlanta absorbed for their corporately minted Games, the resulting transit fiasco was among the worst. And although some MARTA officials maintain the city did a “pretty good job” despite the difficulties, others are adamant it didn’t.

Press reports from the time bemoan long lineups, broken down vehicles, confusion and late or non-existent buses delivering, or failing to deliver, spectators and reporters to their venues.

And while transit officials play down these reports, all you need do is ride out to MARTA’s huge Perry Blvd. bus garage, and they’ll tell you a different story.

“They tried to do things half way and that caused a lot of problems,” says Tom Labbie, a lead technical director who ran one of the Olympic satellite garages during the Games.

“For me, I had very old buses so I had a lot of electrical problems,” he continues. “We had a couple of engine breakdowns. We had a lot of buses that dated back to ‘75 or ‘79. We’d have suspension problems and the guys didn’t have stuff to fix it. Some people (from other agencies) even said, ‘Once the Olympics are over get rid of the buses, we don’t want them back.’”

But Charles McAllister, director of bus maintenance, says the manpower problems, rather than an over-all poor quality fleet, were to blame for the headaches.

“They supplied these things called mechanics … and hired all these turkeys to run the buses,” says McAllister, squirting tobacco juice into a nearby garbage pail. “The rent-a-operators beat the buses up and refused to run them.

“They had no idea where they were going. A professional driver could follow a route map, generally speaking … and I think we would have had a lot less problems if they also sent mechanics to watch out for their own particular buses.”

McAllister adds that if buses are brought in from other transit systems, then bring in their drivers and mechanics as well. It’d be more expensive, he admits, but ultimately more efficient than the path Atlanta followed.

And, adds Johnson: “If the bottom line comes out you need 1,167 buses, then that’s what you need. If you’re going to get less than that you’re going to get problems and you’ll just have to deal with them.”

To be fair, however, many of Atlanta’s Olympic transit woes could not have been foreseen or prevented by MARTA planners. This was especially true after a mid-Games bomb exploded in the city’s Centennial Olympic Park, causing some of its loudest reverberations along the subway lines.

“We had a lot of suspicious looking packages on the subways, a lot of prank calls and when we had to respond to that, that’s when things really began to clog up,” Turner says.

“When that happens you’ve got to make announcements to wait and wait and wait and wait. And sometimes we’d call for some buses to help us out. We’d get them (the commuters) off the train and put them on a bus, but where’s the bus going to go with the streets all congested?”

TTC chief general manager David Gunn says Atlanta’s problems, with a little political foresight, need not happen here.

Toronto’s system, with nearly twice the number of both surface and rail vehicles, could absorb more Olympic fans than Atlanta’s MARTA, he adds.

With MARTA’s Olympic problems now history, the system’s managers envision an expanded subway network that could reach into the city’s growing suburban sprawl and pluck commuters off the grid-locked superhighways.

Indeed, there are four superhighways feeding traffic into downtown Atlanta, while a fifth, I-285, encircles the city. However, Atlanta’s smog problem caused by auto emissions place it well up on the pollution list of major American cities.

“There’s a real love around here for the American automobile, so you have to make public transit attractive to lure a lot of those automobile drivers,” Turner says.

MARTA’s attractiveness is based on one fare - $1.50 single trip - free transfer rides on a system that has been made fully accessible to the disabled and even provides luggage space on its subway cars for people travelling to the airport stop.

Despite its art-lined beauty, however, people’s willingness to use MARTA is still tempered by Atlanta’s racial and social environment.

MARTA is an affluent system. And the city’s wealth and a 1 per cent MARTA sales tax levied in its two current area counties, make it one of the few transit systems in North America that can legitimately plan for capital expansions.

But, those plans have often come up against a largely white, suburban reluctance to have a rapid transit link to the predominantly black inner city.

Williamson says some suburban areas, like the burgeoning Cobb County north of the city, argue a reluctance to impose the 1 per cent MARTA sales tax that would allow them to join the system.

“But some of it is the fear of undesirables coming into the community,” Williamson points out. “You hear that all the time.”

Statistics kept for government granting opportunities show that 75 per cent of MARTA riders are black. And indeed, the acronym MARTA has taken on a different meaning for many in the suburbs.

“They say it means ‘Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta’,” one affluent suburban resident says. “And a lot of people just don’t want it out here. They don’t want that physical connection.”

Standing in MARTA’s space-age subway control centre, looking at the large board of flashing lights that follows the cars along Atlanta’s transit rail corridors, Turner points out a lightless line that has been sketched in off the system’s eastern branch.

“That one goes through an affluent area and it hasn’t been built yet,” he says.

“And it probably never will be. Politics has probably killed it.”

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