If you ride MARTA buses and are used to not paying the fares since the transit authority suspended them in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, your days of free rides are about to end.
“One thing we’re excited about is installing Plexiglas between our drivers and customers,” MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeff Parker said. “We have about half the fleet installed. … Once we do that, we’ll allow customers to enter through the front door again and start collecting fares again.”
After the outbreak started, MARTA prohibited customers from entering buses in the front to protect drivers’ health and safety and did not require them to pay fares. But the organization recently invested about $250,000 to outfit all 539 buses with polycarbonate shields around bus operator cabs, antimicrobial air filters that clean the air onboard and mask dispensers, according to a news release.
So, starting Sept. 7, when MARTA’s buses begin allowing customers to enter buses in the front, it will require them to pay fares again. The authority had already limited bus capacity to half as a way to allow for social distancing and doubled the buses on its routes to make up for the difference.
Parker provided information on the authority’s response to the outbreak during his quarterly update at the Fulton County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 2 meeting, which was held virtually because of the pandemic.
MARTA has made tremendous strides in its efforts to require all riders wear masks on its buses and trains due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. In July the agency started requiring riders to wear masks and gave free ones to those who didn’t have one.
“Back in June we reevaluated our system and wanted to look at our use of masks, and it was alarmingly low,” Parker said. “MARTA decided to take immediate action. We’ve handed out over 400,000 masks and purchased 2 million masks. … We’ve gone from a 35% low (mask usage) in June to about 90% in August and hope to go to 100% on mask usage.”
Parker said MARTA’s two-week-old partnership with HOPE Atlanta, a nonprofit offering housing, social services, substance abuse counseling and employment to those who need it, has already yielded results by helping two homeless individuals find housing.
“We started this partnership to focus on the unsheltered … in and around the communities we serve,” he said. “We recognize that being unsheltered is not a crime and want to help those using MARTA for shelter. The partnership is … a year-long program based out of our Five Points station.
“We’ll be working with field protective specialists. These are MARTA employees. We’re looking to find hotspots where there are homeless and unsheltered individuals. We want to do our best to offer services we can provide them.”
Parker said the authority is in the middle of a seven-year program to upgrade all of its station’s elevators and escalators.
“Some are approaching 40 years old,” he said. “These are very heavy-duty elevators and escalators. It’s an over $200 million project. To date, about 40% of the elevators and about 20% of the escalators have been overhauled.”
MARTA is expected to undergo Phase IV of its track renovation project in February, when three crossovers just north of the Lindbergh station will be replaced, causing a five-day shutdown between the Lindbergh and Lenox stations and the Lindbergh and Buckhead stations, Parker said. Originally the project was going to take place in the fall.
“We’ll be undergoing a significant marketing and communications initiative to explain to the public why it’s important to do this shutdown,” Parker said. “We’ll use commuter buses to reroute riders. It will start at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday evening and continue all the way through the weekend so the Monday morning service at 4 a.m. will resume as normal. We realize this will be a significant impact to our customers.”
Regarding the agency’s transit-oriented development program, in which mixed-use projects recently have been built or planned to be constructed on top of or around some stations, he said, “We have either completed or have in the works on some level over 1,300 affordable housing units.”
MARTA is slowly making progress in other areas as it restores some services it cut due to the pandemic. Parker said its bathrooms had been closed at all stations except the ones at the end of each line and at the Five Points and Lindbergh stations.
“But we just reopened all 17 stations’ restrooms so we’re back to pre-COVID-19 conditions,” he said.
MARTA has been criticized by some riders for not restoring some the bus routes it temporarily stopped due to the pandemic. District 6 Commissioner Joe Carn, who represents most of Fulton’s southern portion, asked if the bus service had returned to normal yet.
“We are still running what we call our essential service plan, which back on April 20 started with 41 routes,” Parker said. “We have since added eight routes back to our system. Of those eight routes, four serve Fulton County. … We continue to try and monitor where we have excess capacity.”
Carn said MARTA needs to add a bus rapid transit program to U.S. 29, and District 4 Commissioner Natalie Hall said residents in the Cascade corridor continue to have problems with garbage cans not being emptied at bus stops there.
“They want more trash cans and/or more trash can pickups,” she said. “They’re dealing with too much trash.”