MARTA may be turning from ‘What now?’ to ‘What’s next?’MARTA has implemented programs intended to sanitize surfaces on its buses and trains. Credit: MARTA
By David Pendered
MARTA may be entering the phase where the question turns from, “What now?” to “What’s next?” Especially in light of MARTA’s responsibility to enable social distancing on trains and buses.
Last week, MARTA reported its first virus-related employee death – a custodian at the Decatur Station. On Sunday evening, MARTA reported 25 employees had reported testing positive for COVID-19; 159 employees were notified and sent home for quarantine and monitoring under their care of their own medical provider, according to a MARTA report.
MARTA this week begins facing an unknowable user demand as the economy begins to reopen. Untold at this point are any specific requirements for MARTA to provide space for social distancing – and with it a lot of vacant space on buses and trains. Passengers already are ignoring social distancing guidelines and overfilling buses. MARTA reports it is sending police officers to assist with overcrowding, escort joy riders off buses, and respond to drivers who call for help.
Representing transit operators, the American Public Transportation Association is turning its attention to how to pay for future service and expansion when revenues are forecast to plummet during global economic slowdown.
The deceased MARTA employee, Derrick Ferguson, was 53 when he died on April 20. Ferguson died seven days after he notified MARTA that he’d tested positive for COVID-19. April 10 was his last day at work, according to MARTA.
No obituary or record of a presence on social media is immediately apparent. Ferguson left behind two daughters, one son, eight grandchildren, and a partner – a woman who works for MARTA, who was diagnosed with COVID-19, and is recovering at home, MARTA said in a statement last week.
Ferguson was a custodian at the Decatur Station. His job was to empty the trash and mop up spills. He also would have meandered through crowds of passengers to sweep up debris that riders drop or otherwise gathers, work that would have placed him within 6 feet of passengers. MARTA notified four coworkers of his illness and advised that they self-quarantine.
MARTA’s COVID-19 protocol is to report cases of MARTA employees that have been confirmed by public health authorities or an employee’s medical provider. Cases involving contractors and the general public are not included in the report.
In terms of the financial future of transit nationwide, APTA rang the alarm bell in the April 20 edition of its Passenger Transport. A commentary by the CEO of Seattle’s transit system, Peter Rogoff, observes under the headline: Funding Public Transit to Spearhead Post-Coronovarius Recovery:
- “Our industry faces unprecedented levels of uncertainty surrounding the future of our operations, our ridership, our revenues and how we will fit into the nation’s economic recovery….
- “Once governors lift stay-at-home orders, continued social distancing could require even more vehicles in service. Operators will rightly insist on continued protection while we struggle to reintroduce fare collection….
- “Fears of public gatherings, in combination with cheaper gas, might keep choice riders away, while the numbers and needs of struggling, transit-dependent riders grow.”
This new scenario arrives as MARTA already has been recording ridership below forecast since at least December 2018.
Ridership was a total of 1.2 million paid fares lower in the second half of 2019 than it was in the second half of 2018, according to a MARTA report. Technically, MARTA reported the decrease as occurring during the first half of Fiscal Year 2020 compared to the first half of FY 2019; MARTA’s fiscal year beings July 1.
Turning to Rogoff’s point, MARTA has been releasing its own conornavirus-related ridership figures that seem to support Rogoff’s contention. MARTA’s graphs of preliminary ridership figures shows:
- Down 81 percent, comparing the figure from April 23 with the average weekday in pre-shutdown February. Rail riders typically ride by choice because they also have the resources to travel by vehicle;
- Down 45 percent, comparing April 19 with the average Sunday in pre-shutdown February. Bus riders tend to be transit dependent. MARTA’s graph does not indicate why a Sunday was chosen as the basis of comparison.