As Atlanta prepares to host Super Bowl LIII, a partial government shutdown that could have brought long airport lines has been averted — though the city is still preparing its transit and public safety agencies to cope with crowds and chaos.
Despite looming issues including weather, traffic congestion, security concerns and overcrowded transit systems, city officials are confident that things will go off without a hitch, not only for the game itself but also the festivities beforehand.
Plans to host the game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium have been underway for two years, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that time spent preparing and learning from the experiences of prior hosts Houston and Minneapolis will stand Atlanta in good stead.
"We aren't a stranger to large events,” Bottoms said at a press conference earlier this month, noting the city has recently hosted the Southeastern Conference football championship and the Major League Soccer Cup final featuring its own Atlanta United. “I do believe that we are as prepared as we can possibly be."
Once visitors are in town for the Super Bowl, Atlanta officials are bracing for impacts on the road and across the transit network, with the looming threat of strike action from workers at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).
On Monday, around 80 of the agency’s bus drivers called in sick, with WSB-TV reporting that they were protesting pay and required overtime. At a press conference, MARTA General Manger & CEO Jeffrey Parker called the move “very, very disappointing” and said there has been no impact on rail service.
"We aren't a stranger to large events. I do believe that we are as prepared as we can possibly be."
Keisha Lance Bottoms
Parker also said he has received reassurances from union leadership that they will get people back to work, and that future labor action should be unlikely as the two sides just negotiated a new contract, including a pay increase for employees.
MARTA will be under extra scrutiny during the Super Bowl, with the event coming hot on the heels of a train derailment near the airport. That incident, which involved an out-of-service train with only the conductor on board, disrupted service for several days and forced passengers onto shuttle buses.
And the Super Bowl arrives with memories still fresh from hosting the College Football Playoff final in 2018, when hundreds of passengers were left stranded after trains shut down. MARTA later acknowledged it was not prepared to handle the crowds.
Atlanta will likely look to Minneapolis for lessons on how to put on a transit-reliant Super Bowl. Two of that city’s lines, as well as a commuter rail line, saw their highest ever January ridership last year, with nearly 210,000 additional rides taken. “Going into the Super Bowl, we felt like the months of preparation had us ready to show the world how a first-class transit system contributes to the success of this international spectacle,” Minneapolis’ Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said in a statement.
Despite previous issues, Parker said the system will be ready, and is deploying 400 police officers and 700 extra administrative staff to help riders get where they need to go as safely and quickly as possible. "Riding MARTA will be the easiest and most effective way to get to and from the Super Bowl, and we are prepared to make sure it is an event people will appreciate," he said at the press conference.
Ride-hailing companies are also looking to help out. Lyft announced it would offer up to 50% off a ride to a MARTA stop, while it would also have its scooters available for use. Atlanta recently approved new regulations on dockless bikes and scooters, banning the vehicles from being ridden on the sidewalk, and this year's Super Bowl will test those regulations and whether dockless can play a big role in getting people around.
As for road impacts to drivers, city leaders said, except in a secure footprint around the stadium where no vehicles will be allowed, impacts will be relatively limited. Assistant Police Chief Rodney Bryant said most impacts will be around the stadium and the Georgia World Congress Center, and that there will be a “minimal” effect beyond that including some lane closures. Police Chief Erika Shields said that people should “take MARTA where possible.”
Around the stadium and other public areas, city leaders emphasized its walkability, albeit within a security perimeter that fans will need to pass through beforehand.
Get ready for all things Super Bowl, all within a convenient, walkable downtown! pic.twitter.com/ldPWGebiKD— Atlanta Super Bowl (@atlsuperbowl53) January 21, 2019
Perhaps the biggest worry for local officials is keeping everybody safe, including fans, teams and the assorted dignitaries that visit a city during the Super Bowl. A terrorist hit the city with a pipe bomb when it hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, killing one person and injuring more than 100 in Centennial Olympic Park, but Shields said security procedures have changed dramatically since that event and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I think we're in a space now where we don't assume the positive,” Shields said, noting bag checks were not in force at the park then, in a bid to keep it family-friendly. “We prepare for the worst while also making it a pleasurable event."
In preparation for the Super Bowl, a smorgasbord of public safety agencies at the city, county, state and federal level have partnered to provide heightened security. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service and FBI will join city police and fire departments, as well as the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency and state-level Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Georgia Department of Public Safety in a unified effort.
"There's no way that we can sponsor and deal with an event like this without the partnership," Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner and former Police Chief George Turner said at a press conference with other public safety leaders. Bottoms appointed Turner to the newly-created position in September in part to coordinate departments ahead of major events in the city.
To prepare and keep everybody safe, the various agencies as well as the Georgia Power utility and MARTA opened a joint operations center, which opened last Saturday (Jan. 26) and will be open around the clock until Tuesday, Feb. 5. Shields said that the joint operations center would ensure that “communication is rapid and immediate.”
"I think with anything, you can go in with a spirit of confidence if you have prepared,” she said. “And we have prepared, and we have prepared well."
And that command center will be boosted by the city’s Operation Shield initiative in partnership with Axis Communications, which integrates video from cameras owned by businesses, the city and private citizens into one central monitoring area, known as the Loudermilk Operation Shield Video Integration Center.
The Atlanta Police Foundation invested $350,000 to create the center, which incorporates video from over 10,000 sources, and means police and others can be proactive in their policing, not just reactive to situations as they crop up. Feeds from cameras around Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be a big part of the operation, with the Super Bowl set to be one of its biggest tests.
"We actually already have a lot of our cameras up and visible in certain key areas, just to make sure we're keeping an eye on what's going on, so that it's not just a reactive situation,” Atlanta Police Department Senior Police Officer Thomas Sutton told Smart Cities Dive.
In addition, MARTA has carried out full-scale emergency preparedness exercises that have included theatrical explosions and simulated injuries to mimic what first responders might see in a worst-case scenario. “MARTA is one of the safest transit systems in the country because of training exercises such as this one,” Parker said in a statement at the time.
And telecom company AT&T has boosted its wireless network through a series of permanent and temporary upgrades. The company will also made use of its FirstNet technology that provides dedicated broadband to first responders, helping agencies’ work not be derailed by busy networks.
“This prep-work helps ensure first responders have the coverage, capacity and capabilities — priority and preemption included — that they need to stay connected throughout the festivities, so they can keep fans safe,” AT&T said in a statement.
Getting in and out
Congestion at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport could be a concern for city leaders, although they are projecting calm as they await the descent of thousands of people through what is already the busiest airport in the world.
Bottoms said the airport usually processes between 70,000 and 80,000 passengers a day, but that she is “extremely concerned” about what she dubbed “Mass Exodus Monday,” the day after Super Bowl Sunday when everyone leaves town.
On that day, as many as 120,000 people could be trying to fly out of the airport, with Bottoms saying security areas will open at 3 a.m. to try and avoid any backlog.
Given the airport’s importance to the region and the number of flights that connect through it, Bottoms said it is imperative to handle the situation, especially with Delta and Southwest adding more flights to the airport to get people in and out.
"If you can't get through Hartsfield-Jackson, you won't get anywhere in this country,” she said at a press conference marking the start of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Winter Meeting in Washington, DC. "For those of us who live in the southeastern United States, in order to get to heaven if you die, you must pass through the Atlanta airport," Columbia, SC Mayor Steve Benjamin joked at the same press conference.
For their part, officials with Hartsfield-Jackson say they are confident of handling any extra crowds. Airport spokeswoman Jennifer Ogunsola told Smart Cities Dive that the TSA had already committed to send extra agents to help process people as well as contractors. She recommended that passengers leave themselves extra time, but said that the city is prepared.
“As you can imagine, we've been planning for the big game for over a year, and we're ready,” Ogunsola said.