A Long Day's Journey in Atlanta

THE WASHINGTON POST

"Mr. Boswell, your assignment, should you chose to accept it, is to determine whether the Olympic transportation and information system is as ineffectual as many fans, athletes and journalists have claimed.

"As a test case, see if the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games can give you proper directions and transportation to the rowing events at Lake Lanier outside Atlanta.

"Good luck."

Like a fool, I accepted.

On Monday at 8:30 a.m., I went to the ACOG Transportation Desk at the Olympic Main Press Center and asked if a normal fan could use the Olympic transportation system to go to Lake Lanier. And if so, how do you do it?

For 70 minutes, three volunteers labored over my dilemma. Nobody else was in line. And they were embarrassed they couldn't help me very much. They knew ACOG had spent $100 million so fans could have free public transportation.

"We're kind of learning this as we go," said one. "Maybe it would be better to rent a car," said another.

"We've had some problems with the buses," added the third. Last Sunday, for example, athletes from three nations ignored police, stopped traffic and commandeered a bus (headed for field hockey) and ordered it to take them to Lake Lanier so they wouldn't miss their rowing event. Buses have broken down and burst into flames. Drivers have quit. On Monday, the International Olympic Committee publicly rebuked the local organizers. But on Wednesday, ACOG President Billy Payne said the buses were working at 98 percent efficiency; and the man from the IOC agreed with him and said ACOG was getting its act together.

That didn't help me Tuesday. The advice they eventually gave me to get to Lake Lanier was:

1) Take the subway to the end of the line at Doraville. 2) Catch a shuttle bus two-to-three miles to the Park 'N Ride lot at Gainesville College. 3) Take an Olympic bus the last 15 miles from Gainesville College to the rowing venue.

Simple as one, two, three. Subway, shuttle, bus. The worst case scenario, they said, might be a short cab ride from the subway stop to the Park 'N Ride.

The subway ride was lovely. But, at the end of the line, there were no buses of any kind. Luckily, I had 40 minutes to catch the 11:10 bus. So, grab a taxi.

"It's not two-or-three miles," said Ben, driver of Quick Service Taxi No. 20. "The address you want is an $80 ride-one way. It's 35 miles from here."

I must have looked pathetic. He took pity, handing me a fare chart. "It was $50 until last week. Now, they've jacked it up. For you, we'll just go by the meter, okay? Just like it wasn't the Olympics at all."

"Hurry," I said.

When the meter hit $58, we reached "Exit Four, Lake Lanier Park 'N Ride."

"Where's the 11:10 bus?" I asked an Olympic official at 11:05 a.m.

"It left at 11," he said.

"When's the next bus?"

"There isn't any. That was the last bus. Today, the last event started at 11:30 a.m.," he said. "After the last bus, they close the venue. Security won't let you within three miles of the venue."

In the road beside us stood nine people. "We just missed the bus, too. We've given up," said one woman."How do I get back?" I asked the ACOG man.

"Same way you got here, I guess," he said.

And he was right. It was Ben's taxi or my thumb.

As we rode back to Doraville, Ben said, "Maybe you're lucky." And he pointed out three enormous Olympic buses -- all abandoned -- beside I-85.

The final taxi bill was $129.90 for a 73.8-mile trip that took 89 minutes.

Without tip.

The boss said he would sign the expense account. Mission Impossible, indeed.

Back in Atlanta, I contacted ACOG for its reaction. Their response was: It was my fault for not leaving earlier, which is a reasonable criticism. And I was told I would have been better served, if I wanted to travel as a fan, to have gone to the Welcome Center for directions.

So, in the Olympic spirit, I went back to give this deal another shot. Wednesday morning, I was on the subways and buses. This time, I picked an easy venue. Forget the equestrians in Conyers. Let's visit Andre Agassi's house. You've got to be able to get 20,000 fans a day to Stone Mountain tennis stadium.

And, what do you know, they did it!

Wednesday's scores for ACOG, please: a 9, 8.73, a 9.910 and, from the grumpy judge from Washington, a perfect 10!

The subway was half-empty and fast. The ACOG Park 'N Ride buses were waiting. No U-turns. No breakdowns. And no 73.8-mile taxi rides. The whole trip took only an hour each way. As we rode, I interviewed the Olympic bus passengers. Nothing beats contrast to spark new insight.

"Americans don't know what bad transport is," said Greg Tutlon of Durban, South Africa. "We barely have public transportation in our country. We won't be this far along in 100 years.

Markku Pohjola of Helsinki lives in a culture where public transit is an art form. "In Finland, we say America has no public transit -- at least as we know it," he said. "That's wrong. Everything here works splendidly."

At the Barcelona Olympics, Pete and Marlyne Mulry of Orange Beach, Ala., got up every morning at 6 and returned around 9 p.m. "Half our day was waiting for buses or riding on 'em," Pete said. "These Games are much better."

Least ACOG burst its buttons, let's note that when they mess up, they do it with style. Joanne Freeman and her sister Karen, from Newark, went to beach volleyball this week. "There were two buses for 2,000 people," Joanne said. "Then, the bus broke down and we had to wait by the road an hour. They said the trip should take 25 minutes. It took us two hours and 45 minutes."

The driver of our bus understood our problems, because she had her own. "ACOG gave me a room with cockroaches," she said. "They trained me on one route. I drove it over and over. Then, on Saturday, they gave me an old bus from New Jersey and switched me to a route I'd never seen.

"By Sunday night, I was so disgusted I almost quit."

Why did she stay?

"They gave me my old (Stone Mountain) route back, moved me to a decent motel and gave me a new bus with air conditioning."

The squeaky wheel really must get the grease.

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