Olympic goers won't get stuck in traffic this year

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- The official descriptions of the transportation system don't mention Atlanta. Not by name, anyway.

But it doesn't take much reading between the lines -- the talk of well-maintained vehicles and "local providers who are completely familiar with the areas where Olympic events will take place'' -- to know that local organizers are trying to send this message: This won't be Atlanta.

It has been almost six years since the Olympics last came to the United States. And it is believed some buses are still driving around Stone Mountain, Ga., looking for the mountain biking venue.

OK, it wasn't quite that bad. But drivers, brought in from all over the country, repeatedly got lost. One even panicked after getting on the highway, saying it was her first time ever driving in such a situation. There was an incident when athletes practically had to commandeer a bus to get to their event.

And then there was the equipment.

By the end of the Games, as some buses broke down, they were replaced with old school buses that sputtered down the road, through the sweltering heat, without any air-conditioning.

It got to the point that when the United States took its $1 million bike -- named because of the research and development that went into it -- and won a medal at the velodrome, the joke going around was that, finally, something ran on time.

So perhaps with that in mind, Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer for the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, chuckled Saturday when told that, at least based on the first 24 hours, this Olympics could get rave reviews for transportation.

"If that happens, it will be a first," he said. "But so far, everything has gone smooth as silk."

Some of that is pure geography. Salt Lake City's wide streets are laid out on a grid-like system that makes it easy to navigate. And the highway system has been expanded, most notably with Interstate 15, a new, $1.6 billion, 12-lane freeway that connects downtown Salt Lake City with several resorts.

But it's more than that.

For Salt Lake City, the bus drivers were given extensive pre-Games training. They were sent videos of the route they would be driving. If they were from out of town, they came to Salt Lake City early and took some test drives with a local navigator looking over their shoulder.

"Transportation has been the bugaboo of every Games in history,'' Bullock said.

The Utah Transit Authority set up an operations center that runs 24 hours a day, monitoring about 120 miles of highway with closed-circuit TV and advising motorists of potential problems through a radio network and signs. Yet, for everything to work they are counting on fans to car pool and use park-and-ride.

"They said to leave your car at home," said Tom Simmons, 43, of Minneapolis. "But we drove here and haven't had much trouble getting around."

Call it the Fear Factor. Organizers tried to prepare fans for the worst. Ticket holders received booklets advising them to allow at least four hours to get to events at Park City -- normally a 45-minute trip.

"I have to give a lot of credit to the spectators," Bullock said.

As for equipment, Salt Lake also learned from Atlanta and even Sydney, an Olympics that got rave reviews but had one transportation problem: The system became strained when buses broke down.

Bullock said they have a 20 percent contingency for spectator transportation, meaning that, at least for now, they have dozens of buses that aren't even being used.

The first real test of the transportation came Friday night for Opening Ceremonies. The flow into the stadium went smoothly. The real test, Bullock said, was the flow out.

"We anticipated that it would take 1 1/2 hours," he said. "It took about 1 hour, 15 minutes."

The first 24 hours also offered a reminder that some things can't be controlled. It is supposed to take 45 minutes to get back to Salt Lake City from the ski jumping venue. But Friday, after the event was cancelled by bad weather, the snowstorm turned it into a 1 1/2-hour trip.

"We'll have a few glitches here and there," Bullock said. "It's never going to be perfect. But we've tried to be prepared."

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