Pulling Off the Illinois Marathon

When it comes to special events, MTD’s in it for the long run

Champaign-Urbana, IL — It’s Marathon morning at Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) and the calls have been steady since 6:30 a.m. Amy Snyder, MTD’s Customer Service Director, is manning phones with as many as six staff members at a time.

Marathon updates were posted regularly on @CUMTD’s Twitter feed, including real-time pics from Chief Operating Officer Andrew Johnson, who worked the event near Illini Union. Photo Credit: Andrew Johnson

“Am I going to be late to work?” a caller asks in the nine o’clock hour.

“Honestly, probably. Let your employer know and then we’ll work on getting you there as soon as possible,” says Snyder.

In its ninth year, the 2017 Illinois Marathon is a Boston Marathon qualifier and an economic engine that drives over $10 million of impact in Champaign County.

At MTD, the Marathon is a mandatory Saturday morning shift for every administrative staff member, most of operations, and, naturally, Saturday operators. “We don’t reduce the number of routes we run,” says Tracey Pettigrew, Operations Director, “but there are nearly twenty thousand runners in town, so we obviously have delays and reroutes. We’re all out on the streets to help our operators and passengers keep up with what is, from the perspective of a bus, a road block in motion.”

“…[F]rom the perspective of a bus, [a marathon is] a road block in motion.” :Tracey Pettigrew

Pettigrew and MTD Planner Jay Rank attend Illinois Marathon planning meetings throughout the year, and when this year’s event is over, they’ll make notes to file for the next. “MTD is all about continual improvement,” says Rank, “and our approach to providing service on and near a bustling University campus during an event that shuts downs streets over several hours is no different — we’re getting better every year.”

CUMTD Maintenance Director Eric Broga and staff were on the streets at 4 a.m. installing signage for Marathon day. Credit: Eric Broga

Karl Gnadt, MTD’s Managing Director, is at Green and Wright streets helping police pulse buses through the intersection whenever possible. “This is an amazing event for the community and we’re glad to be part of it,” says Gnadt, “I know that it’s a stressful day for our operators as we maneuver through and around streets filled with people. We absolutely could not make this work without the dedication and care they show. They are the ones we rely on to make the streets safe.”

Tom Conrad and Todd Whitt are manning MTD’s Control Center on Marathon day. Conrad’s been at MTD for 28 years, and Whitt’s got nine under his belt. The “Request To Talk” queue of bus operators asking for direction is growing as runners start to fill major arteries in town. Conrad, Whitt, and Assistant Operations Director Randy Fouts work each query aloud with each other, then radio back with a plan for each operator.

Inside CUMTD’s Control Center on Marathon day. Photo Credits: Lisa Meid

“Can you tell me the best way to get to Savoy Walmart without being caught by the race?” an operator asks.

“Helicopter?” they joke softly amongst themselves before asking the operator, “What’s your 20?”

Whitt glances at a map of the operator’s real-time location, and answers the question for her: “She’s at McHenry & Race.”

“How about Vine, can she go south on Vine?” Fouts is standing next to a map of the twin cities with an overlay of the marathon’s course, but he barely needs it — these guys know the routes and the cities backward and forward. As Control works through a solution, the operator continues talking.

“10–4. You’re doing fine.” Conrad’s voice drops lower when he’s on the radio, keeping everything measured and calm.

Meanwhile, Rank is about a mile due south of MTD’s Control Center, at Illinois Marathon Command Center. Also staffed by representatives from the area’s four police departments, Champaign County’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA), 9–1–1 dispatchers, and others, the team is led by retired Champaign Police Sergeant and Marathon Emergency Services Director Scott Friedlein and ensures that race day runs smoothly.

Scott Friedlein (far left) at Marathon Command Center with CUMTD staff and Champaign County emergency preparedness teams. Photo Credit: Jay Rank

This year, it couldn’t be smoother. Later in the day, Friedlein tells The News-Gazette that this year’s Marathon is the “best we’ve ever had” and “even my complaint phone was next to dead.” And while Snyder can’t say the same about MTD’s phones being slow, it was a good day: “We took a lot of calls, but it wasn’t as busy as in years past. We’ll still maintain the same staffing levels for next year. You can never be too prepared.”

MTD offers mobility options to the residents of Champaign, Urbana & Savoy that include buses, rides for seniors, ADA Paratransit, ZipCar availability, SafeRides home for Illinois students at night, and resources to encourage walkability, biking, and safety.