By Maria Saporta
Call it a honeymoon.
From the looks and sounds of it, we’re witnessing a honeymoon between MARTA and the legislative oversight committee — MARTOC.
The reason for this thawed relationship is Keith Parker, MARTA’s new general manager. During his first month at the helm, Parker is making many of the right moves. He has spent time with State Rep. Michael Jacobs, MARTOC’s chair, as well as other legislators on the committee.
While a closer relationship between MARTA and MARTOC is welcome, veteran observers of the state’s relationship with the Southeast’s largest transit system have reason for skepticism.
At the MARTOC committee meeting on Dec. 20 — the first one that Parker has attended, sometimes it sounded as though there were two separate conversations taking place.
For starters, there were the platitudes.
“The makings of a good working relationship are there,” Jacobs said.
“I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to be with you this morning and to take the helm of MARTA at a most important time in its history,” Parker said.
But Jacobs then set the stage — laying out his agenda.
He let it be known that he expected that there would be some legislation impacting MARTA during the upcoming General Assembly.
The legislation would likely include a “three-year relaxation” of the requirement that MARTA has to spend half of its sales tax revenues on capital improvements and half on operating expenses.
The legislation also likely would revisit the make-up of the MARTA board. “They will be along the same lines of what was presented in the last session with staggered terms,” Jacobs said.
And Jacobs was insistent that MARTA must privatize part of its operations — following through on recommendations that were part of the KPMG audit that had been commissioned by the MARTA board to seek ways to improve the transit system’s operations.
Let’s dissect those three agenda items one at a time.
First of all, MARTA would like to have the requirement of the 50/50 split to be permanently removed. No other major transit system in the country has to operate with such a restriction, and MARTA would like the flexibility of being able to spend its own funds on where there is the greatest need.
The only explanation of why the state, which does not provide any regular operating funds for MARTA, would want to keep the 50/50 split is control. It is one lever that the state legislature can hold over MARTA to get an upper hand.
Next point — reconstituting the MARTA board. Currently, DeKalb County selects four people to serve on the MARTA board, Fulton County and the City of Atlanta each appoint three people to serve on the board.
During the last session, a proposal was made for the cities in North Fulton to appoint two of the county’s three representatives. Again, this appears to be another attempt to take away powers from Fulton County while giving greater powers to the new cities on the northern third of county.
But Fulton officials have objected to such a change, arguing that the three governmental entities that support MARTA are Fulton, DeKalb and the City of Atlanta, and they should retain the power to appoint MARTA board members.
One area of apparent agreement, however, would be to stagger the terms of the board members to “provide stability and continuity of institutional knowledge and a longer-term perspective,” according to MARTA’s 2013 proposed legislative guidelines.
Lastly, on the issue of privatization, there is some divergence of opinion.
Fred Daniels, chairman of MARTA’s board, said the KPMG audit identified 12 out of 61 functional areas that could possibly be privatized.
Parker said that MARTA has now asked KPMG to put together an “implementation” plan on the various recommendations, and a “road map” on how to proceed could be presented to the MARTA board in mid-January.
In listening closely to all sides, it is clear that there are two different ways of looking at privatization — privatization for the sake of privatization, or privatization as a way to improve MARTA’s operations.
There’s a long list of failed privatization efforts — from the City of Atlanta’s unsuccessful privatization of its water operations to its controversial Park Atlanta contract.
Parker, however, provided another option — something that he had done in Charlotte and in San Antonio. That option is “managed competition.”
A transit agency allows its “in house” employees to compete on potential privatization project with private companies. If the “in house” employees provide a more competitive bid, then they will win the contract.
All in all, there are encouraging signs that Parker and MARTA could make some constructive inroads with the state during this honeymoon period.
But it’s important to remember that the state has not been a consistent financial backer of MARTA since its inception in 1971. Forty years of history is hard to overcome.
Note to readers: In the interest of full disclosure, MARTA has purchased one of the SaportaReport Thought Leadership positions. The weekly transit feature is expected to be launched in January.