MARTA is down to four finalists in its search for a new general manager

By Maria Saporta

The search for a new MARTA general manager has been narrowed to four candidates — an internal one and three from outside the state.

MARTA’s current general manager, Beverly Scott, will be leaving by the end of the year when her five-year term runs out.

Scott has been heading the state’s largest transit system through a tumultuous period of declining revenues, polarizing political forces and diminishing prospects of a reinvestment in an improved and expanded regional transit system.

The four finalists are thought to be as follows:

* Dwight Ferrell, MARTA’s current deputy general manager and chief operating officer;

* Keith Parker, president and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio;

* Paul Jablonski, CEO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System; and

* Stephen Bland, CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh.

So far, it appears that the MARTA search committee has yet to reach consensus on who the new general manager should be.

Part of the problem appears to be that none of the finalists have ever run a transit system that is similar in scale to metro Atlanta’s MARTA system, the ninth largest transit system in the United States (for now).

External observers have questioned the wisdom of even doing a search for a new MARTA general manager during this period of great uncertainty for the transit system’s future.

Consider the challenges:

A looming issue is that of regional transit governance, which potentially could undermine the role and authority of MARTA. A regional transit governance bill that was being proposed during the last legislative session would have given the state the ultimate say on the region’s transit systems.

But that effort failed partly because of fairness. The state has not been willing to contribute annual operating support for MARTA in particular or for transit in general.

The point was made that the local jurisdictions that contribute to a transit system’s operations should have governing control of the agency.

It is not known how the governance issue will be resolved. It is understandably difficult to hire top tier candidates for a new MARTA general manager when the long-term job prospects are in question and what that person’s duties would be in a new transit governance system is implemented.

The other major challenge is funding for ongoing operations and for upgrading MARTA’s infrastructure to a state-of-good repair, much less expanding the now skeletal system.

The regional transportation referendum for a one-percent sales tax in the 10-county region would have provided $600 million to go towards improving MARTA’s infrastructure and more than $700 million for a new rail line between Lindbergh MARTA station to the Emory University area.

Keith Parker

The transportation sales tax was resoundingly defeated — a move that keeps MARTA in a state of limbo.

Meanwhile, dozens of other cities around the country are busy investing in their transit systems, and it would make sense that up-and-coming transit administrators would rather go to communities that were expanding their rail and bus systems.

In other words, the great concern is that given our region’s current situation can MARTA really attract a top tier general manager to head the agency.

The MARTA search committee, which has been assisted by the Heidrick & Struggles search firm, has come up with a list of four finalists, a list that was not confirmed by transit agency.

Ferrell has actually had two stints at MARTA. He returned to the agency in 2008 after having been in Atlanta from 1999 to 2001.

Paul Jablonski

He was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin Texas. He also had various executive positions with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).

Parker joined the VIA Metropolitan Transit system in 2009 after having served with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) — an organization he joined in 2000 as chief operating officer.

From 2004 to 2007, Parker became assistant city manager for the City of Charlotte. He was then named as the CEO of CATS in 2007, a position he held for about two years. Parker also was CEO of the Clark County Transit Authority in Vancouver Washington.

Stephen Bland

Jablonski joined San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System in October, 2003 — a system that operates buses and streetcars.

Before arriving in San Diego, Jablonski was CEO and general manager of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in Cincinnati, Ohio. He also had served as general manager for ATE management for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) and general manger of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority near Boston.

Bland became CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County in 2006 overseeing the system’s bus, light rail and para-transit service.

Before moving to Pittsburgh, Bland was executive director of the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, N.Y. He also is a past chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association and a past president of the New York Public Transit Association.

It is not known when MARTA will reach a consensus on a new general manager.

In response to an open records request on the search, MARTA’s attorney Charles Pursley provided this response in an email sent on August 24:

The MARTA Board of Directors is conducting a national search for candidates to fill this position. Public disclosure of records which identify persons applying for or under consideration for employment or appointment as executive head of an agency is not required under the Georgia Open Records Act, provided that at least 14 days prior to the meeting at which final action or vote is to be taken, all documents concerning as many as three persons under consideration must be subject to inspection and copying.

No meeting has been scheduled at which final action or vote is to be taken on the selection of the person to fill the position. All documents required to be disclosed will be made available for inspection and copying at least 14 days prior to such meeting. Thank you for your interest in this important decision for MARTA.

Frederick Daniels, who currently is chairing MARTA’s board, did tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the agency will announce its new general manager within 30 days.

Daniels said there were four finalists. He also told the newspaper that he initially had been concerned about what kind of interest there would be in the job. But since then, Daniels said that he has realized that “it is a very desirable position.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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