New MARTA CEO Keith Parker will be a daily rider and have an open door

By Maria Saporta

In a “welcome to Atlanta” press conference Friday morning, the new general manager and CEO of MARTA — Keith Parker — promised to run an open and transparent agency.

In that spirit, he promised that his new contract would be on MARTA’s website within hours available for public review. A copy was then handed out to reporters showing that he would be receiving a base annual salary of $320,000 during the five-year contract. He will join MARTA on Dec. 10.

Parker also showed he was well aware of the multitude of issues facing MARTA, including having a negative image and perception.

“I think changing the image of the transit system starts with me,” said Parker, who said he would be moving to a home next to a MARTA stop. “That’s going to be part of my daily plan — use my BreezeCard and ride it everyday.”

Keith Parker

In his opening remarks, Parker also demonstrated that he had read in full detail the findings of the KPMG audit that recommended several areas where MARTA could save money, including privatizing a number of functions.

During his transit career — both in Charlotte and San Antonio, Parker said he had tried all sorts of approaches to run a more efficient operation. In Charlotte, he tried the concept of “managed competition,” where the agency’s employees would compete against the private sector for the work.

“The public sector employees were so competitive that private companies quit competing,” Parker said. When he comes to Atlanta, Parker pledged to look into all the options for the best solutions.

Parker also seemed well aware of the many difficulties that MARTA is facing.

In the national transit sector, MARTA is viewed as “the most complex job in the transit industry, and I don’t disagree,” Parker said. “MARTA is more complex because of geopolitical realities in this region.”

As a way to help address those complexities, Parker said he would be meeting with employees, customers, state legislators, local elected officials, the unions and others to work through the various issues.

“Part of my history is being in the office a lot less than I’m out,” Parker said. “I plan to spend considerable time with people in the community.”

When asked about what were his biggest challenges, Parker said: “There are so many; there’s so much to do — getting our financial house in order, reassure the employees, reassure the customers. I’m also concerned about the unknown.”

Barbara Babbit Kaufman, a MARTA board member who chaired the search committee, was pleased with how the whole search ended up.

“It was probably the best search MARTA has ever had,” Kaufman said explaining about the thorough research and background checks that had been done during the national search. “Keith had the board eating out of the palm of his hand. If he had us eating out of the palm of his hand, we knew he would have the staff, the employees, the legislature, the mayor eating out of the palm of his hand. He has a real vision for MARTA.”

Long time board member Juanita Abernathy couldn’t have been happier. “I’m so happy,” she said. “We’ve got a good one.”

Amid the excitement, Parker and the board seemed well aware of the difficulties that the transit agency must overcome — an aging infrastructure, declining revenues, a negative image and little to no annual operating support from the state and from the region outside of the three jurisdictions that passed the MARTA Act in 1971 — the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County.

“We are excited,” said Fred Daniels, chairman of the MARTA board. “There are numerous challenges that stand before us, but we are poised to face them.”

Parker, who has been the general manager of the VIA transit system in San Antonio, Texas, said he was honored and humbled to have been selected as MARTA’s general manager.

“But I’m not awed by it,” Parker said. “With a great staff and a board that’s unified, I believe we can overcome all the obstacles ahead of us.”

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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