By Maria Saporta
Sometimes it takes courage to do the right thing.
That describes MARTA and its general manager, Beverly Scott, and their brave venture to expose the good, the bad and the ugly inside its organization.
The most comprehensive external audit of MARTA’s operations and its entire system currently is underway.
The MARTA board, working in concert with the State of Georgia’s auditor and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, selected KPMG to conduct the audit that will review and analyze just about every aspect of the nation’s ninth largest transit system.
“The whole purpose, after 30 years, is to take a real serious, thoughtful look at the organization — department by department, business function by business function,” Scott said. “We will benchmark MARTA — both with the transit industry and also by general business practices.”
And Scott said MARTA is prepared to “not be scared” of the audit, “but to embrace it.” She knows going in that MARTA, like any other complex organization, has room for improvement.
“It’s the right thing to do, and we can’t be afraid of doing it,” Scott said, adding that MARTA as well as other major urban transit systems are going to have to undergo an organizational “reset” given that the financial model has changed — both federally and locally. “We are in a new day. I say if it’s a new day, there’s a new way. We are going to have to change the institutional framework that we have. There are some things that made sense 30 to 35 years ago that don’t make sense today.”
Should in-house department functions be outsourced? Is it possible that certain functions that are now contracted out be better handled inside the organization? Scott knows that the audit will uncover areas of inefficiencies and unproductive practices. After all, that’s the point — how can MARTA, in a period of limited resources, be as efficient and productive as possible in providing a vital service for our urban economy.
But Scott also knows about “the MARTA factor” — an almost reflective act among some in the community who are all too eager to blast the transit agency for just about any reason — valid or not.
“I know that no matter our intentions, no matter what we do, we are giving fodder to our critics,” Scott said. “I’m not afraid of it. In fact, I rise above it. You can not let smallness, bigotry and negativity keep you from doing what you know is a good business practice and in the organization’s best interest. We can’t be afraid to embrace change, and we shouldn’t be afraid to look at our warts.”
On just about every national comparison of transit agencies, MARTA is viewed as one of the nation’s most efficient (although underfunded) systems. But what matters most is how MARTA is viewed in the Atlanta region. The audit could provide a neutral barometer that might sway those in metro Atlanta and Georgia.
But for it to have that impact, Rep. Mike Jacobs (R- DeKalb County) said it is important that MARTA not be able to massage the audit so it can minimize its shortcomings. Jacobs, chairman of the legislative MARTA Oversight Committee, has been a MARTA supporter, but he understands the importance of having a clean audit.
Scott could not agree more.
“I hope the audit will show the public that we are absolutely transparent — that it shows the public that we are forward thinking,” Scott said, adding that she welcomes the scrutiny. “This is a very active MARTOC in a positive way.”
Obviously, the auditor will work with MARTA to make sure that it’s getting accurate information and interpreting the data correctly, but Scott said any changes to the draft audit would be explained.
Spending nearly $500,000 on a three-phase audit and then try to cover-up MARTA’s weaknesses would defeat the purpose, Scott said. The whole point is to make the system as efficient as possible.
The first phase of the audit — which will benchmark MARTA against other transit systems — should be completed by the end of the year. The second phase will be a “deep-dive, blow-by-blow, area by area, activity by activity” analysis of MARTA’s operations.
“What we are interested in is how can we wind up to be more cost efficient, to be more productive and what are the opportunities for revenue generation,” Scott said. “We have got to change the paradigm. This is not about just cutting our way out of it.
We have got to find ways to increase revenues and improve the product. Ridership has got to improve.”
Scott described MARTA’s operations as “anemic” following years of service cuts.
“We are operating at less than 30 percent of our capacity,” she said. “We have the ability to run our trains every 90 seconds (at peak times, MARTA trains run about every eight minutes). We need to have travel times that are competitive.”
The second phase of the audit should be completed by the end of next year with much of the analysis done next fall right after the referendum on the regional transportation sales tax. If that sales tax passes, it will translate into a $3 billion investment in transit in metro Atlanta over the next decade.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the audit is that it can lay the groundwork for a true regional transit system that integrates the operations of MARTA, the Xpress buses of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as well as the Cobb and Gwinnett bus transit systems.
Ideally, the work MARTA is doing would dovetail with the work that a task force on regional transit governance is doing for Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislature.
“We are poised to make this a regional effort and be part of a BIG regional transit transformation,” Scott said. “We have to look at ourselves in a non-parochial way. We have balkanized and fragmented so much that it doesn’t make sense.”
She then ticks off whether it makes sense to have five general managers of transit systems, five human resources directors, five purchasing operations — all to serve one metropolitan region.
“There’s certainly an institutional and technical capacity as well as financial capacity at MARTA that is unparalleled in the region,” Scott said. “We need to be able to get big collective thinking to break through the silos.”
The third phase of the audit has several options — including to help review, analyze and implement an integration of the metro area’s regional transit systems.
The opportunity before us is tremendous. And thanks to MARTA’s willingness to expose its strengths and its weaknesses through an outside audit can only enhance the opportunity to create a seamless, efficient and cost-effective transit system in our region.
And it will be up to the Atlanta region to welcome the audit’s findings in the same spirit that has led MARTA to take a high definition look at itself.
“If you ever think that you are perfect, you’re not,” Scott said. “We are hundreds of thousands of pieces that move. I can assure you that there are areas that can stand improvement. There are lots of things we do well, but it is an aging, mature transit system.”