A Moonshot for Transit
Jeffrey A Parker, General Manager and CEO, MARTA
(Below are abridged remarks delivered by Mr. Parker at the 6th Annual State of MARTA Breakfast, edited for content and clarity.)
[The year] 2018 was a year of great accomplishments and progress for MARTA. Most importantly, it was a breakthrough year for transit. It demonstrates what’s possible when we all work together. It is the beginning of a new era for mobility for the Atlanta region.
We saw state leaders come to the table with a new commitment to fund and expand public transit. We approved a Gwinnett County contract that will allow voters to decide in March whether they want to join MARTA. We finalized the MORE MARTA program for expansion in Atlanta – and finalized the first commuter rail in state history in Clayton County.
For the future – our civic, business, and community leaders have laid out ambitious plans for creating a world-class metro Atlanta and a path to get there. While there are many crucial factors that make a region world class – at the heart of it is world-class mobility. The people who live here must be able to move around to access all the places we work and play, and visitors need to easily be able to get to all the places that make our region great.
In 2018, we started down this path. But over the next few years we will need to be bold, embrace the opportunities technology offers, and take the necessary actions so that 40 years from now, people will look back on 2019 – the 40th anniversary MARTA [as a combined bus-and-rail system] – as a significant turning point for our region.
As Atlanta continues to grow, we know the region’s success depends on the success of MARTA – we will need a system that is robust enough to get the job done at the scale our growth demands. The growth is significant and steady. Just last year, our region grew by adding the equivalent of the entire population of my hometown, Hartford, Conn. We will soon be the sixth largest metro area in the country and our population is now growing faster than all but two metro areas in the country.
As I look at what we will need, I’ve also looked at all the plans we already have in place across the region and have looked to what other cities around the country are doing. These plans give me a sense of what we will need.
Consider Los Angeles, which will only grow by 11 percent over the next 30 years. They are committed to building $120 billion in transformative transit projects over the next 40 years. And Seattle – growing at 30 percent – has recently decided to invest more than $50 billion over 25 years.
Atlanta is projected to grow almost 50 percent in population over the same period, which is the equivalent of adding the entire population of metro Denver to our region. And just last year, a group of CEOs in Washington D.C. metro area called for investment of $500 billion over 20 years — mostly on public transit and technology— to remake mobility for their region’s future.
What will we invest here for our future?
We need a big goal – a moonshot for transit – that we can collectively embrace and work towards. Over the next 40 years in metro Atlanta, we should have a goal of investing $100 billion in transit and technology to profoundly transform mobility and ensure metro Atlanta can continue to grow into a truly world-class region.
Some will say this is too bold, too big or maybe not doable; that we need to focus on what’s right in front of us. We must do both; invest in our future and execute on making MARTA better now.
So, what does world-class transit look like? More than 10 years ago, Concept 3 was a plan that many worked on to lay out a 20-year vision for transit in the region. It imagined a $50 billion investment to prepare a growing population – at the time they predicted six million people by 2030. But we’re almost there now, 11 years ahead of schedule.
And 15 years ago, another map was designed and circulated by Citizens for Progressive Transit as a vision for what world-class transit could look like here. Both visions inspire the kind of bold thinking that we’ll need.
So where are we today? There continues to be major public support for better transit. In the most recent ARC survey, people across the region still rank transportation as the biggest issue and most agree that more investment in public transit is needed because people are fed up with sitting in traffic. And if we continue to grow at the rate expected, and only take incremental steps on transit, it will only get much, much worse.
People are looking to us to solve it – and solve it with transit – but our current level of funding is not enough. Look at what just happened in the [City of] Atlanta: We had $2.7 billion in identified funding and $10 billion in projects that we wanted to do. There is simply not enough to do everything we want to do.
No doubt finding $100 billion will not be easy. But we know that between federal funds, state funds, local funds, and with public and private support, we can do this. It will take all the leaders of our region to embrace this goal and come together to start a unified conversation for how we ensure we’re ready for the growth we will experience.
As we commit to fund a world-class transit system, there are fundamental things we need to do at MARTA to ensure we’re prepared and can continue to support our region’s growth.
First, we need to make sure we can deliver a world-class customer experience. I’m committed to this.
We must review and redesign this entire customer experience across the board to earn their confidence every day. Bad traffic won’t disappear overnight but great service will drive ridership.
I want to share with you a few of the steps we will be taking to deepen and strengthen MARTA’s culture of high-quality service and create a transit experience that is world-class:
- We are establishing a Riders Advisory Council that will give customers a voice at MARTA
- We will establish a Chief Customer Experience Officer to be the internal voice of our customers and make sure our customers inform everything we do
- Launch a Station enhancement program to modernize our stations, some of which are 40 years old
- Same with our bus service. While Atlanta has changed so much, our bus system has remained largely the same. We must make it world-class
Also, critical to a world-class experience are the 4,000-plus people who work so hard every day at MARTA. We need to ensure we continue to have the best employees we can find. And when we hire them, we must ensure they are respected, supported, trained, and empowered to provide top-notch customer service
- That is why we are establishing a station manager position not only to ensure ownership of our stations but to provide the men and women who work in the stations a clear career path.
- And we will develop a customer-centered training and management program
The second crucial area we need to focus on to deliver a world-class transit system is supporting smart and equitable development – so that all communities can share in the opportunities of a growing Atlanta.
Forty years ago, we had virtually no density. Over time, we have seen our region literally grow up around the MARTA stations – whether along the Perimeter, Buckhead, Decatur, Midtown or Downtown – we have consistently seen many of the places that people want to go and where businesses want to go to in our region are near MARTA.
To continue this, we must support density and development – and not just in the usual places. We will need to focus south of I-20, not just on our latest development at Peachtree Center Station. And as we prosper, MARTA needs to have a hand in developing more affordable housing.
We have also seen that more and more companies want to locate near MARTA – to make sure they have access to all the talent in our region. We will continue to find and support other companies who are interested in making proximity to transit a strategic imperative.
And there is still much opportunity around the system as it exists today and that will only be enhanced as we expand the system. We need to find more ways to maximize our investment in Transit-Oriented Development, like at Edgewood [/Candler Park] station.
We know from our experience, that our stations can play a big role in the communities where they are located. We need to continue to innovate and connect to communities around like we have done with Soccer in the Stations , MARTA Fresh Markets and Artbound.
Our stations are community hubs that can be catalysts for commerce, community action and celebration. In 2019, MARTA will roll out a community-based program tailored to meet the needs of the individual neighborhoods we serve.
The bottom line is that the success of metro Atlanta is directly tied to the success of MARTA. We share a common destiny – we’re dependent on each other. To make the economic development possible alongside population growth – and to help this region flourish – our mobility needs to be world-class. MARTA needs to be world-class.
But it will take all of us to make this a reality. It will take all of us to make sure that Metro Atlanta can become the truly world-class region we know it can be.
This is our time.