By Maria Saporta
MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott, who has been heading the agency since October of 2007, recently told her board that she will leave her post after her five-year contract ends on Dec. 31, 2012.
But Scott said much still needs to get done between now and when she leaves to catapult transit in the Atlanta region.
Most notably, three developments need to occur. A transit governance structure with regional control must past the legislature this session. The MARTA Act needs to be revised to allow for flexibility on how the agency spends its sales tax revenue — removing the restriction that 50 percent be spent on capital and 50 percent on operating. (MARTA has enjoyed a three-year moratorium on that restriction, but that will run out in July, 2013).
And if those two developments occur, the region needs to pass the one cent regional transportation sales tax, which is scheduled to come up for a vote on July 31 (but the legislature may decide to move the referendum to the general election on Nov. 6).
Scott recently sat down for an extensive interview when she reviewed her tenure in Atlanta, her personal plans post-MARTA, her thoughts about MARTA’s challenges and her views on the region’s future.
When Scott first came to Atlanta, she had no way of knowing the economy would go through the worst recession since the Great Depression. But she knew that changes needed to occur at MARTA, by far the largest transit agency in the Atlanta region.
“I’m a start-up, fix-up, change administrator,” Scott said, adding that she quickly realized that money from the MARTA’s sales tax was decreasing and that the agency needed to cut costs and increase revenues. The first order of business was to cut $11 million from the MARTA budget.
“We had a lot of internal work that we needed to do to trim the agency,” Scott said. “There was a 15 percent reduction of the workforce. We went from 131 bus routes to 91 routes. And in my tenure, we have had three fare increases. MARTA employees also have not had any raises in four years, and we are not going to have any raises this year. And we had 10-day furloughs. It’s always hard when you don’t have money.”
In addition to MARTA’s financial situation being worse than she expected, Scott also was surprised by how the nationally-respected transit agency was viewed in the region.
“What I didn’t realize was how deeply the negative perception, often unfounded, that existed of MARTA,” Scott said. “I was expecting Atlanta to be much more ready to make the change needed to get to making the investment in a first-class transit system. Atlanta was known as the poster child of congestion.”
Scott also knew that metro Atlanta had a history of rising to the occasion and having an aspirational view of the future. She thought the time was right to build a regional transit system once and for all.
But Scott also had reason to hope. In December, 2008, the Transit Planning Board — an entity that represented every county in the Atlanta region — unanimously endorsed “Concept 3,” a long-range plan that envisioned a multi-layered regional transit system.
One of the highlights of her time in Atlanta was when the Atlanta Regional Commission voted to grant MARTA $25 million in federal funds at a critical time — which MARTA paid back.
In many ways, the transit projects in the Transportation Investment Act would be the first step to implementing Concept 3.
The Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable unanimously approved a $6.14 billion list of projects with 52 percent to be invested in transit.
“It’s still a group of projects,” Scott said about the list that will be presented to voters. “We need a system-wide plan, and we need to take a systems level approach. What makes that happen is governance.”
Currently, a legislative task force is working on a governance bill, which is supposed to be introduced during this session. But right now there’s a distinct difference of opinion of who would control the new regional transit umbrella agency.
According to people who are working with the task force, Gov. Nathan Deal would like the state to have a majority of the board members on the new agency.
But elected leaders in the Atlanta region believe they should have the majority because all the money is being raised in the metro area and the state has shown little interest in providing significant financial support for regional transit.
“It’s going to be one of the most charged, most difficult issues to get through,” Scott said. I have my personal opinion — local representation absolutely has to predominate. That’s because it’s the locals who are putting the funding in it. I’m not aware of another metro area that would be so heavily state-controlled where the state is not putting any money, certainly not any significant money, in the transit system.”
If the referendum passes, having a regional transit agency is critically important to making sure transit projects will be built as efficiently as possible.
Because many of the transit projects on the list are not fully funded, several questions would need to be answered in order to make sure they are built, Scott said.
Who would take ownership of the system? What is the big picture? How much does it cost? How are you going to fund it? How are you going to govern? How are you going to manage it. What kind of accountability would there be?
“These are very expensive projects,” Scott said. “These aren’t tinker toys. These are public tax dollars. We are a region, and nobody should be supporting inefficiencies.”
It also is important for the new regional agency to have the expertise to build out these projects. Although MARTA has more experience than any other agency, Scott said that it has not developed a rail line in more than 10 years other than the current streetcar line in downtown Atlanta.
No matter what, major change is needed, said Scott, who has been willing to discuss a transformation of MARTA so transit would be more accepted by metro residents.
“Some rebranding needs to take place in the region,” Scott said. “That includes MARTA, GRTA (the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority) and the other transit agencies. There needs to be a new face. This is really about establishing the next generation of transit. It would be a plus to rebrand it.”
Scott, who is an optimist, is hopeful these thorny issues can be worked out to help with the passage of the referendum.
“If it passes, I will be so happy,” she said. “It will have made it all worth it to see it all come together.”
But if the sales tax doesn’t pass, Scott said that from her perspective, “it would not be a failure.” The process has helped the region better understand the need to have a balanced transportation system that has additional transit.
“There will be a right time for this region,” Scott said with confidence.
But either way, Scott will not be here to see it to its conclusion.
“You need to know when it’s your time to go,” said Scott, who added that she’s been “tremendously honored” to serve at MARTA. “For most change agents, five years is about the right time span. I gave it all I could.”
Just to be clear, Scott said: “It’s not exhaustion. I’m not burned out.”
For Scott, she plans to move to Colorado to be close to her only child — a son, and her only grand-daughter. Her mother also lives in Colorado, so it made sense to make that her base, especially after her husband, Arthur Scott, passed away in October, 2010.
But Scott, 60, does intends to have an Atlanta presence, and she will keep her condo in the Old Fourth Ward along the BeltLine.
As to her own future, she plans to work in three areas — the development of transportation infrastructure in the nation to improve the nation’s competitiveness; helping train the next generation of transit workers from engineers to administrators (or as she said “soup to nuts”); and she would like to work “constructively and collaboratively” on labor-management relations to help modernize the transit industry, much in the way that the automobile industry was transformed.
In looking back over her time at MARTA, Scott said: “you start things and you take them to the logical point.”
But she still has the better part of a year to continue her mission. Scott knows 2012 will be a critical year for metro Atlanta’s future, and she personally believes: “We are at the point now where there’s still unfinished business.”