As Beverly Scott begins her final year at MARTA, she says there’s ‘unfinished business’

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.”

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.

5 replies
  1. Question Man says:

    Doesn’t the article raise some interesting questions? What does it say about Beverly Scott doing her homework if MARTA’s obvious financial problems and negative public perception were far worse than she expected? And what does it say about the T-SPLOST when Beverly Scott confirms there is a group of projects but no system-wide plan? Aren’t you supposed to build the plan and then select the projects? Or did I misunderstand Business Planning 101?Report

    Reply
    • thedrewboo says:

      @Question Man You probably did not misunderstand planning 101, but this is Georgia known nationally to rank in nearly last place in several areas of critical importance. The Georgia Legislature has so much oversight into everything that goes on in the Atlanta region, that nothing ever gets done when every other town like Valdosta or Hartwell has just as much pull through the representative process as Atlanta area communities. I am from a small southern town too so I know what the attitude is there – people dont want Atlanta to have its fair share of tax spending distribution. Beverly Scott is an amazing professional – we are so lucky to have her.Report

      Reply
  2. Question Man says:

    Doesn’t the article raise some interesting questions? What does it say about Beverly Scott doing her homework if MARTA’s obvious financial problems and negative public perception were far worse than she expected? And what does it say about the T-SPLOST when Beverly Scott confirms there is a group of projects but no system-wide plan? Aren’t you supposed to build the plan and then select the projects? Or did I misunderstand Business Planning 101?Report

    Reply
  3. Mike Koblentz says:

    Dr. Scott is a very talented woman, and we are fortunate to have her here. There has only been one problem and that has been the state treating MARTA like a stepchild. Working people, poor people and a major city like Atlanta needs MARTA and MARTA needs adequate funding. Its amazing that Beverly Scott has accomplished what she has with basically no money.

    Now that Mayor Reed and others have forged this strong alliance to attempt to pass the 1 penny tax, hopefully we will have some money to work with. MARTA and the BeltLine are the type of infrastructure a great city needs. Dr.Scott has vision, the BeltLine folks have vision and the Mayor deserves enormous credit for including these projects in the multi county agreement. We wil be very fortunate to get someone of Beverly Scott’s abilitiy to replace her at the end of her term.

    Mike Koblentz

    Chair

    Northwest Community AllianceReport

    Reply
  4. inatl says:

    I think Beverly Scott is great and has done a great job with MARTA. I agree with her about the regions dislike or disrespect for MARTA even though nationally from an operations/cost comparison point of view or from an opinon point of view MARTA is well run.

    I don’t agree with her support of the 1% sales tax. The 1% transportation sales tax will raise the rate to 9% in the city and its regressive. It will impact the poor the most. As I’ve read elsewhere, the 1% sales tax does NOT exempt groceries yet it exempts the sale of gas and exempts that portion of a car purchase over $5,000. Why would a transportation tax not tax gas or the full cost of a car? Exempting the portion above $5000 benefits the rich at the expense of the poor who may not own a car but have to fund road improvements.

    Though the transportation list is split 50/50 between roads and transit the fact that some of the transit won’t get built, that much of the transit money is just studies and that the transit that will get built has a much longer window than the road capacity increases all adds up to the inescapable conclusion that this project list will end up expanding road capacity far more than transit usage and that it will further fuel the move of the population center north as much of the projects subsidize more development in the northern “favored Quarter”

    It may seem we can’t get by without the 1% tax, but really….can we afford to get by with it? Lets not repeat or mistakes of the past and accept what the legislature has given us and try to hope for the best. Just say no until they pass legislation that is not weakened by lobbyists and filled with loopholes. By the way Delta also is exempt from the tax on its jet fuel.Report

    Reply

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