By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 23, 2018
When he was only 18 years old while at Northeastern University, Jeffrey A. Parker picked the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for his internship so he could get a free transit pass. That launched Parker’s public transit career and led to him becoming MARTA’s new CEO and general manager.
The MARTA board is scheduled to vote on Parker, the sole finalist, at a March 23 board meeting.
“As far as I’m concerned, he can start on Monday,” said Robbie Ashe, MARTA’s board chair.
Parker is more than willing. “There’s a lot going on right now, and I’m eager to get started,” Parker, 51, said in a March 20 interview. “It’s really the time and place for MARTA right now.”
The General Assembly is in its final week of the legislative session, and there are several regional transit bills that are being negotiated between both houses.
Ideally, Parker wants to be at the table.
“Has there ever been a more exciting time for transit in this region?” Parker asked rhetorically. “I look forward to being the biggest advocate for MARTA in the region.”
As vice president in the Atlanta office of HNTB Corp., Parker has worked with the state’s transportation leaders and legislators. Those relationships were a key reason why Parker stood out during the search for a new MARTA CEO, Ashe said.
Parker, a measured leader, spoke of the pro-transit alignment now taking place in the Atlanta region.
“There’s an appreciation that MARTA doesn’t just move people around the region. It also plays a significant role in the region’s economic vitality,” said Parker, noting that many recent location announcements for major companies are next to MARTA stations.
That has led to several counties, including Gwinnett, to be more open to transit after decades of resisting MARTA.
Parker said MARTA has significant experience running rail and bus systems regionally. Individual governments will have to decide what transit options they prefer. Projects are successful when transit solutions make sense in a local and regional context and when they have political champions.
“All those things need to be aligned, and it feels like we are moving in that direction,” Parker said. “The role MARTA can play and has played is to be the agency that understands transit modes and how to make a system knit together. People want seamless transportation. They don’t care about the political jurisdictions.”
Already MARTA is in the center of two major expansion projects – developing a high-capacity transit system in Clayton County and investing in the City of Atlanta, which passed an extra half-penny tax for MARTA in 2016.
“From my perspective, the quicker those projects move forward, the more value MARTA can bring to its customers,” Parker said. “We have to think of those projects as a network. We think of projects in the here and now, but really the success of these projects is decades in the future.”
Parker, who said transit is in his blood, is grew up in New London, Conn. He rejoined the MBTA in 2000, heading its subway division, before coming to MARTA in 2005 to head transportation operations (he worked for three different general managers in less than three years). Parker, his wife and two daughters moved to Forsyth County, where they have lived ever since.
In 2008, Parker became commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, primarily advancing its public transit network. Then he returned to Atlanta in 2011 to join HNTB, a consulting firm that has significant contracts with MARTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation, among others.
Parker said he and MARTA’s board are sensitive to any issues related to potential conflicts of interest. He is divesting himself of any ownership interest in HNTB.
“I have committed to do everything to ensure there is no real or perceived conflicts of interest,” Parker said. “I do believe MARTA will benefit tremendously from the experience I have had on both the public and private sides.”
Parker said he’s looking forward to working on the big-picture plans to expand MARTA. He is agnostic about the different transportation modes — commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit and regular buses.
“At the end of the day, you have got to build the right mode for the ridership in a corridor” based on cost , public support and connectivity to a regional system, he said.
But Parker said he’s also interested in the day-to-day operations of MARTA, such as maintenance, employee relations, public safety and reliable operations.
Parker plans to ride MARTA “as close to every day as possible.” He and his family have no immediate plans to move from Forsyth County because his youngest daughter is a senior in high school.
Admitting that he loves to work, Parker said he wants to start his job as soon as possible — wanting to be on board before Sine Die, the last day of the Legislature on March 29.
“It’s important to be thoughtful,” Parker said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about getting stuff done.”