By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Sept. 8, 2017
The impending departure of MARTA General Manager and CEO Keith Parker the transit agency announced Sept. 5 comes at a pivotal time in the system’s history.
After 25 years in the transit industry — including five years at MARTA — Parker will be leaving this fall to become president and CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia.
Under Parker’s leadership, MARTA has undergone a transformation from a maligned transit agency to a respected and desired mode of transportation.
MARTA has experienced unprecedented momentum in recent years:
- It has been expanding its operations in Clayton County, including a plan to add rail service.
- It is working with the city of Atlanta to assume operations of the Atlanta Streetcar.
- It also is working with the city on a significant plan to expand service within the city limits, thanks to a $2.5 billion voter-approved sales tax increase last fall.
- It has become an economic development magnet for major companies, and many of its stations have become sites for transit-oriented development.
- Emory University, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have said planned MARTA expansion is a key reason they want to be annexed by the city of Atlanta.
- MARTA has been forging a stronger relationship with the state of Georgia including the governor, legislature and top transportation leaders, opening up the possibility of MARTA receiving regular operating support from the state for the first time.
- MARTA also has been building closer ties with counties outside its system, increasing the possibility of creating a true regional transit system.
But perhaps Parker’s greatest legacy is that he put MARTA’s financial house in order, turning deficits into a surplus.
“MARTA was bleeding money,” said state Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, chairman of the legislative committee with jurisdiction over MARTA. “Now, they have almost a quarter of a million in reserves. … That rainy-day fund is a real cushion we didn’t have before his tenure.”
Indeed, Parker’s accomplishments have been so extensive that there is concern his departure could slow MARTA’s momentum — at least in the near term
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Jeff Turner, chairman of the Clayton County Commission, who credited Parker for helping get MARTA approved in his county in 2014. “I’m concerned about who is going to be at the helm.
MARTA board chair Robbie Ashe said he is disappointed Parker is leaving but added MARTA will keep moving forward.
“It is a sad day, but I’m not scared,” Ashe said. “MARTA is in great shape. We still have work to do and challenges to overcome. But it is a challenge we can rise to.”
Ashe said MARTA would continue to “keep our trains and buses running on time” as well as continue to focus on customer service, safety, maintenance and fiscal discipline.
Ashe said the agency will be conducting a broad-based national search, and he is confident the MARTA board will be able to find a strong CEO. The agency board was to name an interim general manager Sept. 7, which was after press time.
Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said improvements Parker has made at MARTA will make the search for his successor easier.
“This is a very attractive job,” said Beach, R-Alpharetta. “[Parker’s successor will] come into a place that is in good financial shape, into a region that’s growing.”
Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the MARTA job is now one of the most desirable transportation posts in the country due to Parker’s leadership.
“Keith Parker led a transformational turnaround at MARTA,” Moddelmog said in a statement. “In five years, he was able to end cynicism and apathy and create positive movement … [that] will keep the momentum going.”
Mark Toro, CEO of North American Properties and a MARTA advocate, agreed.
“Keith’s departure doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of MARTA and its overall importance in the development of Atlanta,” Toro said. “We now have Clayton, and we have to work with the next folks who will adopt the idea: North Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb — in that order.”
Charlotte Nash, chair of the Gwinnett County Commission, said she hated to hear Parker was leaving because he had “actively sought and cultivated partnerships in the community.”
Nash said Parker has been pragmatic and flexible in providing solutions and services, which has led to improvements at MARTA — real and perceived.
“Perhaps the most important contribution that Keith has made to transit in the Atlanta area is the credibility that he built with state leadership,” Nash wrote in an email. “The discussions about transit at the state level are very different now than at earlier points in time. I believe these discussions will lead to meaningful actions that help address transit needs not just in Atlanta, but across the state.”
Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said there is now a state dialogue about transit.
“Keith is leaving at an unfortunate time,” said Hooker, who has seen a growing acceptance of MARTA in the region. “He’s going to be a voice that’s sorely missed. You have a number of outlying counties that are wanting to explore transit. It is an unfortunately timed departure of a critically important individual who has been a key part of our transit conversation locally, regionally and statewide.”
Parker, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, will be staying in Atlanta in his new role. The previous CEO of Goodwill made nearly $1 million a year, much more than the $369,220 Parker is earning at MARTA.
“Goodwill is offering Keith substantially more money — so much so that I could not outbid them,” Ashe said. “Money matters. While I’m sad to see him go, I’m excited about our next chapter.”
Dave Williams covers government for the Atlanta Business Chronicle