MARTA defies the odds — seeks new metro partners as it improves service

By Maria Saporta

Just when I feel like giving up on Atlanta, a ray of sunshine gives me hope.

This past week, that ray of sunshine was MARTA — our beleaguered, unappreciated public transit agency.

(Thought I needed to have a more uplifting column this week because Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said my last column almost made him cry. But more on that below).

Keith Parker, who has been MARTA’s general manager for exactly one year, used his anniversary to give a “State of MARTA” report to community stakeholders on the morning of Friday the 13th. For metro Atlanta, it was a day of good tidings.

MARTA is doing all it can to not only survive, but thrive, despite the fact that it receives virtually no annual financial support from the state or from the Atlanta region beyond the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Parker set the stage. Because MARTA is highly dependent on sales tax collected from those two core counties, when the Great Recession hit, the transit agency was in a downward spiral.

As Parker explained, the past five years saw MARTA reducing its 131 bus routes to 91, adding longer wait times between its trains, closing down restrooms, furloughing employees and raising fares by almost 40 percent.

All those cuts led to “an enormously negative perception of the transit system,” Parker told the breakfast crowd. “Despite all those cuts, the trend was still dismal.”

The $110 million reserves in the 2013 Fiscal Year budget were projected to decline to $10 million by the 2018 Fiscal Year. In his first year as general manager, Parker said the system was expected to lose close to $30 million of its operating reserves.

In his first 12 months as general manager, Parker has been able to rewrite MARTA’s story by eliminating hundreds of vacant positions, and he was able add $9 million to the system’s reserves at the end of its fiscal year.

“It is just the beginning,” Parker promised the community. “If we continue to move forward, the future looks a lot better.”

Most significantly, MARTA is planning to strategically restore bus and rail service that was cut in the past five years. In April, the goal is that during peak times, trains will be running every five minutes in the core sections of the system (Lindbergh to the Airport). Night-time rail service is being increased this week. Restrooms will be reopening. Electronic signs should work consistently.

During his presentation, Parker showed the series of steps that MARTA has taken and will be taking to operate as efficiently as possible.

But there is a limit to what MARTA can do by itself. At some point, if the Atlanta region really wants to enter the big league of cities and be competitive internationally, MARTA (or a regional transit system of any other name) will need to receive support from other counties in the metro area and from the State of Georgia.

Parker is fully aware of the challenges that MARTA and transit face in metro Atlanta — recognizing that some feelings date back to the racial polarization that existed when the original MARTA Act was approved in 1971 by voters in only Fulton and DeKalb. The other three counties that were designed to be part of the system — Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton — opted out.

But Parker, and his newly-elected board chair, Robbie Ashe, said it is a new day. MARTA is ready to show the rest of the region that the transit agency is a good steward of its funds and that it is willing to work with other counties and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to create a true regional transit system.

“Every day we strive to be the most cost effective system we can be,” Parker told the breakfast audience. ”For those of you who have not made the investment, it will be the wisest investment you can make.”

One of the most important slides Parker showed the audience was how metro Atlanta stacks up against the cities that are our top competitors — Dallas and Houston. At this point, those cities have transit systems with about the same number of stations and miles as Atlanta. But those cities are investing about $400 million a year on capital projects compared to MARTA spending about $100 million.

In other words, at this rate, metro Atlanta will be falling far behind those other “auto-dependent” Sun Belt cities in providing transportation options for residents and employers.

The worst development that could happen would be for the state and the rest of the region to turn its back on MARTA at this time by using the excuse — MARTA is taking care of itself so it doesn’t need us.

The best outcome that could happen would be for the state and the rest of the region to decide that MARTA has proven to be worthy of new investment — and that it is in the best economic interest of our state to have a robust regional transit system that is governed efficiently and seamlessly operated from county to county.

MARTA’s message may be getting through.

Gov. Nathan Deal, speaking to the Rotary Club of Atlanta Monday, was asked about the state’s lack of investment in MARTA.

“MARTA should be commended for their leadership,” Deal said. “We have turned a corner in perception. Their only public source of revenue comes from the two major counties (Fulton and DeKalb) and the federal government. I think we are on the cusp of having to address issues related to mass transit. I don’t think we can predict how that issue will unfold.”

The governor went on to say: “I have been impressed with the new leadership at MARTA, and I think that more and more members of the legislature are impressed with the leadership at MARTA, and we will see how that unfolds.”

Parker happened to be attending his first Rotary meeting as a member Monday.

After hearing the governor’s comments, Parker said: “I’m glad. We’ve been hearing very positive feedback from many of the legislators.”

Note to readers: Apparently my Maria’s Metro column last week did stir emotion from Mayor Kasim Reed — not quite what I expected. I have been rather critical of his administration in recent weeks for not doing more to keep the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Usually criticism puts me in the City Hall doghouse for an undetermined period of time.

After Friday’s “State of MARTA” breakfast, I went to the Atlanta Committee for Progress quarterly meeting where Mayor Reed sat down with me and Katie Leslie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an extensive interview.

As he was leaving, the mayor said my last column almost made him cry — the part about the “cold, rainy  day” and my sadness for Atlanta. “I felt like you needed a hug,” the mayor said while walking out the door.

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.

15 replies
  1. jamstan says:

    Great follow-up Maria. MARTA progress sounds positive and yes Atlanta, it can and should be viewed as the lifeline in our thriving metropolis and region, whether we individually use it or not. Glad to see the mayor is reading what you have to say. You should tell him that laughter and crying is all part of a healthy daily routine. Perhaps he is the one that has the need for the hug that he is projecting on you. Hang in there mayor and keep grinding. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.Report

  2. Noel Mayeske says:

    Another great article, Maria. I read your publication each week and always get a lot from it. Take heart that there are others like yourself in Atlanta (including myself) who have long roots in this great city, see its flaws and its charms, and know it can do better.
    Like jamstan below, I’m glad that Mayor Reed is reading your publication as well. That speaks to the quality of your publication.Report

  3. Dowager says:

    I so appreciate the Saporta Report’s reliable reporting on urban issues.  Like the governor, we will anticipate the “unfolding.”  Promising times at last for MARTA.Report

  4. Kevin Woods says:

    I agree great article! I think Marta needs to grow to help this city face its traffic problems. If the state and surrounding counties will not show support then its time to bring in private money. Marta needs to start talking with heads of Major corporations instead of politicians. Sit down with Coke, UPS, Home Depot, Chick fil a, and Suntrust and talk about partnering up. How about a train line called the Chick fil a Cow train to Buckhead, or a Home Depot line to Doraville. The UPS line to the Airport. I see the trains passing all the time and you can use the trains to market and produce more revenue. Imagine a whole train that looks like a chick fil a Cow. I know my kids would love it and want to ride on it. A whole train that looks like a coke bottle or a UPS Package.
    Its time for Marta to start thinking out side the Box and stop trying to follow other cities. 4 major counties have to approve Marta, which makes Atlanta not your typical big city. Cobb and Gwinnett will not approve Marta unless you have corporations that will stand by Marta and put the needed pressure on these counties to help the gridlock. Home Depot’s Corporate office is in Cobb county and would be the first corporate partner Marta should talk with. Keith Parker has private sector experience and that’s why I applaud his hiring. Its time for Marta to look in other directions instead of relying on government, and he has the experience to do it.
    I am a born and raised Atlanta Native who believes this is a great city, but to keep this city great we need to have Marta grow and become more efficient.Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    MARTA does not necessarily need to worry about trying to expand into Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties (MARTA particularly does not need to worry about trying to expand into Cobb and Gwinnett counties where its presence is not wanted by the most-powerful political factions), nor does MARTA need to worry about trying to get metro counties other than Fulton and DeKalb to fund its operations.
    Also, unless MARTA wants to be taken over and managed and operated by the state (lead by interests at the state level in North Fulton County), MARTA should not necessarily be trying to get the State of Georgia to fund its operations.
    What MARTA needs to do for the time being is to continue to improve and make strides in the areas that it provides service within Fulton and DeKalb counties.
    MARTA’s only focus at this particular and immediate point should be in becoming the best transit agency that it can be in Fulton and DeKalb counties, both operationally and financially.
    If MARTA continues to improve to the point that it eventually can become one of the absolute best transit agencies in North America and even on the entire planet in the areas that it currently serves in Fulton and DeKalb counties, outlying counties that have traditionally been and continue to be highly-skeptical of the concept of using mass transit as a way to relieve severe traffic problems and boost economic investment will automatically want to ‘buy-in’ and become part of what they perceive to be a very-successful metropolitan mass transit agency.
    MARTA needs to prove that it can be a successful mass transit agency over a sustained and extended period of time (likely 5-10 years) in the areas that it already serves before outlying highly-skeptical counties like Cobb and Gwinnett and beyond will want to join as no one wants to join an organization that they perceive to be a failure.
    Like CEO Keith Parker alluded to recently, MARTA also needs to continue to cultivate revenue streams from its numerous real estate holdings around its stations (mainly by leasing-out its vast expanses of parking around stations out to developers for the construction of revenue-generating and ridership-generating high-density mixed-use transit-oriented developments that could generate tens-of-millions of dollars yearly if fully-utilized).
    Here’s to hoping that MARTA keeps up the good work and that the agency continues to make critically-needed improvements.Report

  6. ScottNAtlanta says:

    The Last Democrat in GeorgiaIt seems these days opinions change at light speed.  Just last winter Rep Jacobs was making Jill Chambers look like a softy, now he cant sing MARTA’s praises loud enough.  Where as I dont particularly think Cobb will buy in anytime soon since you have ideologues running the show who see MARTA as a way to stoke republican fear (even though I doubt many of them believe what they say…it politically expedient).  Clayton and Gwinnette, however, might be doable soon er than later if the ice under the dome continues to thaw at the same pace as it seems to be now.  You also have to remember how long any expansion not already in the planning stage will take.   It could be 10 years before there is rail to these counties if the planning has not begun.  Also, Rockdale might even be a willing partner for a rail extension (I’m just speculating on that one).  Bottom line is, even if those counties joined MARTA it would be a long time before anything was completed…I dont think it would take as long as you think to prove MARTA’s bonofides.  Planning takes time…a lot of time, and it needs to start ASAPReport

  7. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    ScottNAtlantaThe Last Democrat in Georgia {{{“Where as I dont particularly think Cobb will buy in anytime soon since you have ideologues running the show who see MARTA as a way to stoke republican fear (even though I doubt many of them believe what they say…it politically expedient).”}}}
    This is an excellent point, though the once-dominant anti-transit ideologues are not so much running the show anymore as much as they are pulling the strings these days in a fast-growing Cobb County whose population of 707,000 residents is now larger than many major American cities. 
    The people who run the show in Cobb County these days, the pro-business and real estate spectulation interests represented by Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee and led by the Cumberland Community Improvement District, are actually in desperate want of a vastly-increased transit presence in Cobb County (in the form of a direct rail transit connection to Central Atlanta (Midtown & Downtown) and the world-leading Atlanta Airport as a way of increasing real estate values and improving business prospects in the Cumberland/Galleria and in and along the US 41 Cobb Parkway corridor).
    A poorly-managed, underperforming and financially and operationally-struggling MARTA actually gave the anti-transit ideologues plenty of political ammunition to help them prevent MARTA (or any kind of high-capacity transit, except for very-minimal amounts of local and regional commuter bus service) out of outlying counties like Cobb, Gwinnett and even Clayton.
    But if MARTA is eventually able to make the transition to being a model transit agency that is extremely high-performing, exceptionally well-run and financially-profitable, it will be increasingly and exceedingly-difficult for anti-transit ideologues to prevent such a highly-successful organization from providing service in such heavily-populated areas with rapidly-worsening traffic problems like Cobb and Gwinnett counties.
    {{{“Clayton and Gwinnette, however, might be doable soon er than later if the ice under the dome continues to thaw at the same pace as it seems to be now.”}}}
    This is an excellent assessment, though even with the recent improvements in operations and finances that MARTA has experienced this year, anti-transit interests continue to be firmly-entrenched in Clayton and Gwinnett counties due to the perception amongst the most-powerful ideological interests in those counties that MARTA (and transit period) breeds and exports crime out of Atlanta slums.
    Much of the OTP suburban political establishment has been down on MARTA for a very-long time now and those deeply-entrenched anti-transit sentiments are not necessarily going to recede overnight, even with the worsening traffic issues in counties like Cobb and Gwinnett and the growing lower-income population in Clayton.
    For MARTA to be viable outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties in the future, MARTA is likely going to have to prove to a traditionally extremely-skeptical OTP Metro Atlanta public over an extended period of roughly 5-10 years that it can be a model (*PERFECT*) transit agency that can be trusted to operate competently over a sustained period of time before outlying counties like Cobb, Gwinnett and even Clayton will let the agency expand its service area into their counties from the current service area of Fulton and DeKalb.
    If MARTA can reverse its past fortunes and become a smashing success within its current service area of Fulton and DeKalb counties, then outlying counties like Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton and beyond will be fighting to sign-on to the concept of expanding high-capacity transit service into their increasingly mobility-challenged areas.
    But if MARTA reverts back to its old form as a poorly-managed transit agency in severe decline, then high-capacity service will continue to be a tough sell outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties as no-one wants to join a losing organization out of fear that a two-county problem would become a five-county problem instead of a five-county smashing success.Report

  8. moliere says:

    Curious how guys like “Burroughston Broch” and “MiltonMan” avoid positive articles like this like the plague. When Atlanta’s population passes 450,000 (will happen as early as next year) and then surpasses 500,000 (will happen well before the next census) it will not be a happy day for those guys …Report

  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    I don’t avoid articles, and I don’t post for the sake of posting. You are free to play happy time as much as you wish.
    Where did you get your population estimate? The Atlanta Regional Commission forecast a City of Atlanta population of 422,800 on August 13, 2013 – an annual average increase of 932 people/year since 2010. At that rate, the City should reach 450,000 in 2042, not next year.
    Population estimates are often inexact – showed a 2009 estimate of 540,000 in the City and had egg on their face when the 2010 Census counted 420,000.
    And don’t forget Hizzoner the Mayor threatening litigation against the Census Bureau for only counting 420,000 in 2010. You haven’t heard anything about that lately, have you?
    I surely don’t need to remind you that the City had 497,000 residents as recently as 1970.Report

  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    Speaking of avoidance, why don’t you respond to my reply to you on “Mayor Reed in 2014 may try to trigger up to $250 million in public works construction projects across city?”Report

  11. ScottNAtlanta says:

    The Last Democrat in GeorgiaScottNAtlanta The only argument I would have with your assessment is that you have to follow the money.  These “anti-transit” people are getting their message out because in the previous couple of years the Tea Party wing has enjoyed good financial backing (and they are vehemently anti-transit).  That is coming to a remarkable end (remarkable in how quickly).  The anti-transit group can only get messaging out currently by getting more extreme (example would be some of the remarkably stupid comments from Cobb’s elected officials and non-elected “civic” groups).  That way they get press coverage, stoke fear which is politically expedient, and more people hear it.  As it gets more extreme, it in turn becomes less believable.  The haters will always hate, and some people will never believe anything positive about MARTA…that has to be understood.  Also, there is a growing backlash by businesses against the “anti” groups…again, follow the money.  You need money to attain political office, and if someone is going to fund your competitor because you show preference for the “anti” groups, your tune is probably going to change.  I’m pretty sure thats somewhat behind Rep. Jacobs new praise.Report

  12. Question Man says:

    Nice article, but isn’t it hard to be optimistic when you read Governor Deal’s totally non-commitment statement and the recent decision by Atlanta’s (i.e., Atlanta Beltline Inc.) not to partner with MARTA to operate the Beltline? Where is the sense of a regional transit system?Report

  13. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Question Man As always, you ask some very good questions…
    {{{“Nice article, but isn’t it hard to be optimistic when you read Governor Deal’s totally non-commitment statement and the recent decision by Atlanta (i.e., Atlanta Beltline Inc.) not to partner with MARTA to operate the Beltline?”}}}
    It’s not hard to be optimistic, actually it is just the opposite as a Conservative governor voted into office on the strength of winning the vote in traditionally transit-averse areas outside of the I-285 Perimeter saying nice things about MARTA is virtually unheard of in Georgia politics and should likely be a cause for great optimism moving forward. 
    Also, the recent decision by Atlanta not to partner with MARTA to operate the Beltline likely is a sign that Atlanta leaders are looking to court large sums of funding from private sources as a means of attempting to get the Beltline completed in a shorter time frame.
    {{{?Where is the sense of a regional transit system?”}}}
    …The sense of a regional transit system is virtually non-existent along with our state’s almost completely absentee transportation policy when it comes to the Atlanta region.Report


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