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.