By Maria Saporta
The departure of MARTA’s chief financial officer, Raj Srinath, is being viewed as Atlanta’s loss and Jacksonville’s gain.
Srinath’s last day at MARTA was Oct. 6. He will join the Jacksonville Transportation Authority on Oct. 16 as its senior vice president and chief financial officer.
“Raj is highly respected in the industry,” Nathaniel “Nat” Ford, JTA’s CEO and a former general manager of MARTA, said in a brief telephone interview Monday morning. “He is very talented. We are fortunate to be able to attract him to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.”
Srinath joined MARTA in late January 2021, hired by then-CEO Jeffrey Parker, who died a year later. Before joining MARTA, Srinath served as deputy general manager and CFO for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in California, where he had been since October 2014. VTA’s general manager at the time was Nuria Fernandez, who, in June 2021, was confirmed as the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration.
“We were very lucky in 2021 to get somebody of Raj’s credentials and background,” said Rod Mullice, a former City of Atlanta appointee to MARTA’s board. “Raj is very competent, and he has fantastic working relationships with the leadership of FTA.”
Mullice also noted that while at VTA, Srinath helped oversee the expansion of a heavy rail line that connected Santa Clara to the Bay Area Rapid Transit.
“It was the first heavy rail line serving the Santa Clara community,” Mullice added.
In conversations with several people who have been following MARTA closely for years, the departure of Srinath comes at a pivotal time for the transit agency.
MARTA has been under intense scrutiny by the City of Atlanta’s City Council on its More MARTA expenditures.
In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for MARTA so the transit agency could implement a large number of transit improvements within the city limits.
The initiative, called More MARTA, promised to deliver a number of light rail projects, including one along Campbellton Road as well as the Clifton Corridor. Both those projects have since been scaled down from rail to bus rapid transit.
Earlier this year, the Atlanta City Council started to scrutinize how the transit agency was spending its More MARTA revenues. Councilmembers were especially concerned about an extraordinary amount of More MARTA dollars being spent on bus operations rather than transit expansions inside the city. It allocated $900,000 to pay for an external audit to investigate More MARTA’s expenditures.
MARTA officials initially referred to the City Council’s decision to do an audit as “disappointing and disingenuous.”
“The audit is full in process,” said Doug Shipman, president of the Atlanta City Council. “The questions that I and other councilmembers have raised are around how much money has been raised from More MARTA, how has it been spent, and why it seems MARTA invested much more than expected on expanded bus service. And did we actually get expanded bus service? Do we have reasonable estimates on the current project list and the expectations for future projects?”
Some have wondered whether MARTA used More MARTA money to make its balance sheet look good rather than actually use the money for projects that had been approved by city voters. MARTA has been running a hefty surplus for the past several years, and yet the agency has cited a lack of dollars to build out the multiple projects within the City of Atlanta.
“I’m hopeful that the CFO’s departure will not impact the audit or MARTA’s reporting to the city,’ Shipman said, adding: “I believe that MARTA should seriously consider placing significant dollars back into the More MARTA program.”
Many of the decisions about More MARTA funding were made before Srinath joined the agency. One school of thought is that Srinath did not want to be put into a position of being held accountable for decisions made by others.
Another school of thought is that Srinath wanted to work for a transit agency that is aggressively expanding its transit services and that he wanted to be part of a more collaborative team.
Srinath did not return a text inquiry to comment on why he had decided to leave MARTA for Jacksonville.
MARTA spokesman Payson Schwin downplayed any possible connection between the City Council audit and Srinath leaving.
“MARTA has multiple audits being conducted at any given time, which is standard for a public transit agency,” Schwin said. “During his time as CFO, Mr. Srinath ensured MARTA remained an audit-rich environment and offered the Authority’s full cooperation. Mr. Srinath was given an opportunity at the Jacksonville Transit Authority, which he accepted. We appreciate his leadership and wish him the best.”
During a board meeting of the transit authority on Sept. 14, MARTA general manager and CEO Collie Greenwood spoke highly of Srinath’s service to MARTA.
“It’s bittersweet as we say goodbye to our CFO Raj Srinath,” Greenwood said. “Raj was instrumental in securing the AAA bond ratings we’ve been talking about over the past year. It’s a highly unusual status in transit. Less than six transit agencies in the country have joined that status. And it is largely due to the hard work of Raj and his team.”
Greenwood also announced that Kevin Hurley would serve as interim chief financial officer while a national search is being conducted for Srinath’s successor.
While MARTA is to be commended for having a surplus and for achieving a AAA bond rating, the question must be asked whether the transit agency was able to do so because of the way it allocated its More MARTA dollars. Some of those questions will likely be answered when the external audit of More MARTA is completed by sometime early next year.