MARTA’s Keith Parker knows system has challenges but sees opportunities

 

By Maria Saporta

Keith Parker, MARTA’s new general manager and CEO, must like a challenge.

After surviving his first session of the Georgia General Assembly, Parker seems no less enthusiastic about the potential to turn MARTA into a sustainable and beloved urban transit system.

At the monthly Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable breakfast gathering Friday morning, Parker presented his impressions of MARTA’s challenges and opportunities after being on the job for four months.

Starting out, Parker said that being CEO of MARTA is the most challenging transit job in the country and the odds of success are less than in any other major city with a transit system.

Why? Because unlike Chicago, New York and Boston, Atlanta is still having the conversation about whether transit is even necessary. Some people in the Atlanta region continue to question why we are “wasting a penny sales tax” on transit rather than on more roads.

And then Parker outlined a list of reasons why the MARTA job is tough — the region doesn’t view itself as a region so it’s hard to get it to invest in a regional transit system; people are still angry in how MARTA was formed; some people feel MARTA can’t get its act together; others think we should just wipe the slate clean and start all over again; and other don’t trust any organization that is run by minorities.

Overlay that with MARTA’s financial challenges. Employees haven’t had a raise in five years; fares have gone up significantly; transit services have been cut; and yet the system is still losing money and eating away at its reserves. Plus MARTA has a serious perception problem.

As Parker outlines the challenges, one begins to wonder why he ever agreed to come to Atlanta in the first place.

But at his core, Parker is an optimist.

“Let’s start today talking about making it the organization we want it to be,” Parker said.

He then goes on to say that MARTA and its board is laying out a new roadmap to prevent future service cuts or major fare increases and to make it more “fiscally sustainable.” Already MARTA is one of the safest large transit systems in the nation. But Parker is making civil behavior on the system priority — instilling a belief among employees, patrons and advocates that it will be a “new MARTA.”

After Parker’s presentation, a panel responded to his comments.

Dave Williams, vice president of transportation at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said there’s a growing recognition on the part of the business community that “we need a healthy, thriving transit system in the region.”

More and more companies interested in locating their operations in the Atlanta region are interested in the region’s transit options. Williams went on to say that Atlanta would not have been able to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, two Super Bowls, the Final Four or any number of major events without MARTA.

“The chamber is making sure our business leaders understand the value that MARTA provides,” Williams said.

During the last session, the General Assembly did support $8.1 million in funding for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress bus system that serves the suburbs. But MARTA has never received operating support from the state. It is the largest transit system in the country to receive no operating support from state government.

But Parker is not phased by that. He said the state’s investment in GRTA’s Xpress buses is a positive sign.

“It’s strong testimony that the state believes in mass transit,” Parker said. Now it’s up to MARTA to “remove all the easy opportunities” for the state to say “no” to funding for the system in the future.

“I’m extraordinarily optimistic about our opportunity in Atlanta,” Parker said. “We have a mayor in the city who is nationally recognized who is very supportive of mass transit…. Most of the folks saw this last legislative session as somewhat strange. I was heartened by it. At the end of it, I heard them say: ‘We are going to let you run this system.’”

Parker’s optimism is contagious.

 

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.

6 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    I’m glad that MARTA CEO Keith Parker has taken the opportunity to do his homework and realizes just what he has gotten himself into in accepting the challenge of running a dysfunctional and steeply-declining transit agency in such a volatile political environment.

    It is good to know that CEO Parker realizes the magnitude of the political and cultural challenges that he is facing and it is heartening to hear CEO Parker is determined to keep an optimistic additude in the face of those overwhelming challenges he is facing.Report

    Reply
  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“Already MARTA is one of the safest large transit systems in the nation.”}}

    …If that statement is indeed true, then that is a fact that is good to know.

    The challenge is to make the public at-large believe that MARTA is indeed one of the safest large transit systems in the country.

    At the moment, the public does not necessarily believe that MARTA is one of the safest large transit systems in the nation as the overwhelming public perception in Metro Atlanta is that one puts their safety and well-being at considerable risk of physical, emotional and financial harm when riding MARTA.Report

    Reply
  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“During the last session, the General Assembly did support $8.1 million in funding for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress bus system that serves the suburbs. But MARTA has never received operating support from the state. It is the largest transit system in the country to receive no operating support from state government….
    …..But Parker is not phased by that. He said the state’s investment in GRTA’s Xpress buses is a positive sign…
    …..“It’s strong testimony that the state believes in mass transit,” Parker said. Now it’s up to MARTA to “remove all the easy opportunities” for the state to say “no” to funding for the system in the future.”}}

    The state’s “investment” in the GRTA Xpress regional commuter bus system is a positive sign in that bus service can build ridership and provide the logistical basis for a regional commuter rail network somewhere down the line.

    However, CEO Parker should be very careful not to read too much into the state’s decision to provide funding for the continued operation of the GRTA Xpress regional commuter bus system.

    The state is NOT funding the continued operation of the GRTA Xpress bus system because “the state believes in mass transit”.

    The state IS funding the continued operation of the GRTA Xpress bus system because 2014 is a statewide election year in which the Republican-dominated suburban areas that the GRTA Xpress bus system serves (particularly the Republican-dominated suburban counties of Cobb, Gwinnett, Henry, Cherokee and Paulding) are critical to Governor Nathan Deal’s re-election prospects as well as to the continued success and statewide political dominance of the Georgia GOP.

    Despite the domination of overwhelmingly anti-transit political and cultural factions outside of I-285, some of the more moderate voters may not take too kindly to losing one of their only options of avoiding severe rush-hour traffic during their heavily-congested morning and evening commutes.

    CEO Parker is still terribly naive if he thinks that the decision of the state to fund GRTA Xpress buses is anything more than a way for Governor Deal and the Republican supermajority in the state legislature to secure the votes and support of a more moderate faction of voters in the unlikely event of a close gubernatorial race in the general election.

    CEO Parker should also be keenly aware that there is no way that MARTA can “remove all the easy opportunities” for the state to say “no” to funding the system at this point in time (in Governor Deal’s first term) in which the statewide and regional political climate is dominated by fervently anti-transit hard core ultraconservative political factions by way of the GOP primary.

    The only ways that the state would ever consider funding MARTA is if the North Fulton Republican state legislative delegation was ever able to gain substantial political control over MARTA’s management and operations as they attempted to do in the recently-ended 2013 legislative session, or maybe if/when (and this is a very-big IF at this point) Governor Deal is re-elected to a second-term and no-longer has to pander solely to the ultraconservative factions on his political far-right to assure passage through a GOP primary process that is trending somewhat increasingly to the hard-right.

    Otherwise, there is likely no way that MARTA receives state funding if the current organizational, managerial and political setup (in which predominantly-black, liberal and Democrat Central and South Fulton and DeKalb counties control the appointments to the MARTA board) is retained in a political climate which is dominated by conservative Republicans at the state level.Report

    Reply
  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“Most of the folks saw this last legislative session as somewhat strange. I was heartened by it. At the end of it, I heard them say: ‘We are going to let you run this system.’”}}

    I wouldn’t necessarily be “heartened by it”, though it is a good thing that this most recent legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly could be classified as being ONLY “somewhat strange” and wasn’t at its usual level of ‘completely all-out batsh*t crazy’ (a level which has far-and-away been the norm over the past several years).

    Keith Parker is in for an extremely-rude awakening if he thinks that the state legislature, particularly with regards to the North Fulton and North DeKalb delegations, is simply going to step-aside and ‘let him run this system’ without further political interference, especially in the midst of an escalating power-struggle between predominantly-black, liberal and Democrat South Fulton/DeKalb Counties and predominantly-white, conservative and Republican North Fulton/DeKalb Counties.

    Predominantly-Republican North Fulton County is growing increasingly-impatient and increasingly-restless with being charged a 1% sales tax to fund the increasingly-ineffective operations of a steeply-declining MARTA, of which North Fulton, particularly the mayors of North Fulton cities Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Sandy Springs and Roswell, feels it is vastly-underserved by.

    As a way to compensate for not being able to breakaway from a notably-dysfunctional Fulton County government and reforming the erstwhile county of Milton, which went bankrupt during the Great Depression and was absorbed into Fulton County, Republican-dominated North Fulton is looking to take immediate action by asserting increased political control of Fulton County functions through the legislative process that it has a big say in, including MARTA.

    It is not out of the realm of possibility that Keith Parker likely has the misfortune of presiding over MARTA at a time when the agency is likely to become a political casuality in said ongoing escalating power-struggle between an increasingly-feisty Republican-dominated North Fulton/DeKalb area and a proud Democrat-dominated South Fulton/DeKalb area.

    It is not certain, but it is also not necessarily completely unlikely that Keith Parker could be one of the last, if not the last, CEO of MARTA as we have known it to be over the past 40 years or so.

    In any case, “Welcome to Georgia”, Mr. Parker. I wish you the best of luck in your quest to turnaround a highly-troubled and highly-dysfunctional MARTA agency because you are definitely going to need all the luck that you can get.Report

    Reply
  5. brand says:

    I do not support Zone fares; However, I do support fare hikes for the rail portion in general.  Marta should have the current fare for buses at $2.50 and rail Fares at $3.25Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.