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.