MARTA’s new deputy GM plans to speed up big transit projects
By John Ruch
Josh Rowan earned a reformer reputation over the past three years for getting Atlanta’s street and sidewalk projects back on track by sorting out messy schedules and rebuilding public faith in unfulfilled promises. Now he aims to do something similar at MARTA, where he came aboard this month as the new deputy general manager.
“In many ways, it is a deja vu experience,” he said while praising what MARTA’s team has already done lining up huge projects, from the BeltLine to Clayton County to the Clifton Corridor.
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, Rowan gave the first full explanation for his surprise resignation earlier this year as the first commissioner of Atlanta’s new Department of Transportation (DOT). And he revealed some of the surprising influences on his approach to government service and life, who include a sheriff named Big Ed, thrash metal pioneers Metallica, and his pal Diamond Dallas Page, a former WCW wrestling superstar.
“I see the world through heavy metal music and professional wrestling,” he said, agreeing with a laugh that those were useful preparation for the political side of government work.
A civil engineering graduate of Georgia Tech, Rowan spent more than 20 years with private firms, often working on public works projects, before shifting into direct government work himself in 2019. He signed on as manager of the City’s Renew Atlanta bond and transportation special local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) programs. Approved by voters to fix streets, sidewalks, parks and City buildings, the program’s slate of projects had plunged into confusion and delay. Rowan worked internally on a way to deliver the projects and externally on public trust, including through on-site visits he called “walkabouts,” where residents could show his staff problems that could be candidates for quick fixes.
In 2020, he became the commissioner of the new Atlanta DOT, a brainchild of Mayor Andre Dickens that is intended to further the work of coordinating the City’s transportation projects. In May 2022, Rowan announced his resignation — a surprise that came with no shift to another job and on the cusp of a ballot question for a new TSPLOST and infrastructure bond, which voters went on to approve. The move came five months after the inauguration of Dickens, who declined to publicly explain what happened, leading to various speculations.
Rowan now says that part of the move was simply that the job was done and he likes seeking new challenges. When he first joined the City — and when the DOT did not yet exist — a long-term goal was to see the passage of a new TSPLOST and bond, he said, or “patch up community relations to a point that people would at least consider it.”
“It’s one of those things that – maybe no time is a good time to leave, but I felt like I had done my job at the City, built a good team, and it was time to move on to the next thing,” he said. Likewise, the MARTA job may not be forever, as he would like to one day lead Georgia Tech’s civil engineering practice department, among other goals.
The timing of the DOT resignation announcement before the ballot question vote was intentional as a form of transparency with the public, so they knew one of the program’s public faces would be gone beforehand. “I thought it would look weird after the fact,” he said.
But Rowan also acknowledged the factor of stress from creating the new DOT right as the COVID-19 pandemic began. “We weren’t working from home. We were living at work,” is the way he and his staff started feeling about the situation. “I don’t mind sharing there was a health component to me needing to take some time off,” he said.
It truly was time off when his resignation took effect July 1, he said. MARTA had yet to come calling with the offer to run its Capital Improvement Program, which includes the public transit agency’s massive slate of expansion plans as well as maintenance and upgrades of its entire existing system.
For the self-described “process nerd,” the MARTA challenge was irresistible, not least because its current position is similar to where Atlanta’s infrastructure programs were three years ago. The transit agency’s ambitious slate of programs is moving sluggishly amid public outrage over a voter-approved sales tax dubbed “More MARTA” that thus far has produced about the same amount of MARTA. And now, like all public transit, MARTA has been thrown for a loop by the pandemic, with its short-term shutdowns and long-term effects on commuting patterns.
Delivering More MARTA, and more
Rowan said in many ways the work is “deja vu all over again” from the Atlanta job and involves some similar approaches. He said he will use the same four management ideals as he did at DOT: “safety first,” a service-oriented mission, stewardship of limited resources, “and speed – we need to move faster.” And MARTA already has the asset of a strong staff, he added.
There’s also the transparency and accountability of creating a public schedule of projects – with specific dates, not just years or months. Rowan said he envisions MARTA, similar to the Georgia Department of Transportation, divvying up its major projects into batches – “maybe groups of two or three and send them out in waves,” he said. A priority within that would be “balancing regional perspectives,” he said, specifically mentioning the transit needs in Clayton and southeast DeKalb counties.
“Unfortunately, somebody has to be first and somebody has to be second,” he said of project scheduling.
Rowan said he’s also considering a version of the “walkabouts,” but public engagement for a transit agency may be different from the DOT. While everyone knows details about their local streets, he said, transit operations often involve unfamiliar technical information that requires public education.
BeltLine rail is one of the biggest topics where he aims to “reignite that community discussion.” The lagging plan to build light-rail transit on the multiuse trail loop around central Atlanta has triggered public outcry and concerns that MARTA might shift to some other form of transit, such as buses, or none at all. Rowan stopped short of an explicit commitment to BeltLine rail, instead saying the concept needs more study and discussion about financial and technical challenges in routes with “a lot of literal pinch points.”
“We have to be fairly agnostic… on locally preferred alternatives,” he said, adding that analysis includes “financial realities. We’re going to be finding things that really will burden most of these projects.”
The BeltLine now has existing sections of trail, he noted, “and I know the original vision was for rail transit and that is still in the discussion, but it’s really [about] what does that mean… [and] how do we communicate what some of those impacts would be?” Asked if that means preparing the public for some land-takings for rail right of way, Rowan said: “Yes. It’s all about width.” Other impacts would be noise, vibrations and electric power infrastructure, he added.
Asked about the possibility of some other form of transit on the BeltLine, Rowan did not answer directly, instead noting the variables in how rail could be configured and how that is an internal MARTA discussion, too. “I was in a presentation last week — my first week on the job — and we like, we can just build a new bridge over the interstate,” he said of those discussions, noting even that sort of concept has many logistical and financial complications.
Then there’s the existing service. As someone new to MARTA, Rowan said, the immediate concern he’s seen is a lack of bus drivers — even as the transit agency just celebrated a big federal grant for all-electric vehicles. “I think the city bus is going to be the most advanced technological wonder in the future… but right now we’re having a difficult time filling the roster on the operation side,” he said. “…I’m trying to think, how do you make driving a bus cool?”
Big Ed, heavy metal and wrestling
In all of these decisions, Rowan said, he’s led by a public service philosophy that comes from several inspirational figures.
One was his great-grandfather, “Big Ed” Darnell, the sheriff of Midland County, Texas for 36 years. “He talked to me all the time about serving people,” said Rowan, a native of neighboring New Mexico. “He would fix things on people’s houses. He would go to the grocery store with them.” That influence led Rowan to a 10-year stint as a Cobb County Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy and volunteering on the board of Crime Stoppers Greater Atlanta, where he helped set the amounts of rewards for crime tips.
Then there was his upbringing and undergrad schooling as a Presbyterian Christian. “It’s a key part of the value system that I believe in,” he said. “You start talking about the intrinsic value of every human being. That does drive the service side, too.” He recalled a saying of his mother’s: “Don’t ever become part of the problem and remember who you serve.”
His mother was not fond of another childhood influence. “Being a product of the ’80s, it was all hard rock [and] heavy metal for us,” he said. “My mother always called it devil music [and said,] ‘You really shouldn’t listen to that.’” But he still does today, with such old favorites as Van Halen, Metallica, Megadeth and Foo Fighters.
Atlanta’s headbanger subculture has sometimes helped in the meeting of the minds. Rowan recalls his first City Hall visit from James Curtis, a Buckhead advocate for the safety of wheelchair users and pedestrians, who frequently shows up clad in metal band gear. “I said, ‘Anybody who wears Iron Maiden shoes is a friend of mine,’” recalled Rowan. He and Curtis talked about making a video highlighting the poor conditions of some sidewalks, including violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act: “We joked it should be set to Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law.”
Another childhood love — pro wrestling — turned into friendship a decade ago when a chiropractor Rowan was seeing for his golf game coincidentally worked for the WWE league and mentioned a yoga program launched by Page. Rowan — who stands 6-feet-7-inches tall — said the yoga improved his balance and reached out to Page with the suggestion of featuring more tall folks. Next thing he knew, “I was in his infomercial.” Through Page, he got to know such other legendary wrestlers as Jake “The Snake” Roberts. “It was a lot of fun. They were really nice folks,” he said.
While pro wrestling has some obvious similarities with the theatrical beefs of politics, Rowan said he’s also drawn inspiration from his own martial arts practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which he took up at age 40 and is now a year into brown belt status. “The few contentious [City] Council meetings I had,” Rowan said, “if you could read my mind, I was thinking, at least you’re not sitting on my head. At least you’re not choking me.”
Rowan counts Doug Hooker, the recently retired executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, as a mentor. Hooker, he said, emphasized value-based decision-making, “and with him it was always community, community, community. So I’m a product of Doug Hooker university.”
Today Hooker sits on the board of commissioners of the Atlanta Housing Authority. “I was bending his ear on my affordable housing ideas,” said Rowan, who would like to see more MARTA partnerships on station area developments with that element. He said the agency needs to think about people whose only transportation option is public transit and the “nexus of transportation and affordable housing in the city.” He points to the potential of Downtown’s Garnett MARTA Station, which is “convenient for everything” and “surrounded by asphalt” that could be high-density housing.
Of course, in a system that already incorporates soccer fields into several stations, there’s also room for some fun.
“We should have pop-up heavy metal concerts,” Rowan mused. “Or station wrestling.”