By Maria Saporta
When Keith Parker, MARTA ‘s general manager, came on board in December, the prospects for the transit system were dire.
The MARTA board had adopted a five-year budget plan that called for no salary increases for employees — continuing a practice that has been in place for five years. It called for a 25-cent fare increase in fiscal year 2014 (which begins in July) increasing MARTA’s base fare to $2.75 — among the highest transit fare in the country. It projected reserves declining from $109.7 million in fiscal year 2013 to $1.5 million at the end of fiscal year 2018. And it still expected that it would face an unsustainable healthcare business model.
On Thursday morning, however, Parker and his staff presented an alternate five-year plan to the MARTA board’s Business Management Committee — one that has a much brighter outcome for the transit system.
The plan that Parker and Davis Allen, the transit system’s chief financial officer who soon will be taking on new duties as the project management director exploring privatization opportunities, presented included:
– implementing an employee incentive payment plan
– re-opening restrooms
– having healthcare reform
– not increasing fares in fiscal year 2014
– enhancing security throughout the system
– having merit increases for employees
– restoring service to the system
– balancing the budget without depleting reserves
“We want to be the regional transit provider of choice,” Parker said. “The whole goal is to change the perception of MARTA.”
As of now, the five-year plan does anticipate having a 15-cent fare increase in fiscal year 2015, a 10-cent increase in fiscal year 2016 and a possible 10-cent increase in fiscal year 2018.
But Parker said that the plan that was presented on Thursday did not include possible new revenues from advertising, concessions and transit oriented developments. It also took a conservative approach in projecting its current revenues sources, such as the one-cent sales tax collected in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
At the very least, Parker said a fare increase would be tied to an increase in service. During the presentation, several board members said they were hoping that they would not have to increase the fares.
“We would like to avoid (a fare increase) completely especially one in fiscal year 2015,” Parker said in an interview after the board presentation. “They would like to see us find other ways to balance the budget without a fare increase.”
The five-year plan that was presented showed that MARTA should be able to operate within its means under its current structure and restrictions, such as a state mandate to spend 50 percent of its sales tax on operations and 50 percent on capital expenses.
“We have created a budget with the fiscal and legislative realities that we have today, Parker said.
But Parker added that it would really help if the state would permanently lift the 50/50 restriction so it could have greater budget flexibility and help it avoid having to raise fares.
“While this is a ‘good news’ budget, it does not take us to where MARTA needs to go,” Parker said. “We need a bigger footprint, and we need to go all over the region. To do that, we do need additional revenues. But we are proving with this effort that with existing revenues, we can make (our current system) work.”
The revised five-year budget, however, should give MARTA employees a greater sense of stability and pride. Because there are no big service cuts on the horizon, Parker said it will make MARTA more attractive to prospective and existing riders as well as new investors.
MARTA board member Jim Durrett applauded Parker and his team for the new five-year budget plan.
“I have always been proud of serving on this board,” said Durrett, who is also executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District. “But I’ve never been prouder of serving on this board than I am today knowing the hard work you have done preparing this road map.”