MARTA’s new general manager and chief executive officer loves a challenge.
“If we can be successful here, we’ll be the model for the country,” said Keith Parker, who replaced Dr. Beverly A. Scott, who ran MARTA for five years. “That gets me excited—just knowing that there’s so many people out there that say there’s an insurmountable number of obstacles to make the system successful.
“The challenge that’s in front of MARTA and mass transit in general here in this region, for a transit professional like myself, it’s an ideal situation,” Parker said.
Before moving to Atlanta, Parker served as the president/CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas, for three years. Prior to San Antonio, Parker was the CEO for the Charlotte Area Transit System.
“From a pure demographics standpoint, Atlanta is one of the more interesting cities in the country, with the racial diversity that’s here, the economic diversity that’s here and a past that’s one so ripe with accomplishments that you now have an opportunity to see the city and region continue to prosper or not,” said Parker, who, through MARTA, wants to help the region “to be recognized as an international mecca.”
Parker said MARTA has many challenges to face before it becomes “an excellent transit system that people feel proud of.”
“This is the largest city that I’m aware of—the largest region—where there is still a significant number of people who don’t know if mass transit is even relevant,” Parker said. “They wonder why we can’t just build more highways.
“In other large cities around the country—the Philadelphias, the Chicagos, LAs—that discussion doesn’t even take place anymore,” Parker said. “All of these other cities recognize that mass transit has to be a major, major component of a successful transportation network and a successful region.”
Another challenge MARTA has is its “major financial obstacles,” Parker said. “The system has an annual budget deficit in the neighborhood of $30 million and the tax base and the primary funders aren’t growing as robustly as other parts of the state.”
Some transit advocates had hopes that a one-cent transportation sales tax would provide the revenue to upgrade and expand the region’s transit system. But that vote failed last year.
Parker said transportation referendums around the country have a history of failing the first time.
“It’s not shocking that it failed,” Parker said. “Phoenix had three light rail votes before a success. Dallas had failed votes. Salt Lake City had failed votes. It’s just not uncommon.”
To address state legislation that restricts how MARTA uses its funding, the agency is “already making an aggressive push to remove any and all obstacles from us being successful,” Parker said. MARTA has a legislative agenda “that’s probably the most ambitious that MARTA has undertaken in some time.”
“The goal of that is to make the agency as flexible as possible, as quick to respond to opportunity as it can be,” Parker said.
Another challenge MARTA has is a “perception issue that deters some people from wanting to use the system,” Parker said.
“There’s a perception by many that the system’s not safe,” Parker said. “The facts are that MARTA, among the larger systems in the country, is a relatively safe system. It’s safer than most.”
To combat its negative reputation, Parker said the system has to “completely convince people that riding the trains and riding the buses is going to be a pleasurable experience for them, that they will be greeted by a smiling, cordial [employee]. They’re going to have a clean experience…the mechanics will work in the right way, the published information will be accurate. From top to bottom, their entire experience should be one where their expectations are met or exceeded. We need to work on that.”
MARTA plans to improve employee training, increase public engagement and do more communication about the safety of the system, Parker said.
“And we’re going to make sure we don’t tolerate what I call ‘knucklehead behavior’ on our services,” Parker said. “We’re going to ask for compliance and those who don’t [comply], as it relates to the rules and regulations of the system will not be allowed to ride.”
When asked about the proposed I-20 heavy rail project that would connect the Indian Creek station to Stonecrest Mall, Parker said MARTA first has to get its “fiscal house in order.”
“We need to create a fiscally sustainable business model to pay for what we already have, to keep that going, and while we’re doing that, to engage in the conversation of how we expand MARTA in the most logical and meaningful way,” Parker said.
“To be relevant for the entire community, we need to be in the places where growth is occurring and we need do more in the places where we already are,” Parker said. “Frequency needs to be improved in DeKalb, Fulton and the city of Atlanta, while also creating new opportunities in the other surrounding areas.”
Parker said MARTA has a lot going for it: a “dynamic” Atlanta mayor who believes in mass transit, and many other local elected officials, including in DeKalb County, who want to see MARTA become successful.
“I’ve had a chance to meet with some of the leadership from DeKalb County and they’re universal in terms of wanting to see MARTA successful, making sure the system meets the needs of the populace,” Parker said.
“With all these leaders and all these stakeholders and these advocates who want to see the system successful, I don’t feel as though I’m in it alone,” he said.