A Brighter Future Ahead for MARTA?

Atlanta’s transit agency has had its ups and downs over the years. Originally envisioned to serve the five core Atlanta metro counties, only Fulton and DeKalb voters agreed to pay the penny sales tax that funds its operation. A heavy rail system built in the 1970s and 1980s feels underutilized, especially compared to the continued expansion of Washington D.C.’s Metro system, which was started at about the same time.

Voters refused to support a penny sales tax in a 2012 referendum that would have provided funding for an expansion of MARTA services, including rail to the Emory University / CDC area in DeKalb County. And how many times have you heard the mantra that MARTA is the only major transit system in the country that receives no state funding?

Yet, the tide may be changing. Part of the reason for that, according to a story in Governing Magazine, is the leadership of General Manager Keith Parker.

After taking the helm of the transit agency in December 2012, Parker worked to improve MARTA’s image and implemented cost reductions identified in an audit commissioned by his predecessor, Beverly Scott. Perhaps most importantly, Parker realized that MARTA would need to do some work to improve on its own before going to the Georgia General Assembly and asking for help.

All of these efforts have led some state officials to see the transit agency in a different light. In the early months, despite MARTA’s mounting deficits, Parker asked for very little from state officials. He did not seek a financial bailout. He only asked that state officials not pass any onerous new laws that could tie the agency’s hands as it tried to prove its merit.

This was all a refreshing change for Jacobs, the Republican chairman of the state oversight panel. Historically, MARTA’s relationship with the state legislature had been a rocky one. Jacobs recalls MARTA and its union, under Parker’s predecessor, painting a third of its buses and trains with red X’s to signify the cuts MARTA would have to make if the state refused to help. The public shaming, Jacobs says, was “exactly the wrong approach to take with the legislature.” Parker has avoided those kinds of tactics. “Those two approaches are very different,” Jacobs says. “One was a bomb-throwing approach that was accompanied by no substantive changes in MARTA’s operations. The other is a very personal type that is accompanied by substantive changes. What’s not to like?”

From the beginning, though, transit advocates wanted Parker to put pressure on state legislators to support the agency, but the transit chief thought that was poor strategy. “It’s like we’d be begging,” he says. He urged them to wait until the agency got its own house in order first. “Then, when we go and talk to [legislators], it’s not asking for money, it’s asking for investment, because we are a strong group, worthy of investment. It’s a whole different conversation than going in with a position of total weakness.”

Things seem to be improving for MARTA. In November, Clayton County voters will decide if they want to join the transit system. Passage of the referendum, which looks increasingly likely, will bring bus service to the county for the first time since 2010, when Clayton Transit went defunct due to lack of funding. The agency recently sought companies that could build a transit oriented development project at the Brookhaven station, and MARTA has plans to revamp its Five Points and Garnett stations.

And, a plan to extend the North Line up to the employment centers around Windward in Alpharetta is finally moving forward.

The slowly improving economy and a growing population in the metro area are possible reasons that some of these long stalled projects are finally starting to move forward. But another reason has to be a leader who decided to do the best he could with what he had, rather than complain he didn’t have the resources to make any improvements without outside help.

20 comments

    • benevolus says:

      “A good many people” being a technical term with specific numbers attached to it making it justifiable evidence.

  1. MattMD says:

    This is a great post, Keith Parker is awesome and has done an outstanding job with MARTA. Scott and her predecessor (Ford?) were just collecting checks, there seemed to be a real lack of vision. Even the Breeze system was implemented poorly.

    I live in Cobb and would gladly vote to pay the extra 1% for expansion.

  2. blakeage80 says:

    As long as his success doesn’t revive talk of ‘the brain train’, I’m cool. Good job, though, on trying to make MARTA better on what it has. However, it will always be hard to convince someone from Coffee or Jeff Davis why their tax money has go to that ‘subway up there’.

    • Charlie says:

      The problem isn’t the problem with Coffee and Jeff Davis Counties, but in Fayette, Cherokee, etc.

      The metro area is roughly 5.5 Million of a state of 10 Million. Until the 4.5 Million in the burbs feel like Marta is part of the solution instead of part of the problem, the political will for state involvement will remain elusive.

      Parker is laying the groundwork (much like Grady did with getting its house in order). Once “trust” is established, then it’s a lot easier to build the case for a larger investment footprint in transit.

      • blakeage80 says:

        Sure, once MARTA has the buy in of several more metro counties, state funding is inevitable. Are you suggesting that MARTA could be a test case for a more state/region wide solution?

        • Charlie says:

          Not exactly. I’m saying that you’re never going to convince rural S. GA about the statewide importance of transit, but you don’t have to politically. The problem with MARTA is that the folks that need to “buy in” for it to be a state issue aren’t in S. GA. They’re in the burbs.

          For the folks in the ‘burbs to buy in, they first need to believe it 1) It’s a jobs program for inner city politicos 2) Isn’t a never ending swamp where tax dollars go to die and 3) is actually part of a transportation solution.

          None of that is likely to come quickly. But Parker is taking a nice chip away at #2 and #1.

          The third will come in phases. Rail to Alpharetta, and Bus Rapid Transit in Cobb are likely the next major projects. As folks in the inner burbs are able to integrate transit into their transportation options, the opposition from the exurbs should at least soften a bit.

    • Progressive Dem says:

      Why do my tax dollars in metro Atlanta pay for schools in Coffee and Jeff Davis? And throughout the University system? Because it is good for the state. It’s good for the state to have a world class metropolitan area with an adequate transportation system too.

      • MattMD says:

        You could also ask rural Georgia about federal dollars from the the farm bills.

        But no, that country-song myth about being self supportive is so alluring.

        • Rambler14 says:

          You could also ask them about GRIP corridors.
          Widening 2-lane roads to 4 lanes without the current volume to justify it, all in the name of “economic development”

  3. NoTeabagging says:

    If I recall correctly, the penny sales tax referendum was defeated primarily on mistrust with the state to properly allocate the collected funds for the proposed transportation projects.

    Young people are more inclined to use MARTA than diehard burb drivers. If it just got you where you wanted to go in a pleasant and timely fashion. That is MARTA’s current obstacle.

    And for those thinking the Beltline is still a pipe dream on the drawing board, just get out evenings, weekends, practically anytime and you will see lots of folks using it to walk, bike ride, and jog. The Fall is especially good time to experience the Beltline with a variety of temporary public art and performances. I think most of the people out on the beltline would welcome the transit component becoming a reality.

    • Jon Richards says:

      I would say the bigger issue with the TSPLOST was with the chosen projects themselves, rather than whether the funds would be allocated properly. In fact, there was a system in place that would have acted as an escrow account for the tax receipts as they were collected.

      Many of the voters living outside the Perimeter didn’t like the idea of ‘their’ sales tax money going to pay for mass transit (including the Beltline light rail) in Atlanta. Voters in South DeKalb didn’t like it that they would have additional express bus service rather than rail in their area. Voters in Cherokee and Fayette counties didn’t see any benefit in paying for projects, the lion’s share of which would be located in other counties. And of course, many just didn’t want to pay any additional taxes.

      • NoTeabagging says:

        You are correct, all those added to the failure. Although the document I saw did not have the Beltline rail as a priority, more likely on a 20-30 year timeline, it did add to the “not with my money” frenzy. Oh, and that heavy handed PR campaign was a bit too slick and not very credible to sell it.

          • NoTeabagging says:

            AH! were those “fast tracked” for quick development? I can’t remember.
            But another nail in the coffin was the (as usual) deceptive wording of the referendum on the ballot.

      • Will Durant says:

        Said it before, but it does bear repeating that you will never get people to vote a tax upon themselves where theotherguy is getting a piece of the action. This is why we have a representational form of government and if the legislature thinks we need an additional tax they need to have the courage to pass it their damn selves. Witness the comments above that Coffee and Jeff Davis counties still think their taxes have helped build MARTA. Granted that federal money was a good portion of the train system but compared to Boston’s Big Dig and other projects around the country only a scintilla of their taxes have gone to MARTA.

        As Charlie states there is some re-education needed to the Metro Counties but this also includes those ITP folks who need to remember that it isn’t up to the outer counties to pay for the city’s neglect of their own infrastructure for a century or so. I still can’t believe that 4 billion dollars or more went into a sewer system that still combines storm water and shinola.

        • NoTeabagging says:

          Yeah, the vicious “no taxes = no income = no government” cycle is wearing thin on the campaign trail. So stop campaigning on the no tax platform and get some real revenue to run the state.

      • Michael Silver says:

        There was a tremendous amount of unnecessary projects in the list. Airport lights in Cobb. Designer sidewalks in Atlanta. Bike paths to nowhere. The Chamber of Commerce, Lt. Gov Cagle, and other big government Republicans decided how much money they wanted to take from our wallets and then built the program to spend that $ amount until every last penny was spent.

        If they had focused on the top 10 traffic choke points that affect the region as a whole, they could have gotten by with a 0.1% sales tax which would have been easily passed. But for big government types, they aren’t in office to solve problems, they are in office to accumulate power and control.

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