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.