MARTA GM driving force in system’s turnaround

Troubled transit agency getting new life under Parker

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Since MARTA General Manager Keith Parker took the reins of the ninth largest transit system 10 months ago, he has been able to engineer a remarkable turnaround in MARTA’s debt, its employee morale and its mission.

Makes you wonder what the next 10 months will be like.

Parker brought his message of the “new MARTA” to the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce’s Oct. 22 Eggs and Enterprise Breakfast at Country Club of the South.

Parker made everyone sit up when the first thing he announced was his intention “to transform MARTA into the premier transit system in the United States.” Was he talking about the MARTA that was the red-headed step-child of the aborted regional transportation special purpose local option sales tax? The MARTA that is persona non grata in two of the most populous counties (Gwinnett and Cobb) in the metro region?

He was. When Parker took the reins at MARTA, it was in a tailspin:

• The transit authority had cut 30 percent of its bus routes.

• It had increased the time intervals between stops.

• It was constantly on the receiving end of “bad press.”

• Employee morale was in the dumps with no raises in six years.

• It hadn’t balanced its budget in 13 of the last 15 years.

• It projected a $33 million loss for the coming year.

• It was projected to be fiscally insolvent in three years.

That was when the turnaround began, he said. It began with his management style.

“Assume the people you’ve hired can do their job,” he said.

People tend to rise to the expectations of others. Seven months later, the projected deficit was transformed into a $9 million profit. That was done by trimming the deadweight – 40 percent of the senior leadership was eliminated for a start.

“We looked at information technology and other ways to increase our efficiency, and brought in KMG to do an operational audit,” he said.

MARTA is aggressively looking for new funding in advertising opportunities, leasing nearby MARTA property as well as the food courts.

Today, MARTA carries twice the passengers of the Dallas and Houston transit systems combined for half the cost.

MARTA’s $100 million reserves were dwindling. That leakage has been stopped and is now being restored. And he was able to get employees much needed raises.

There are lots of shops and restaurants at the airport, why not at MARTA stations? Parker is brokering deals that will do just that. It is all part of his plan to put riders first again. This means reopening a lot of closed restrooms and keeping them clean.

“We are re-investing in our riders. We are bringing our customers stability in our product – a clean, safe, efficient ride,” he said.

Declining ridership – one of MARTA’s most alarming problems – is the top goal. Since 2009, MARTA ridership is down 29 million customers.

“People with options stopped using MARTA. People with none rode at a reduced rate,” Parker said.

As GM of the San Antonio, Texas, transit system, he raised ridership an incredible 41 percent from 2006-08.

A big component of winning back riders will be increased safety, Parker said. MARTA is increasing video surveillance, which increases passengers’ feelings of safety.

His “No Knuckleheads” policies are part of the Ride with Respect program.

“MARTA is statistically one of the safest transit systems in the country, but we do have incivility. Horseplay, loud music and panhandling are not going to be tolerated,” he said.

Policies will correct bad behavior or force riders to be banished from the transit system.

A new MARTA app will give real-time alerts as to just how soon the next bus or train will be at the stop you are. And its cost to MARTA is not the $1 million that was first estimated, but less than $100,000.

The much anticipated march of MARTA up Ga.400 suffers from a lack of funding. But that just means Parker is searching for private partners to pool resources to get MARTA to the suburbs.