Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The MARTA board is closing in on selecting a new CEO/general manager for the transit agency, which faces huge challenges in the aftermath of the defeated transportation tax referendum. Today, the board chairman discusses MARTA’s national search for a leader and the skills that person needs in order to deal with employees, customers, business leaders and state lawmakers. In our second column, a local attorney and activist says MARTA should allow even more input to the final round of candidates.
Commenting is open below Janice L. Mathis’ column.
By Tom Sabulis
MARTA says it will announce its new general manager/CEO within 30 days, replacing the outgoing Beverly Scott. Last December, Scott informed the MARTA board that she would not seek an extension of her contract, which expires at the end of the year. MARTA board chairman Frederick L. Daniels Jr. recently talked about the hiring process and how the transit agency was positioning itself in the aftermath of the defeat of the proposed transportation tax (T-SPLOST).
Q: Have you had a lot of interest in the MARTA CEO job?
A: Yes we have. We were a bit concerned with the [T-SPLOST] being in flux when we were initially soliciting potential candidates for the job. We thought that the political environment would be such that Atlanta would not be attractive as a position, although we are the ninth-largest transit system in the country. We have bus, paratransit and heavy rail. It is a very desirable position. We interviewed seven persons. We are down to four candidates.
Q: Did people back out of the job, or not have interest, because of the political climate and tension involving MARTA and the state?
A: We thought that would be the case, but it wasn’t. Our search firm [Heidrick & Struggles] said that there were many candidates and most, I can’t say all, were still interested in the job.
Q: Does the MARTA board feel the new CEO needs to be as politically astute as transit astute?
A: Both. We wanted experience and expertise in the transit industry at, or just below, the CEO level; we wanted them to have demonstrated leadership and management skills; we wanted an inspirational leader that builds both trust internally and externally; we need an excellent communicator who can deal with complex and delicate situations diplomatically and tactfully. We’re looking for a visionary, a creative innovator who pursues new ways to enhance the agency in carrying out its mobility role within the region; and someone who can quickly learn the government, the policies of the state and region. We asked candidates to present their vision, a 100-day plan and a one-year plan for the agency. As transportation becomes more of a focus in terms of economic development and the growth of the region, the individual has to be able to build relationships inside and outside of the core MARTA operating area.
Q: Given the resounding defeat of the T-SPLOST, is there sense among MARTA leaders and state lawmakers that you need to pull together on transportation and the agency?
A: Yes. Candidly, we’ve had more dialogue in the last 90 days than we’ve had in a long time. There’s an understanding that we cannot stand still, that we need to put forth a collective vision that the public will buy into. The fighting that has taken place in the past has to be just that — the past. We need to forge productive relationships that help us truly be successful in providing transit service and the growth in transit services for primarily the MARTA service area, and in the future, the region.
Q: What will MARTA’s role be in the future as a transit agency — bigger, smaller, expanding?
A: MARTA is the core transit provider in the region. We have the most experience. We have the most knowledge. And we have the desire to make transit relevant for every citizen, not only of metro Atlanta, but in the state of Georgia. MARTA has to play a vital role because any expansion essentially has to use [MARTA] as its core in terms of moving back and forth through the region. We believe that we have responsibility that, first, the system is efficient, that it’s productive and safe. Then we have to look at expansion of the system and restoration of service. Most critically, we have to look at our ability to generate additional revenue and for the support of the region, knowing that we cannot go it alone. We need partnerships that historically have not been there with the business community, with the Legislature. We need buy-in from all our stakeholders for a system that we can all be proud of.
By Janice L. Mathis
Moving millions of metro Atlantans in millions of cars every day is simply unsustainable economically, environmentally and psychologically. We must create realistic options that give commuters an incentive to change their one-car, one-person mentality. Those options include an expanded transportation system that seamlessly coordinates autos, bicycle and pedestrian networks, heavy and light rail, streetcars, rapid bus and other modes of transportation to improve our quality of life.
That’s why it is critical for MARTA to find a visionary leader to replace general manager and CEO Beverly Scott, who is stepping down at the end of this year. The MARTA board should not be quick to fill the position by promoting from within and should share publicly the process by which a new CEO is being chosen. MARTA is the country’s 9th largest transit system. I believe it is imperative that the board find a seasoned CEO with experience running a system this size or larger who can hit the ground running on day one. The new CEO must have the vision and skills to fulfill MARTA’s potential to provide safe, reliable and affordable regional transportation like the systems in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. MARTA is more than trains and buses — it also creates jobs and stimulates economic development.
So what qualities should the next MARTA general manager and CEO have? He or she should be a consensus builder who can be a bridge our troubled history of racial division and mistrust. The person must be able to work effectively with business leaders, civic groups and elected officials regardless of political party. The next GM and CEO should be visible in the face of challenges and work with stakeholders to raise awareness of the critical role MARTA can play throughout the region. The next leader should have a proven track record working at the national level to secure federal funding for major expansion projects. It is not enough to know who is in Congress; we need someone who has a bona-fide relationship with congressional leaders and transportation officials who can pick up the telephone and make things happen.
MARTA needs someone with experience forming successful public-private partnerships and building major capital projects that promote economic development near transit stations. The next CEO should have experience providing regional leadership for an agency that oversees bicycle lanes, walking paths, street cars and light rail in addition to trains and buses. MARTA also needs a leader who is familiar with how major systems work in other countries so we can glean information from the best of the best and implement some of that here.
A select group of regional stakeholders have had input into the hiring process. I urge the board to permit even more citizen, business and government access to the final round of candidates. I urge the MARTA board to make the most of this unique opportunity to build community understanding of the critical significance of investing in transit.
Janice L. Mathis is vice president of Legal Affairs for the Rainbow Push Coalition in Atlanta.