Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Following up on her Sunday AJC opinion column, MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott gives some departing thoughts about the agency as she leaves to run Boston’s transit system. She laments the lack of leadership in the General Assembly, while insisting progress has been made in the dialogue with state legislators. She welcomes ideas for private partnership, but says public oversight is crucial.
By Tom Sabulis
After five years, MARTA CEO/General Manager Beverly Scott is leaving Georgia’s major transit agency. She touched on several topics last week at MARTA headquarters in Atlanta:
What she wishes she knew about the job when she started:I would say the extent of the heavy lift. I thought that the region and state were more ready, that they had made the turn in terms of appreciating the value of transit. Everybody was so busy telling me how the challenge was going to be bringing the bacon home at the state level, and making it sound like the issue was really “them foreigners” out there someplace else in the state. I came here believing that most of the issue with MARTA was going to be fighting the case for MARTA to Chickamauga or Macon or whatever. But we’re still fighting it right here in our backyard. We are fighting it here in spades. We can’t take three steps forward for taking two steps back at the Legislature, largely because of the mischief and the craziness. We have done such a horrible job of stigmatizing and demagogue-ing the institution. I honestly believe that for expedience, and it breaks my heart to say this, the regional transit system needs to be rebranded.
What about that “mischief and craziness”: It’s so crazy that there’s this continuation of the nonsensical legacy restrictions on MARTA (including the state requirement that 50 percent of sales tax funds for MARTA be used for operations and the other half for capital projects and maintenance). There’s no best practice for that. There’s no justification. MARTA has more financial restrictions on it than any other transit agency its size in the country. All I ask for is a level playing field.
When she knew things were not going to be what she expected:After the first legislative session. My first sine die (the last day of the session). It was midnight, and I was saying to myself, “But we didn’t do anything!” There was nothing accomplished, at least on the transportation front. At that point, I said to myself, Bev, you are going to have to rethink this, because it’s very clear that there are major, major complexities going on here.
The hard decisions stemming from MARTA deficits:We’ve reduced the head count. We had over 300 layoffs. We’ve done 10-day furloughs from the top down. We restructured the service on the bus side from 131 to 91 routes. We’ve improved capital program delivery. We’ve cut rail service. We increased fares. Farebox recovery has increased.
The projected $33 million operating deficit: There was one time I was looking and it was (projected to be) $120 million. We lost $2 billion in terms of what MARTA’s projected sales tax (revenue) was going to wind up yielding over a 10-year period of time. Over 50 percent of what we got rolling over here is dependent on sales tax. I tell my people, nobody over here did anything wrong. Sales tax revenue is like $2 billion to $1.9 billion down. And that was for an agency that was already on an unsustainable funding path for the long term. We’re not even talking about the fact that it’s a maturing, aging system.
The progress over the last five years: I will certainly tell you that there has been progress. The rap on this region was that it was stuck, and I wanted to end my career on getting an expanded regional system, so that is a personal disappointment. But the evolution of the dialogue has progressed through the TIA (the Transportation Investment Act, rejected by voters in July). MARTA was not eligible for current operations (funds), but for expansion TIA projects, we would have been. So we have a new norm. We got a new baseline. From a policy perspective, that is tremendous progress.
The push for privatization: I am never talking about privatization with no control of public investment in infrastructure and service. I think that’s a misnomer to begin with. What we need to be talking about is, are we prepared to do smart public-private partnerships? Absolutely. With very good oversight and very good controls. With these kinds of contracts, you don’t abrogate your responsibility. It’s in the how you set them up, what you do in terms of quality control and the oversight.