Mischief, craziness and MARTA

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.

7 comments Add your comment

Meli

December 4th, 2012
2:31 pm

@SJP–the problems with MARTA existed before Beverly Scott, and it’s part of the reason the State Legislature doesn’t take them seriously and demands the level of oversight they demand. The behavior of the MARTA board since then has not fostered any trust or goodwill and it will not unless or until the entire board resigns and the state under direction of GRETA can take it over and put people in position who know how to run a transit system of this size, instead of hiring people who’ve been fired from every other transit system in North America.

@Mangler–better yet, MARTA needs to shut down on the 4th of July, that would really hit people where they live. People having to sit in traffic jams for hours to attend the Peachtree Road Race, go to Turner Field for a game, or to Lenox Square for the fireworks would definitely get the message through.

Atlas

December 4th, 2012
1:56 pm

Shuck and jive. We all know what the problem is, same as the airport, same as any ‘public’ operation in the city of Atlanta.

SAWB

December 4th, 2012
1:04 pm

It is time that the State of Georgia either assumes full control of MARTA or relinquishes any oversight. MARTA should not be restricted in how they spend their own funds, but they should also no longer be allowed to run a jobs program instead of a transit system.

SJP

December 4th, 2012
12:05 pm

MARTA is a mess because of her leadership not the citizens. This women has only made these comments to make herself look good for her new job. Every transit sysytem has the same problems. Unlike ours with overpaid workers, benefits that MARTA cant pay, Very low customer service and high crime
I cant wait until Boston has a snow storm and she goes on the record…WE .CANT OPPERATE ON LIMITED AMOUNT OF EMPLOYEES..WE WILL HAVE TO SHUT DOWN…Like she did when we had our ice storm a couple years ago.

Wishing for Milton County

December 4th, 2012
11:09 am

An yet, we get an article about MARTA employees earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime & sick leave pay. So, the very heart of the problem is still the problem. Mismanagement, political cronieism, and a lousy union contract. So it seems to every person with common sense that when your revenue base is down $1.9 – $2 billion dollars, someone would be watching expenses. But not a MARTA. This is when you drain the bank accounts, plead you need more funding and go on your merry way. Forget that the TAXPAYERS are broke. The TAXPAYERS don’t have jobs. The TAXPAYERS have their own problems.

As for the 300 laid off, yeah right. How many of those positions were not “filled”. How about cuts in pay, benefits. How about cutting the boards expense accounts. How about Turning off all the cell phones MARTA pays for (especially the one that a former board chairperson had for 10 yeras after she left the board). Or about how bus drivers run their busses till they run out of fuel because it is not their job to check the fuel level or refuel them.

MARTA is a public agancy that is a “MAKE WORK PROJECT” for the politically connected, period.

No one, repeat no one is willing to let MARTA out of its box / leash until it gets its fiscal house inorder. We DeKalb & Fulton taxpayers are stuck with MARTA. Does anyone really think COBB, Gwinnett, Douglas, etc…. want anything to do with MARTA if they can’t control it. Hell the taxpayers in Fulton can’t control it and have been taken for a ride by MARTA.

MARTA and its entire management structure, contracts, board needs to be dumped. An entrirely new transit authority needs to be put in place. Once this is done and the taxpayers once again trust those who operate it, then the region will get behind mass transit. Until then, FORGET ABOUT IT!!!!

Mr T

December 4th, 2012
10:56 am

The Georgia State Republicans have more important items on their plate like attending conferences at the Georgia Dome on Agenda 21.

MANGLER

December 4th, 2012
10:50 am

Close it. Let MARTA shut down for 1 week. Any week, but let’s say during Christmas, ya know, so all the people who screamed about service workers having to work on Thanksgiving will play along and let the transit workers have Christmas with their families. See how that works? So we go 1 week with no public transit anywhere in Atlanta. Care to try it? Won’t hear anyone complaining about it the next Monday when the trains and busses roll back out. She nailed it with the sentiment that there is no compromising or agreement on anything in the (GOP led hmmm) legislature or surrounding communities. Screw ‘em all (the decision makers), turn the system off for a minute. Sometimes that’s what it takes.