MARTA change absolutely necessary

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Today, MARTA’s new leader Keith Parker writes about his first months on the job, what he’s been doing, and where the transit agency is heading. That includes the new five-year “road map” outlining privatization opportunities that could reduce its annual deficits. He has also indicated in public presentations that he’s intent on boosting morale of employees and customer service. The latter problem is something I address in a column below, the message being, it’s worth sweating the small stuff, too.

Commenting is open below my column on MARTA’s customer service.

All options are on the table

By Keith T. Parker

In almost two months on the job as MARTA’s general manager and CEO, I have been highlighting the serious challenges and exciting opportunities our transit agency is facing over the next several years.

Even more valuable to me, however, is the time I’m spending listening to our customers, employees, elected officials, business leaders, the media and the metro Atlanta community about transforming MARTA for the future.

And, make no mistake: MARTA must be transformed.

It’s no secret that the agency is confronting an annual “structural deficit” of roughly $25 million that requires us to fundamentally change the way we do business.

Since the early 1990s, MARTA’s day-to-day operations have been funded primarily by customer fares and sales tax revenues collected in DeKalb and Fulton counties and the city of Atlanta, sources that are often volatile and unpredictable. With the onset of the recession of 2008, MARTA’s revenues have been dramatically reduced, requiring the agency to cut expenses by almost $100 million, eliminate 700 positions, institute fare increases and service cuts, etc. Unfortunately, these measures are still not enough.

MARTA’s current business model – requiring spending from its depleting reserve account to balance annual budgets – is unsustainable. It must be replaced with one that recognizes our new reality.

For that reason, two years ago, the MARTA Board of Directors charged the firm KPMG with conducting a comprehensive review of the system’s operations and finances. KPMG’s initial review broadly outlined strategic transformation opportunities where MARTA could reduce costs, increase efficiencies and generate new revenues. The latest phase of KPMG’s work, a draft “road map” MARTA received last month, details an aggressive plan for the agency to achieve those objectives within the next five years.

KPMG’s road map summarizes opportunities into 12 key areas — including potentially outsourcing functions such as human resources, payroll, accounts payable, cleaning services, customer call centers, information technology and our paratransit service.

KPMG also recommends automating our procurement processes, identifying new streams of paid advertising and adopting policies to address workers compensation claims and unacceptable levels of employee absenteeism.

The MARTA board and staff are evaluating every recommendation in the KPMG report. We will determine which recommendations promise to deliver the most significant benefits at the lowest cost, and then begin implementing them. We will make every effort to ensure insurehigh-quality service for our customers, fair treatment for our employees and respect for taxpayers who fund our system.

I know that change can be very difficult to accept. But for MARTA, change is absolutely necessary, and every viable option to make us more efficient and effective is on the table.

As we move forward, I will continue meeting with any individual or group who supports MARTA’s mission of providing high-quality transit service that promotes economic development and enhances the quality of life for all of us.

I’m also eager to hear from those who harbor unfavorable perceptions about MARTA. Those conversations will give us an opportunity to talk about how public transportation — just like good schools, roads, libraries or fire departments — add value to our community, even if you never need to use them.

I also see many opportunities. We will be completing installation of cameras on buses in the next few months and begin installation on our trains. We will be investing in low-cost, high-impact technological advancements that will improve our efficiency while enhancing the overall customer experience. We are strategically investigating how transit-oriented developments and public-private partnerships can bring new revenues while creating jobs and reinvigorating communities.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, and the KPMG road map has given MARTA a good running start. At every step of the way, my commitment is to continue listening to all stakeholders — and learning from them — so we can do whatever is necessary to make our transit system the very best it can be.

To read the KPMG road map:

Keith T. Parker is MARTA’s CEO and General Manager.

Customer service could use some work

By Tom Sabulis

New MARTA CEO and General Manager Keith Parker says he wants to build morale within the ranks and improve customer service on the rails and roads. That’s a worthy goal for the transit agency.

For starters, reducing wait times is a huge key to retaining choice riders — folks like me, who have the option of commuting by car but would prefer to make an urban transit system work within the framework of their lives. Business people simply don’t want to hang around a ghost-town station waiting 15 minutes in the middle of the day for a train, and nearly 30 minutes for a bus. The dead time spent on isolated platforms or benches is when hassles are most likely to occur.

Panhandlers who ask commuters for money are a corresponding concern, particularly of women I’ve interviewed at various stations regarding public safety. Personally, I don’t find the in-car, on-bus cadging all that prevalent, and when it does show up, it’s usually more sad and unfortunate than threatening. To its credit, MARTA has started a marketing campaign targeted to various nuisances (begging, loud cellphone talkers).

But Mr. Parker seems to understand that MARTA may have as much impact coaching up its own employees. That can go a long way.

In the last two-plus years that I’ve been riding a MARTA bus, I find it to be efficient, generally on schedule and a lot more personal than the train experience, at least on the No. 12 route, which travels from Cumberland Mall to Midtown station. Regulars become familiar with fellow route riders. The bus operators, while busy, are usually courteous and accommodating.

But those same drivers are obviously able to freelance more than their train counterparts, for good and bad. One recent example: A few weeks ago, around 8:45 a.m., I was at my stop early and noticed the bus parked 50 yards down the road, with flashers engaged. No big deal. The operator was early, and he was killing a minute or two before arriving at my stop — a major intersection — on time. That’s routine.

What wasn’t routine was when he stopped a half-mile farther south on Howell Mill Road, where he parked and turned the bus off on a busy commercial stretch, partially blocking a lane, and left the vehicle without saying a word. Minutes went by. Soon enough, I was impatient to get going. About five minutes lapsed before the driver reappeared from a gas station-convenience store with a large drink and what looked like a bag of food. Without a word — again, no communication — he started the bus and moved on. I was pretty annoyed. After all, when you get to the train station late and miss your connection, you end up having to deal with long wait times.

According to a 2010 internal MARTA memo, the agency had received complaints about buses stopping and blocking traffic and operators ducking into stores to buy “lottery tickets” and other things. A policy stressed in that memo states that drivers are prohibited from making unauthorized stops any time between 6 and 9 a.m. and 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. “In all cases the bus must not prohibit the flow of traffic.” I’m not sure why “unauthorized stops” are not prohibited at all times, rather than just rush hour. Is this a business — part of “a $6 billion public asset,” as former CEO Beverly Scott used to say — or a jitney service?

When I relayed this story to MARTA, chief spokesman Lyle V. Harris asked me for follow-up information. But questioning or chastising this particular operator isn’t the point; it’s more what it says about MARTA’s culture (and the union’s) and what feels like casual disregard for paying passengers. Harris said MARTA is reviewing its policy and investigating this incident.

Maybe there’s more to the story: I could understand a bathroom break, an emergency pit stop. But if that’s the case, how about telling your customers what’s going on? Or even, you know, “I’m going to run inside for a Coke and a hot dog. Can I get anybody anything?”

22 comments Add your comment


February 6th, 2013
9:01 am

Sounds like Parker is on the job. Which is great.

I would emphasize two points.

MARTA should be partnering with Google to investigate driverless trains (first) and driverless buses (second). Would also help fix Tom’s problem. The technology exists and is already being tested. MARTA should be a part of this innovation and efficiency improvement.

My second point is: MARTA ultimately has to expand transit on dedicated right of ways, either by trains or busways. Yes, frequency is an issue. But trip times are the major issue. No matter what there will have to be wait times. But transit can’t compete in travel time unless it can bypass the congestion caused by cars. That means: more rail and dedicated busways everywhere possible.

Where does the money from this come? In addition to the previously outlined savings, eliminating underutilized bus routes is a must and give regular low income riders relocation cost vouchers (which is cheaper than running a “bus to nowhere”). Savings will have to be plowed back into a real capital fund (when times are good) and the system can still break even during tough times. Those funds can then be used to invest in capital expansion for rail.

Hopefully MARTA will finally right itself under Parker.


February 6th, 2013
7:53 am

@ Nikko

1) Install train arrival time monitors, like you have on the platforms, at the ENTRANCE of every MARTA station.
– Great suggestion. What about an app with the arrival time monitor information?

2) Retool the current red LED scrolling marquee signs that are a complete waste of money and space. What good are 10 signs that continuously read WELCOME TO MARTA? Why not key in messages such as delays, date, time, emergency delays, weather, traffic snarls etc etc. This is so simple.
Amen and amen

3) Get more revenue through better ads and better mediums to deliver those ads. What good is the monitor in the train that doesn’t work?
Good point and make the ads current. Macy’s christmas ads are still up in many cars.

4) Allow private entities to lease concession stands at the platforms selling candy, gum, newspapers, magazines, etc.
To all who suggest concession vendors/snack vendors etc. – My concern is that if you think the stations are “gross” now, what about when people are throwing paper down on the ground rather than using the trash cans and yes, they will, not everyone but it will happen, spilling drinks, spitting gum out on the “ground.” Also, it is against the law to eat and drink on MARTA, maybe not enforced now but it is the law.

5) Institute a variable pricing schedule based on distance traveled. It shouldn’t cost the same to go from Airport to North Springs as it does to go from Midtown to Buckhead.

6) Privatizing janitorial, IT, A/P, payroll etc. is a really great start. Act like a private entity. Most private entities do not do these things in-house. There are plenty of private entities that make their living providing these services to institutions so those institutions can instead focus more time, energy and money on their core competencies.

7) Clean the stations, they are gross. Arts Center is an abomination. (See comment 4)