Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Today, the union that represents MARTA employees writes about its safety concerns and management’s alleged lack of response to them. The chief issue is bus safety; the union says too many vehicles each day are not passing muster. In our second piece, MARTA’s top official refutes the charges and outlines how the agency is addressing safety issues.
Commenting is open below.
By Curtis Howard
Lost in the discussion about privatization of MARTA is the fact that the agency, even with the “enlightened” leadership of Keith Parker, is behaving very much like private companies that seek to take over public properties: It is skimping on safety, putting unsafe buses on the road and ignoring its own safety rules, hoping that no one will notice.
The ATU has noticed that safety is not Parker’s top priority, that he is over-spending on equipment that doesn’t work, and that his motto seems to be “schedules before safety.”
Last year, there were over 10,000 “swap outs,” meaning buses taken off the road. These are MARTA numbers. Nearly 30 buses per day have problems that should have been — could have been — addressed before the buses posed a danger.
On March 13, we sent a 300-page comprehensive complaint to 30 city, state and federal agencies and our elected officials. To date, only state Sen. Vincent Fort and the Federal Transit Administration have responded. Missing in action when it comes to protecting the public? MARTOC Chairman Mike Jacobs, the state Department of Transportation and MARTA board Chairman Fred Daniels.
Parker’s only response was to call the Amalgamated Transit Union, imploring ATU to send a joint letter to the Federal Transit Administration saying that the ATU and MARTA were working together to fix the problems. Since that would have been a lie, I rejected Mr. Parker’s request as too late, a possible backdoor attempt at a safety cover-up.
In an April 29 letter, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff promised an FTA review of the issues, adding that he looked forward to partnering with the ATU, MARTA and the Georgia DOT to “resolve this matter.”
We have tried repeatedly to get MARTA to address these serious concerns. Sadly, we have been met with silence, which is particularly offensive since MARTA board members are supposed to answer to the elected officials who appoint them, and ultimately to the riding public.
In December 2012, Jack Jackson, the ATU’s Financial Secretary, wrote to MARTA board members informing them that MARTA was not adhering to safety guidelines established in 2009 by the ATU-MARTA Joint Health and Safety committee. He was ignored. On March 1, Jackson wrote to Parker asking him to deal with “the numerous safety issues at MARTA.”
The answer? Silence.
The intransigence of Daniels and Parker is now in the sunshine of public discussion, instead of the darkened rooms of MARTA, where records proving our case are stored – away from public eyes.
We welcome input from the mayor and governor and the MARTA board as to how they will repair the damage — and the buses — and how they will insist that Parker stop taking chances with the lives of our passengers and drivers.
Curtis Howard is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732 of the AFL-CIO.
By Keith Parker
As MARTA’s general manager — and a regular MARTA customer — my top priority is ensuring that our transit system is as safe as possible. That’s why I’m working with our board of directors, my management team and employees to establish a top-to-bottom “safety culture” that permeates this agency.
I want to stress that while MARTA is a safe transit system, we recognize the need to do more to improve the overall reliability, appearance and safety of our buses, trains and Mobility vehicles. The fact is, MARTA faces challenges similar to other transit systems whose aging bus fleets are subjected to heavy-duty traffic conditions and relentless wear and tear. Although MARTA must replace or “swap out” a number of buses each day that are not deemed roadworthy, a small fraction of them are pulled from service for specific safety reasons.
Still, we are replacing and renewing our bus fleet, upgrading our programs and taking every opportunity to instill a commitment to safety excellence. We are also re-investing in our employees, some of whom have gone nearly a decade without a pay raise, to boost morale and foster pride in their work.
Representatives of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 732, are aware of these efforts and have been invited to meet with management to share their ideas and expertise. As such, I was surprised to hear claims by ATU’s leadership that MARTA is ignoring legitimate safety issues just to save money.
There is no disputing that MARTA must get its fiscal house in order to improve existing transit services while positioning ourselves for future investment and expansion. We are now transforming MARTA through prudent but aggressive cost-cutting measures, efficiency innovations and new revenue-generation opportunities.
But MARTA will not knowingly allow the safety of our transit system to be compromised for any reason. Despite cuts proposed for most departments in MARTA’s 2014 budget, we plan to add staff and resources to areas that directly impact our customers, especially those involving safety and security. To see our documents: www.itsmarta.com/2013_APR23_Safety_Issues_Operator_Safety_Committee_document.pdf.
Our chief operating officer recently formed an inter-departmental task force of staff and union representatives who work side-by-side to review MARTA’s existing, pre-trip protocol for bus operators and make safety improvements as needed.
MARTA has also responded in writing to an ATU letter about safety and provided the labor union with a detailed, point-by-point explanation of how we are addressing their concerns. We eagerly await their reply. We are also in the midst of a comprehensive assessment of MARTA’s operations and welcome the opportunity to work with stakeholders with the Federal Transit Administration and others to make improvements.
None of these activities can be accomplished without the participation of every employee. Our bus operators, radio dispatchers, mechanics and service workers are, of course, paramount to our success.
I encourage ATU leaders and membership to work with us and remain focused on making our transit system as safe as it can be for the well-being of customers, employees and the general public.
Keith Parker is MARTA CEO and general manager.