Moderated by Tom Sabulis
A year after taking the top job at MARTA, Keith T. Parker can point to a number of accomplishments aimed at getting the transit agency back on track regarding its finances and ridership. He writes about those today. In our second column, House Rep. Mike Jacobs, chairman of MARTA’s legislative oversight committee, says Parker’s progress may signal a new era in state relations with the agency.
Commenting is open.
By Keith T. Parker
After a comfortable early morning train ride, I started my first day at MARTA one year ago talking with employees about the need to transform the agency. The challenges facing MARTA were (and remain) huge.
Due to declining revenues over the previous four years, the agency had eliminated 40 of its 131 bus routes, cut rail service, shut down more than half the rail-station restrooms and raised fares by over 40 percent, while most employees had only received one pay increase in the previous decade. In my first meeting with the chief financial officer, he noted that things were not expected to improve much in fiscal years FY 2013 and 2014. The budget forecasted a $33 million deficit, no pay increases, no service improvements, and more fare increases. In fact, MARTA was projected to use all of its budget reserves over the next four to five years, leaving the agency fiscally insolvent.
Fast forward a year from that meeting, and things look better. We turned the $33 million deficit into a $9 million addition to our reserves. We eliminated the fare increases scheduled for 2013 and 2014. We budgeted funds to invest in our employees. We will re-open several station restrooms over the next few weeks. We will increase evening rail service by the end of this year, and bring even more bus and rail improvements next spring/summer. If we continue on our path of cutting costs, our long-term fiscal situation looks much more promising.
I’m fortunate to have a strong and unified board of directors, led by Chairman Fred Daniels. As the staff has undertaken a progressive agenda, Our directors’ support has been unwavering.
As we move into the second year of our five-year plan (aka MARTA’s Transformation Initiatives), we will continue to focus on fiscal sustainability, quality customer service and investing in employees. We want everyone to know that MARTA is open for business, with an emphasis on seeking partnerships that bring new resources to the agency while providing new amenities to customers.
Topping the list is our Transit Oriented Development (TOD) program. These TODs can potentially build ridership by clustering new shops, restaurants and housing at our transit stations. When handled correctly, TODs increase ridership, improve neighborhoods around MARTA rail stations, and provide stable revenue through partnerships with the private sector. We expect to complete at least five TOD deals in the next two years. In collaboration with the business community, MARTA is seeking to broaden our revenue base by adding popular retail concessions, expanding vending opportunities and considering new types of display advertising.
We’re focused on doing a better job of serving our customers. Our “mystery shopper” program will help target and correct customer service issues. We will aggressively implement the recommendations of a recent top-down assessment of our bus operations, including replacing about half the bus fleet with new CNG buses over the next three years and completely re-engineering our bus maintenance program to improve reliability and appearance.
A major complaint from many customers is the lack of reliability of our rail station signage. On any given day, more than half the signs simply don’t work. Customers will begin to see improvements before the end of 2013 and throughout 2014, with a mixture of new signs and a maintenance program to improve the reliability of existing signs.
We will continue to make smart investments in technology. Customers with smartphones can now plan their trips by downloading our free “On the Go” app that provides real-time information about bus and train arrivals and other information. Although MARTA has comparatively few serious crimes, we want everyone to enjoy a safe and pleasant trip. In November, MARTA police began enforcing “Ride with Respect,” a new code of conduct that provides suspensions for illegal or nuisance behaviors.
Among our most important changes underway at MARTA is our re-investment in employees. We have relaxed the dress code, started a telecommuting program and hosted several events to keep staff more informed and engaged. We are very excited about bringing back the Bus and Rail Rodeo, which will allow our folks the chance to compete with the best operators and mechanics at the local, state and national level. As our economic outlook and cost effectiveness improves, we fully intend to invest further monetarily in our employees.
In July of 2014, MARTA will commemorate its 35th anniversary. As that historic milestone approaches, our board and staff are doing the things necessary to become routinely excellent in all we do. I’m confident that excellence will generate increased public and private sector investment in MARTA. As the region grows, so too must MARTA.
Keith T. Parker is general manager and CEO of MARTA.
By Mike Jacobs
This month marks the one-year anniversary of Keith Parker’s installation as general manager of MARTA. He arrived in Atlanta from previous stints in Charlotte and San Antonio, where he was well-liked and respected on both sides of the political divide.
When Mr. Parker arrived, parties who had been involved in his selection said he had the potential to be the transformative leader that MARTA sorely needed. The transit system had been slashing service and hemorrhaging red ink as far as the eye could see.
I was not optimistic. Now entering my 10th year as a member of the state Legislature’s MARTA Oversight Committee (MARTOC) and my fourth year as its chairman, Mr. Parker is the fifth general manager to serve during my tenure. MARTA leadership has been a revolving door.
Today, after a full year of Keith Parker’s leadership, I can safely say that I was wrong, a rare statement to be made by someone in elected office. There is cause for optimism at MARTA, and Mr. Parker is at the root of it.
When Keith Parker arrived at MARTA, there was a management audit sitting on his desk that the accounting and consulting firm KPMG had completed in 2012 at the behest of MARTA’s prior management. KPMG recommended, among other things, the privatization of certain aspects of MARTA’s operations, including paratransit bus service, bus and train cleaning, human resources and payroll, and various information technology functions.
The aim of the KPMG audit is cost savings and efficiency. Its recommendations are drawn from the best practices of other transit systems and the private sector. For example, MARTA has had its own payroll department. Live MARTA employees have processed its payroll. This is a function widely outsourced in both the public and private sectors these days.
Some state lawmakers are determined to keep the KPMG audit from collecting dust. This is the fate of so many studies performed for governmental entities. Some studies deserve that fate, but not a study the purpose of which is to help MARTA save money and operate more efficiently.
Keith Parker assured me that the KPMG audit would not collect dust. I adopted the Ronald Reagan doctrine: “Trust but verify.” After all, savings and efficiency have not been MARTA’s strong suit over the years. Every couple of months, we hold a MARTOC meeting and put the implementation of the KPMG audit on the agenda.
KPMG furnished a five-year road map for implementing its privatization recommendations. Keith Parker is following through with his commitment. He and his staff are making progress where progress desperately needs to be made.
Another area where Mr. Parker has excelled is boosting confidence in public safety. MARTA’s crime statistics always have stacked up well against peer transit systems, but infractions like loud music and aggressive panhandling have tended to sour the public perception of safety. As with many things in life, perception becomes reality. MARTA loses riders as a result.
When I speak about MARTA at public gatherings these days, the “Ride with Respect” campaign always comes up. Spearheaded by Keith Parker, this effort includes a crackdown on unruly behavior and an aggressive public relations blitz. It coincides with MARTA installing closed-circuit cameras on all of its buses and trains.
The Legislature and MARTA, a state-created authority, historically have had a chilly relationship. Listen closely, however, and you will hear the dripping of thawing ice.
The keys to improved relations with the General Assembly are implementing the KPMG recommendations, achieving cost savings and operational efficiencies in the way MARTA is run, and improving the quality of life for MARTA riders.
Clearly, Keith Parker understands what needs to be done. Hopefully, the revolving door will stop spinning for a while. I am glad Mr. Parker arrived in Atlanta.
State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, is chairman of MARTOC, a joint committee of the Georgia House and Senate that oversees MARTA’s budget, fiscal affairs and management.