Moderated by Tom Sabulis
MARTA has a new board chairman to go along with its still relatively new GM/CEO, Keith Parker, who has been on the job for a year now. Robert Ashe, an Atlanta native, today writes about the transit agency’s determination to make train and bus commuting a more viable and attractive option for residents. In our second column, North Fulton leader Brandon Beach, a state senator, writes about the new regional transit website that will help coordinate services of MARTA, GRTA and the Cobb and Gwinnett bus lines.
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By Robert L. Ashe III
This year, MARTA marks its 35th anniversary as a combined bus and rail transit system, a significant historical milestone that we’re proud to celebrate. But even as we honor MARTA’s past, we’re taking steps to ensure we will be able to serve our community for the next 35 years and beyond.
MARTA’s Board of Directors recognized several years ago that we urgently needed to change course and improve our finances, control our costs and make our transit system more attractive to the riding public.
Through a series of corrective actions over the past several years, including engaging KPMG to do a multi-year, highly detailed set of financial, management and performance audits, and hiring Keith Parker as general manager and chief executive officer, we’ve made tangible progress achieving those objectives. After his first year on the job, we are very proud of Mr. Parker and his leadership team’s efforts to continue MARTA’s transformation.
Without any question, we still have a lot work to do. We’re not yet the transit agency we aspire to be. But today, MARTA is better positioned to make the most of the opportunities ahead and to demonstrate we’re worthy of the public’s ongoing support.
For the first time in many years, MARTA has ended the fiscal year in the black instead of drawing down our woefully depleted reserves. This development is a welcome and long-sought sign of meaningful progress for our turnaround. Our challenge now is to re-commit ourselves to the fiscal discipline, management reform and market-based revenue enhancement steps that have brought such positive news.
Fundamentally, our goal as a board — one we share wholeheartedly with our senior management, starting with Mr. Parker — is to make MARTA competitive again. First, we want to receive a growing ridership’s daily confidence in the product we deliver, and to be the option people choose. We also must compete as a recipient of public funds to ensure those precious tax dollars are being as well spent as possible, and to demonstrate to communities thinking about joining or partnering with us that we are a sound investment.
The opening of the 2014 legislative session offers a firsthand glimpse of some steps we’re taking to improve the public’s return on their investment. Our legislative agenda includes several measures that will make us more efficient, cost-effective and competitive in the marketplace for transportation services.
Even as we work for the passage of these legislative measures, our customers should expect to notice the ongoing benefits of the changes we began implementing since Mr. Parker’s arrival. Among these changes are shorter waits for trains; new, more comfortable and reliable buses; improved signage inside and outside of rail stations, and better customer service from our front-line employees.
And because improving MARTA’s bottom line is our bottom line, we’ll continue to advance other revenue-generation initiatives already underway, such as new advertising, expanding our in-station concessions programs, and vigorously pursuing the next generation of transit-oriented developments (TODs) on land we own on and around our stations.
In the coming weeks, MARTA will be making significant announcements about progress made in our new TOD program. By working with public and private sector partners, we are strategically leasing land to create transit-friendly, live-work-play communities that can help revive our urban and suburban centers.
As a native Atlantan who has watched my hometown evolve and mature, that’s very important to me. I grew up in Midtown, and still live there. Aside from college, I have lived and worked within a few blocks of MARTA stations my entire life and appreciate the freedom and mobility they give me and my family.
As chairman of the MARTA board, my colleagues and I invite you to keep watching, and even better, to keep (or start) riding. Our MARTA is going to make you proud.
Robert L. Ashe III is chairman of MARTA’s Board of Directors.
By Brandon Beach
This November, I was proud to stand with Gov. Nathan Deal as he announced that Georgia was rated No. 1 by the go-to publication for economic development professionals, Site Selection Magazine, as the best state in the nation to do business. When Gov. Deal ran for office in 2010, he promised that by the end of his first term, Georgia would achieve this honor.
This is great news for the state and the Atlanta region. However, for us to maintain the No. 1 ranking on an annual basis, we must invest in infrastructure.
One area where we have a glaring disconnect is our regional transit system. Actually, I would argue we don’t have a regional transit system; we have a very fragmented system where different entities do not communicate or coordinate with each other.
To further prove my point, earlier this year, I embarked on a transit trip from Kennesaw State University to the Gwinnett Arena. It was only a 32-mile trip, but it took me almost four hours. Each system I rode was clean, service was good, and I felt safe. But to plan my trip, I had to go to three different websites, and once I crossed jurisdictional lines to another system, I had to pay with a different method of payment.
Having to go through this process with no coordination is not good service for our current riders and surely will not attract new riders.
There are two types of transit riders: lifeline riders who do not own a car and depend on transit, and the lifestyle rider who has a car but rides transit. This summer, we held a Senate study committee on this issue and looked at the four big transit entities in metro Atlanta: MARTA, GRTA (Georgia Regional Transportation Authority) and the Cobb and Gwinnett transit systems.
We believe that if we can get these four agencies to come together to coordinate and communicate, we can make great strides in developing a regional system that will be good for our customers.
The action that came out of the committee was to develop one website for trip-planning purposes by consumers. This new website will be www.goATLtransit.com.
With the website being the first step, the end goal is to have the four transit agencies come together as one regional transit entity and then re-brand all four into The Atlanta Transit Line (The ATL).
Someone from out of town would fly into ATL and get on an ATL train, ATL bus or ATL Express Bus. This would be less confusing than all the current alphabet systems. We are not asking to add new lines or new agencies; we want to take our current assets and make them more efficient and consumer friendly.
If we are going to be a world-class region and maintain our No. 1 position in the economic development business, we cannot continue with a fragmented transit system. We owe it to our employers and citizens to offer best in class service.
I look forward in the near future to riding on the ATL.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, represents the 21st district, which includes portions of Cherokee and Fulton counties.