A new year’s note to MARTA’s new chief

“I’m a skeptic, and I want to protect taxpayers.”

Keith Parker spoke those words toward the end of his first visit to the AJC’s offices as MARTA’s new general manager, earlier this month. He was voicing his understanding of Georgia Republicans who view the transit agency with skepticism and the interests of taxpayers in mind.

Much of Parker’s broader message of working to find efficiencies and earn the trust of taxpayers, customers and skeptical state leaders could have been spoken by anyone. That’s no knock on Parker; he’d been on the job just one week when he met with us.

In fact, after listening to Parker, I found two reasons to think he just might have a fighting chance of doing at MARTA what hasn’t been done there before.

The first is that he has done it in politically similar states before. He has worked in Charlotte and, most recently, as head of the transit agency in San Antonio.

In the latter, he said, he persuaded Texas’ GOP-dominated state legislature to make investments in the city’s system for the first time. If the system had 10 items on its wish list, he said, “We didn’t say, ‘You need to support all 10 of these.’ ” He was happy to find common ground where he could, and move on.

MARTA and our General Assembly haven’t always found much common ground, particularly with Republicans in charge. But Parker spoke four letters that may act as a kind of magic word under the Gold Dome — and which represent the second reason to be hopeful about his nascent tenure at MARTA.

I’m talking about KPMG — the audit firm that found MARTA could realize huge savings by bringing employee benefits in line with national averages ($50 million annually) and by privatizing some administrative and back-office functions (another $12 million to $28 million per year on average).

MARTA has been operating amid shortfalls of as much as $50 million for a few years now, and KPMG found the agency has a structural deficit of some $25 million a year. So these kinds of changes are critical to MARTA’s viability now and in the future. To his credit, Parker referred to the KPMG audit at least four times during our meeting.

As a fiscal conservative, I encourage Parker to go for as much savings as possible. As a lapsed MARTA commuter, I recommend that, after plugging the annual deficit, he plow as much of the savings as possible back into the system.

Few transit riders of choice have it easier than me: I can go from my front door to the Lindbergh rail platform in 10 minutes, and my office is across the street from the Dunwoody station. The whole trip should take about 25 minutes, roughly the average amount of time it takes me to drive.

But I stopped taking MARTA because even a one-minute delay on my part could mean waiting 15 minutes or more for the next train — increasing my commute by more than half. No thanks, especially when the cost compared to driving is a wash at best.

On the rail side, at least, Parker’s challenge is to see that trains are running as full as possible, because that means they’re generating as much revenue as possible. To get potential riders like me on those trains, they need to run more frequently.

If Parker can increase service substantially without more tax dollars, he will have earned some cooperation from Republican legislators. If they have a different priority, they ought to make that clear to Parker. He deserves a fair chance to get this right.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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36 comments Add your comment

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 2nd, 2013
6:35 am

Hopefully this dude won’t want to raise taxes and increase spending too.

BW

January 2nd, 2013
8:22 am

It will be interesting to see how this CEO handles his tenure. So better service vs austerity budget? Is it possible to have both? I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for this legislature to fund…well anything.

@@

January 2nd, 2013
8:26 am

If the system had 10 items on its wish list, he said, “We didn’t say, ‘You need to support all 10 of these.’ ” He was happy to find common ground where he could, and move on.

Giving “government” everything it wants only serves to reduce the public’s needs.

I’m talking about KPMG — the audit firm that found MARTA could realize huge savings by bringing employee benefits in line with national averages ($50 million annually)…

The smaller the “government”, the more there is for the taxpayer.

It’s a simple concept that too many refuse to acknowledge.

independent thinker

January 2nd, 2013
8:59 am

Good editorial. Keep dreaming the Legislature is just as likely to pass ethics reform as to fund MARTA. The new dome is far more important to the local economy. And greate gun proliferation.
Howeverthe thought of a white conservative riding MARTA to work- that is as funny as Paul Ryan voting for the Joe Biden tax compromise and having Grover beg Republicans to back the tax increases for the rich. Maybe the cons have turned over a new leaf.

press release writer

January 2nd, 2013
9:02 am

As has been pointed out many times before, only in (extremely atypical) Washington DC does a subway system actually come close to paying for itself. I’ll post comparison figures later today: http://www.pressreleasewriter.info

Towncrier

January 2nd, 2013
9:08 am

Good piece, Kyle. It is heartening to know we have someone in charge who has previous experience (unlike other prominent leaders of late who have come into power). I agree: His approach may give us hope for optimism. Imagine that: not spending more than you have!

Thomas Heyward Jr

January 2nd, 2013
9:08 am

“As a fiscal conservative”
.
Does this mean that you are no longer a Republican?
.
lol

Straphangerv

January 2nd, 2013
9:17 am

Count me among the MARTA sceptics. I live in town and occasionally use the bus-train connection to get to Hartsfield. I find it convenient and – as long as you leave early enough – a smart way to get to the airport and avoid the high parking rates. That said, the experience on the trains is always – slall we say – interesting. Street preachers, loud (occasionally obscene) phone conversations, un-cordinated announcements (You pull into Garnett and you’re told it’s Oakland City, etc). It is the experience not so much the efficiency that troubles many sometime users.

Elections Have Consequences

January 2nd, 2013
9:20 am

“I’m a skeptic, and I want to protect taxpayers.”

I’ll believe it when I see it..

Road Scholar

January 2nd, 2013
9:21 am

Happy New Year! Kyle.

Good positive post to begin the New Year. I agree that the Repubs just do not get the benefits of mass transit, but I also share your desire to have a shorter gap/headway between trains. MARTA is a service….so supply the necessary service to its customers that will bring in more customers!

Real Athens

January 2nd, 2013
9:22 am

“Few transit riders of choice have it easier than me”. You’re right. I have to agree with you. You have about a 10 mile commute, going against the majority of traffic coming into town in the morning. I don’t know if I’d hop on the train either.

However, if I had had a train running once every hour, hell, two hours that could get me to the beginning of the East/West line (or North/South for that matter) and leave to head back at midnight or later, I don’t know that I’d ever drive to ATL again.

I’d also spend a lot more money in ATL — as opposed to on the internet — Athens can be such an island for even slightly specialized goods and services.

JohnnyReb

January 2nd, 2013
9:24 am

In the interest of full disclosure, I have ridden MARTA less than a half dozen times since it began. However, that has nothing to do with recognizing the core problem. That being, it has been run by Democrats. That’s it, pure and simple. Entitled, entitled, entitled.

KPMG showed too costly benefits and 50 mil revenue shortfalls – imagine that. Democratic answer – ask for more government (taxpayer) subsidy. It’s ridiculous just as is the current debate with Democrats on the National budget.

Good luck to the new guy, but unless he gives the place an enama and cuts the strings to city hall, MARTA will remain SSDD.

MANGLER

January 2nd, 2013
9:27 am

In a metro like Atlanta, the key to making mass transit viable is grabbing the “riders of choice” since we seem to make up the vast majority of metro residents. People who actually live, work, and can play off of the rail lines are not the dominant portion of the population here. People with cars who commute from far flung burbs are. Much of that is because the existing rail lines don’t extend out far enough to grab most people closer to where they live (or work) – but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.

The frequency of service at commuter travel times is key. Run 1 train per hour on Sunday at 2PM for all the city cares. But run a train every 3 to 5 minutes on weekdays or around game or event times (even if they have fewer cars on them, just be more frequent). Get that down, then one day we can get back to discussing extending MARTA to where the commuters actually live.

Centrist

January 2nd, 2013
9:36 am

KPMG and Parker have a small shot at reviving the political cronyism machine called MARTA. Good luck.

I know conservatives like Kyle Wingfield are depressed today over the tax increase the Republican House passed last night, but as a centrist I have no problem with it. Most of the tax debate is gone now that President Obama’s 5 year demand for tax increases on “wealthy” families earning over $250K was redefined as protecting the middle class up to $450K. Estate taxes did not change and full Social Security payroll taxes will again be collected.

Finally, the outrageous amount of spending which has blown up our deficits and debt will now have to be addressed. March has 3 spending deadlines to resolve:

* Debt ceiling has been reached and accounting tricks run out early March.

* Sequestration starts March 2nd without legislation.

* Congress will have to pass yet another continuing budget resolution by March 27th to avoid a temporary shutdown of some government functions, worker furloughs and a pullback in programs.

It all may get kicked yet again further down the road (most likely), or maybe there will be a “grand bargain” on tax reform, reduced spending, and annual budgets can be done in the Senate without multiple continuing resolutions. Good luck.

Prisca

January 2nd, 2013
9:43 am

Mr. Kyle, Mr. Parker surely seems to have a handle on what is needed for MARTA, but I have to point out that you can’t find a transit system in the world where you don’t have to be at the station when the train leaves. And less frecuent service was forced by the failure of the general assembly to allow MARTA to use its tax income for operational expense. (By law, funds from the 1% sales tax must be split evenly between MARTA’s operational and Capital expenditure budgets.)

As far as I know, MARTA is one of the few major transit systems that has not had a major accident, something seldom mentioned. The train to the airport is one of MARTA’s greatest assets.

So, please let’s tell the whole truth about MARTA, and give Mr. Parker unbridled support. Atlanta needs bragging rights in view of our horrible traffic.

carlosgvv

January 2nd, 2013
9:59 am

Here’s my new note:

“Why can’t MARTA be safe, clean and efficient like transit systems in so many other cities and Countries”?.

aps

January 2nd, 2013
10:27 am

independent thinker –

Please change your name tag because all your rants were anti right vitriol. Doesn’t read anything like an “independent”.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 2nd, 2013
10:33 am

I know conservatives like Kyle Wingfield are depressed today over the tax increase the Republican House passed last night

Y’all wanted higher taxes, well, now you got them.

I wonder how long it will take the obozobots, busy with their hate war on the successful, to realize their taxes went up too? Went up a lot, in fact.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 2nd, 2013
10:42 am

I’d like to make note that the first personal attack of the New Year on the Wingnut blog was made by a liberal, as though that would surprise anyone.

iggy

January 2nd, 2013
10:56 am

As Gordon Solie so often said…”this remains to be seen.”

iggy

January 2nd, 2013
10:57 am

“Atlanta needs bragging rights”

LOL…Atlanta has bragging rights on nothing. Atlanta is nothing more than a corrupt cesspool.

Zashanetta

January 2nd, 2013
11:01 am

Hopefully Mr. Parker will get out of his office occasionally and ride the trains and buses so he can see for himself what the average MARTA rider has to put up with.

It's Bush's Fault

January 2nd, 2013
11:29 am

I know several white, middle-aged, conservative voters (myself included) who used to ride MARTA to work. In my case I live a seven minute walk from a MARTA station. Initially, I changed trains at 5 Points and rode one stop. I then decided to walk instead of waiting for a train. The ride in was okay, but I would often have to wait at 5 Points for 20 minutes for a very crowded train. I can drive to work in 6 minutes. You do the math. I now drive to work. Also, I have never had an unpleasant trip on a MARTA train, but I’m over spending so much time waiting on a train. Selah.

Cheesy Grits is gone but not forgotten

January 2nd, 2013
11:42 am

I see that Biden had to step in and handle some of the negotiations with Congress.

I think his skin is probably light enough that they could make a deal with him.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 2nd, 2013
11:47 am

Actually, biden’s the one with the brain, in this case, anyway.

Towncrier

January 2nd, 2013
12:16 pm

Kyle, do you have a published set of rules for posting on your blog? I have asked Jay the same thing and it seems like he views indiscretions the way the SCOTUS views pornography – you know it when you see it. Thankfully, not too many rules are like that – you know, one knows speeding when he sees it.

Don't Tread

January 2nd, 2013
12:24 pm

Maybe if he runs the place like an actual business and not a jobs program for APS “graduates”, it may be better in the future. But the politics (office and otherwise) is a mighty strong current to overcome…we’ll see if anything useful comes out of this.

Kyle Wingfield

January 2nd, 2013
12:49 pm

Towncrier: See here.

Towncrier

January 2nd, 2013
1:43 pm

Thank you, Kyle.

Jm

January 2nd, 2013
1:46 pm

I hope Parker reads this, Kyle, I think you’re right on.

In addition, MARTA should be exploring the technology necessary to eliminate drivers from, first, the train system, and second from the bus system. If Google can build a car that drives itself in the chaotic, random routes required of a car, surely something can be done for trains on fixed guideways, and then for buses on dedicated routes.

The savings, as you point out, from this and rationalizing the service system, can then be reinvested in improving frequency where needed, and expanding the infrastructure.

Towncrier

January 2nd, 2013
2:07 pm

So, Kyle, I am told there is a “bedtime” policy now – that you disable the immediate posting of comments when you are not around to moderate. That is really restricting. How about having people register (as on many blogs) instead? And is there not an automatic (programmatic) type of screening in place in any event?

Kyle Wingfield

January 2nd, 2013
2:11 pm

Towncrier @ 2:07: I’d love to do that, but the technology we use doesn’t allow that (for now — that is supposed to change in the near future). In any case, the kinds of comments I am trying to weed out by disabling immediate posting of comments would never be caught by a programmatic screening. I’m not sure registration would really make much of a difference, but I’ll try that when it’s available.

Towncrier

January 2nd, 2013
2:20 pm

“I’d love to do that, but the technology we use doesn’t allow that (for now — that is supposed to change in the near future).”

Thanks for the response. I am trying to find a blogging home. I am a conservative who has posted a lot on Jay’s blog, but I have become increasingly unhappy with the kind of mean-spirited and hateful “dialogue” that is exchanged there. I myself have been drawn into it (like quicksand) and I really don’t want to be that kind of person. I enjoy rational debate. What I learned about myself at Jay’s is that I had a tendency to let my strong dislike for some tenets of liberal ideology transfer to liberals themselves (which is really characterizes most political discussion these days). And that came out in my posts. And there was also a tendency to want to return “evil for evil” when personally attacked. Any way, enough of that for me.

Hillbilly D

January 2nd, 2013
3:29 pm

It’s always a good day when I see a Gordon Solie reference.

[...] In the larger sense, there is the dawning reality that the Atlanta heavy rail system is not efficient.  Heavy rail systems, are by their nature, able to handle heavy traffic loads.  Yet, the Georgia heavy rail lines are running increasingly infrequent trains because of the disparity between the costs of operation in relation to what the fare gate collects.  Even the conservatives are noticing this problem; please see Kyle Wingfield’s words on the matter: [...]

Logical Dude

January 2nd, 2013
7:10 pm

“Republican legislators. If they have a different priority, they ought to make that clear to Parker.”

Seems like the priority is to have MARTA fail. Not sure why, but they sure do put a lot of restrictions on a system they don’t even pay for. (From the State anyway).

I’d LOVE to hear an honest explanation of WHY they want MARTA to fail.