“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