October 2015: Smooth rides

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Two years ago in this space, I made an embarrassing confession: that even though I live barely 200 yards from a MARTA station, and my office is a hundred steps from another one, I was still driving to work every day. A few readers—no surprise—took me to task. They said I was crazy to willingly submit to a commute over Atlanta’s roads when I could take the train. I wish I could say that their notes guilted me into leaving the car at home, but they didn’t. That fall, though, an accident totaled our car (no serious injuries, thankfully), and suddenly the MARTA station outside my front door became not just a luxury, but a necessity.

In this month’s issue, Max Blau profiles Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager. If MARTA were a company that manufactured widgets for export, its 4,500 employees and $880 million budget would make it a significant player in the local economy. But MARTA doesn’t make widgets; it moves people. Between July 2014 and May 2015, its customers took 125 million trips on its buses and trains and vans. You think traffic is bad now? Imagine the congestion if those 125 million trips were in private vehicles. MARTA’s impact on the region is orders of magnitude beyond just the number of people it employs.

Over the past three years, Parker has engineered the agency’s financial turnaround, which has led to some happy side effects, including a public reassessment of MARTA’s reputation. A deep reservoir of goodwill is going to be essential if Parker is to make headway in his plans for expanding MARTA’s rail lines in both DeKalb and Fulton counties. It would be a game changer for the region, on a scale that exceeds even what the BeltLine is doing for the city of Atlanta.

Not surprisingly, Parker figures prominently in our list of the 55 most powerful people in the metro region. We’re certainly not the only Georgia publication to compile such a list, but we wanted ours to be different. First off, our definition of “power” was intentionally broad; we included the obvious areas—politics, development—but also some less intuitive ones, such as religion and music. Because when you’re talking about the forces that shape a city, you have to consider not just what you can see, but also what you can feel.

To make matters even more complicated (and risky), we decided to rank them. We took into account many criteria—influence, results, stature, title—and after looking at our results, you’ll likely wonder why we included this person over that one, or why one person is ranked below another. You might even come to the end of the list and decide we’re crazy. How would you have ranked them? Who’d we leave off? Who doesn’t belong here? I trust you’ll let me know. And I’ll be sure to respond—probably during my commute, now that I’m leaving the driving to someone else.

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue.