Keith Parker puts us back on track

The man who saved MARTA believes it can save us all. Will we get on board?
Keith Parker
Photograph by Gregory Miller

When Keith Parker was hired in 2012 to run MARTA, he also vowed to be a customer. At the time, the pledge was as pragmatic as it was symbolic. Parker and his young family left San Antonio for temporary lodging in downtown hotels, and it was a simple 11-minute ride every morning from Five Points to Lindbergh, where MARTA’s drab headquarters occupy 276,000 square feet off Piedmont Road.

Compared with most MARTA riders, Parker’s commute was an anomaly. For the 75,000 metro Atlantans taking mass transit to work, the typical commute involves a combination of bus and rail, in addition to walking and waiting—or even driving to a station. In many of the American public transit systems with rail, the route map is colorful and intricate, a web of intersecting lines creeping outward to accommodate growing suburbs and the attendant demand for mass transit. Atlanta’s map, in comparison, is minimalist to the point of absurdity: Two main axes cross at Five Points, virtually unchanged since the early 1990s—a grid that makes commuting a viable option for just one out of five workers in the region.

In July 2013, Parker and his wife, Dawn, purchased a 5,300-square-foot redbrick home in Roswell. Built in 1992, the five-bedroom house, with white Ionic columns and a backyard pool, isn’t far from the Chattahoochee River. The home offered the family of five—Parker and his wife have two teenage girls and a young boy—plenty of space, while placing them close enough to a MARTA line for Parker to commute. (In 2014 the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, which represents the majority of MARTA’s 4,500 workers, used a photo of the $590,000 home in a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to call attention to worker pay during a contract dispute.)

Relocating from the city center to a distant suburb has put Parker’s personal commitment to MARTA to the test. Now, instead of a quick walk to the nearest rail station, it’s a 15-minute drive from his home to North Springs station, and from there another five stops to Lindbergh. If he didn’t have a car, he’d be faced with an hour’s walk to the 185 bus stop off Holcomb Bridge Road, followed by a 15-minute ride to North Springs station. All told, a one-way commute from his Roswell home that relies solely on public transportation—a distance of 19 miles—would take one hour and 40 minutes, plus waits between transfers. In metro Atlanta the automobile still reigns supreme, which is why on top of his $320,000-a-year salary, Parker, the general manager of the nation’s ninth-largest transit system, enjoys a $6,500 annual transportation allowance.

On a sweltering Thursday morning in midsummer, Parker leaves his car in the North Springs parking deck, taps his Breeze card against a sensor, and heads to the train platform. He’s wearing a black tailored suit, purple tie and matching pocket square, and a monogrammed dress shirt. Parker is often the best-dressed person on the train. When he first took over MARTA, his initial trips were spent taking a quiet census of the panhandlers, street preachers, and drink spillers. The “knuckleheads,” as he calls them, were the target of a 2013 Ride with Respect campaign, with ads featuring local celebrities like Ludacris and Jeff Foxworthy. It wasn’t just PR; the campaign also empowered MARTA officers to suspend or even ban unruly riders. These days, two years after the program started, Parker spends his commute like most of the people around him: trying to carve out personal time before work, filling out crossword puzzles or Scrabble boards, unless a customer approaches him to talk about his job.

“The job is so stressful,” Parker tells me, calmly, as we ride into MARTA’s headquarters. “If you let it, it’ll eat you away.”

Since it opened in 1984, Lindbergh station has become surrounded by apartments, offices, and shops. It was one of the agency’s first transit-oriented developments—an initiative that inspired Parker to start turning parking lots into mixed-use projects at other rail stations, from Oakland City to Oglethorpe University. His corner office is six floors up, a distance the 49-year-old runner used to cover by jogging up the stairs, until knee surgery last year for a torn meniscus forced him to take the elevator. His office is almost preposterously neat; there are two mahogany desks, one for his monitor and another that faces a pair of leather-bound chairs for visitors, and a display cabinet containing model trains and buses, each spaced perfectly from its neighbor.

“I hate chaos,” Parker says, before showing me a framed black-and-white photo of him standing on top of a bus with a former boss in Richmond, Virginia, both of them with arms crossed and wearing shades, as if they’ve tamed the beast. “I want to bring order to the chaos. My energy comes from bringing order.”

Past MARTA leaders may have been more vocal proselytizers for public transit. But Parker is focused on much more prosaic tasks: improving customer experience; staying within his $880 million budget; and making sure more than 1,000 buses, trains, and paratransit vehicles run on time. His focus on those benchmarks has won him converts among the very politicians and bureaucrats who once treated MARTA like a wayward cousin looking for a loan. Those new alliances will be essential if Parker is to succeed at his biggest project yet: the construction of three new rail lines expected to cost upwards of $8 billion. That’s roughly double the cost of Atlanta’s recent sewer overhaul, four times the 1996 Olympics price tag, and eight times what state lawmakers this year chipped in to fund road paving projects. In MARTA’s history, the ambition of Parker’s expansion plan is rivaled only by the ambition behind the agency’s creation five decades ago.

The story of MARTA is, by any measure of civic understanding, a cautionary tale. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to establish MARTA as a transit system that would serve metro Atlanta’s five counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Despite lawmakers’ approval, the transit agency lacked the money needed to actually build the system. A series of decisions over the next seven years—Cobb’s refusal to participate in the system, a constitutional amendment authorizing the state to fund up to 10 percent of rail costs (which lawmakers proceeded to ignore), an unsuccessful proposal to accrue funding through property taxes, and a vote to keep trains out of Gwinnett and Clayton counties—undercut the very purpose of MARTA, which was to link a constellation of political fiefdoms and parochial interests behind the idea that we would be stronger as a unified region. Buses finally started running in 1972, but limiting MARTA to just DeKalb and Fulton counties exacerbated the racial divisions already ingrained in the region; racists joked that MARTA stood for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.

The growth—or, more accurately, stagnation—of MARTA over the ensuing years seems even more remarkable when you consider the expansion of transit systems in cities like San Francisco and Washington D.C., which were both built around the same time as MARTA but now dwarf it in size. In the mid-2000s, when Republicans took control of both houses of Georgia’s General Assembly as well as the governor’s mansion, the relationship between the state and MARTA grew even more tense.

Then came the Great Recession. Revenue from Fulton and DeKalb’s 1 percent sales tax, MARTA’s primary funding source, nosedived from $371 million in 2007 to $317 million two years later. Faced with a budget deficit that would swell to $120 million by 2010, Beverly Scott, then the head of MARTA, raised fares from $1.75 to $2, cut service, and laid off around 300 workers. During that period, state lawmakers responsible for MARTA’s oversight continued to enforce financial restrictions, including a requirement that the agency split its revenue between operating and capital costs. The spending limitations, long seen as archaic considering that MARTA had pressed pause on expanding its network, hamstrung how the agency could control its own destiny amid an economic downturn of historic proportions. With no help from the state, Scott resorted to last-ditch efforts like letting union members paint large red Xs on nearly a third of MARTA’s buses and trains to depict the impact of additional cuts, a move that only further irritated state lawmakers.

By 2012, as the economy began picking up steam, MARTA ridership had sunk to its lowest level since the turn of the millennium. An independent KPMG audit projected a $33 million deficit for the next fiscal year. The privatization of services like MARTA Mobility, which provides transit for disabled or elderly residents, seemed imminent. Some employee benefits—MARTA was outspending other transit agencies on pension, healthcare, and workers compensation by a total of $50 million a year—were on the chopping block.

Around the same time came T-SPLOST, the dyspeptic-sounding measure that called for $8.5 billion for new road and transit projects over 10 metro counties, funding that would have come from an extra 1 percent local sales tax. Although residents in Fulton and DeKalb showed support, it wasn’t enough against the overwhelming rejection by voters elsewhere in the 10-county region. “[The] vote slams the door on further expansion of our rail network anytime soon,” Governor Nathan Deal said following the referendum. Less than two months later, Scott announced she was leaving to head the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The future of MARTA looked as bleak as its past—if not worse.

Keith Parker
Photograph by Gregory Miller

As MARTA’s CEO, Parker spends the better part of his days working on one of two things: improving the existing system of trains and buses he oversees or considering ways to expand it. This morning he’s doing a little bit of both—at a meeting in Buckhead getting a quarterly update on bus accidents, and then, in College Park, partaking in a panel discussion about a proposed Macon-to-Atlanta commuter rail line—before heading to Midtown for a meeting with Robbie Ashe, MARTA board chair and the man responsible for bringing Parker to Atlanta.

After Scott’s departure, an executive search firm gave Ashe a list of potential successors. Parker, then heading up San Antonio’s transit system, was one of them.

“I thought Keith was a potential superstar,” recalls Ashe, the son of former state Representative Kathy Ashe. “Keith had done a great job in San Antonio, which is a heavily Democratic city that sits in a very Republican state, and was well-regarded by both the city and state constituencies. I thought it was something that could potentially translate well here.”

Ashe sought a second opinion from Mayor Kasim Reed, who had appointed Ashe to MARTA’s board two years before. One night in early fall 2012, Parker joined Ashe and Reed for a quiet dinner at Bone’s. Over steak and lamb chops, Reed summarized for Parker what his central task would be as general manager: “Get rid of all of the legitimate reasons why someone doesn’t want to do business with MARTA.”

Indeed, Parker had spent two decades building a track record of bridging the divide between transit supporters and skeptics. Nevertheless, it’s been a sort of accidental career for Parker. Raised a middle child in Virginia, where his father was a construction worker, he dreamed of becoming a judge. “You find very few folks who wake up one day as an eight-year-old and want to be a transit manager,” Parker says.

In the early 1990s, as an urban planning graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Parker accepted a $4.90-an-hour internship with the Greater Richmond Transit Company. His boss, Henry Church, had passed up a career on Wall Street for a five-figure salary to run a public bus system that lacked any dedicated funding source. The prospect of managing complex systems on a shoestring budget appealed to Parker, who worked his way from coffee runs to increasingly intricate planning projects far beyond his pay grade.

A quick succession of transit jobs followed: Stockton, California. Back to Richmond. Then just outside Portland, Oregon. Parker came to understand how public transportation could alter the shape of cities. The benefits of transit to the poor were obvious—an affordable way to and from work or school. But through public-private partnerships, developers and builders could turn a profit and at the same time leave a positive imprint on a civic landscape. As a native of the South, Parker also paid attention to MARTA, which seemed resigned to perpetual discord even as regional competitors like Dallas or Charlotte began to change their tune on building out mass transit.

Parker spent most of the 2000s with the Charlotte Area Transit System, where he launched the city’s first-ever light rail line and, as an assistant city manager, worked alongside then-mayor Pat McCrory—now the governor of North Carolina. Parker also came to know a councilman named Anthony Foxx, who went on to become mayor of Charlotte and who is today U.S. secretary of transportation. In 2007 transit opponents in Charlotte sought to repeal a half-cent sales tax, putting light rail and bus service in jeopardy. In the months leading up to the vote, Parker met with ministers, civic leaders, and citizens. On Election Day, voters defeated the measure by nearly a three-to-one margin, a political win for which Foxx credits Parker.

“When you hear Keith talk about transit, it doesn’t feel like you’re being sold something,” Foxx says. “He’s not coming at you dogmatically. He’s coming to you as an adult who can understand those reasons.”

In 2009 San Antonio hired Parker to run VIA Metropolitan Transit, at the time a bus-only agency that served mainly low-income riders. Parker purchased hybrid buses that ran more quietly, installed reclining seats, and offered free Wi-Fi. That, along with a stricter code of conduct, convinced more affluent residents to use transit. In August 2010, when gas cost approximately $2.64 per gallon, a consultant recommended Parker lock in a long-term fuel price with a hedge program. Prices soon jumped by more than a dollar a gallon, and remained higher than VIA’s fixed price for the next few years. The gamble saved the agency millions of dollars, which staved off service cuts and fare hikes. In 2011 and 2012, San Antonio’s ridership climbed at a rate faster than most other American cities. Parker’s reputation was climbing with it.

Parker was hired as MARTA CEO in October 2012. Prior to his start date, he sat down with local leaders to discuss the state of MARTA, where the picture quickly emerged: Metro Atlantans had written off transit, business leaders remained wary of promises that in the past had proved empty, and elected leaders didn’t want to risk political capital on a toxic institution.

“The mojo was gone,” Parker says. “MARTA was the biggest example of a city, or a region, that was really, really struggling.”

That December, Parker began to carry out recommendations from the KPMG audit. He combined small moves with big ones, saving $250,000 by switching to electronic pay stubs, and $14 million by reducing the reliance on outside IT consultants. By mid-2013, the agency’s projected $33 million deficit had turned into a $9 million surplus, the first of three consecutive years in the black. MARTA’s credit ratings went up. Wait times went down. And after 14 months of contract negotiations, Parker raised employee pay for the first time in nearly a decade, cooling tensions with union leaders.
Under Parker, MARTA police officers started wearing bright-colored uniforms, making them more visible inside stations. He also launched the Ride with Respect campaign in 2013, drawing from his playbook in Charlotte and San Antonio. In the campaign’s first two years, MARTA police have doled out more than 5,300 suspensions and banned 24 riders, so far without a single civil rights complaint.

Within the agency, Parker encouraged collaboration—and he delegated. Rich Krisak, MARTA’s chief operating officer, says Parker’s hands-off style has empowered employees to make decisions such as changing the fleet’s paint scheme from black to white or finally installing Wi-Fi. Parker has expressed a willingness to try just about anything, whether it’s a pop-up farmers market outside a station, urine detectors inside elevators, partnerships with local arts organizations #weloveatl and WonderRoot, last-mile connectivity with Uber—whatever it takes to enhance the MARTA experience.

Between July 2014 and May 2015, MARTA customers logged 125 million trips, up 5.7 percent compared to same period the year before. Parker says the positive outlook ultimately convinced Clayton, one of the three metro counties that backed out of MARTA decades ago, to become part of the transit system.

Last year 73 percent of Clayton county residents approved a one cent sales tax to fund public transit. Half of the projected $46 million annual revenue from the tax will go toward buses, which now pick up several thousand passengers a day from more than 300 bus stops on seven different routes, with more on the way. Over the next decade, Parker says, the remaining cash will fund studying, planning, and, he hopes, building commuter rail out to Lovejoy. It’s MARTA’s first system expansion in 40 years.

Clayton’s decision to join MARTA arose not out of the county’s economic development but its economic desperation. Faced with budget cuts in 2010, county commissioners shut down Clayton’s C-TRAN bus service, which had a devastating effect on residents in a county where one out of four people live below the poverty line and two out of three mass transit users lack access to a car. To a large degree, Parker’s pitch to Clayton was about restoring a service to those in need, which couldn’t be more different from the job required to sell MARTA north of the Perimeter. The transit chief’s pitch there is that MARTA is a tool needed to attract large employers to Georgia.

“The canary in the coal mine was State Farm,” says North American Properties developer Mark Toro, whose firm manages Atlantic Station and developed Avalon. In February 2014, State Farm announced a 26-story tower that would connect to the Dunwoody MARTA station. It was a wake-up call, says Toro. “The majority of Atlanta’s commercial real estate community is a bunch of Buckhead-centric old white guys who have never embraced MARTA as a component of their projects or as a part of their daily life in Atlanta. When State Farm went to Keith Parker and asked, ‘Will you allow us to bring your station into the lobby of our building?,’ everyone took notice.”

Mercedes-Benz USA and Kaiser Permanente also cited MARTA as a key factor in their relocations to metro Atlanta. Corporate execs, once accustomed to moving their businesses based on where they wanted to live, have begun relocating based on their employees’ desires. Millennials are driving the discussion. Consider the announcement in 2013 by healthcare IT firm Athenahealth that it would relocate 700 workers to Ponce City Market, including 140 from Alpharetta.

The news was an epiphany of sorts for Brandon Beach, the Republican state senator from Alpharetta and president of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Losing Athenahealth has convinced him of something that would have been unthinkable for a suburban Atlanta legislator just a few years ago: It may actually be time to extend rail service up Georgia 400.

Keith Parker
Parker (left) with MARTA board chair Robbie Ashe

Photograph by Gregory Miller

In a corporate boardroom on the 39th floor of One Atlantic Center, Parker, Ashe, and MARTA’s lobbyist team meet to figure out how to make the biggest expansion in MARTA’s history a reality.

The audacious plan—or rather, three individual plans repackaged into a single one—has actually been around for years, but it’s only now being dusted off. First, there’s what Beach wants: an expansion of the Red Line approximately 12 miles from Sandy Springs to Alpharetta, bringing with it as many as five new stations. A second rail line, dubbed the Clifton Corridor, would connect the Lindbergh and Avondale MARTA stations, shuttling Emory University students and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers across a nine-mile stretch in the northeast part of the city. The final rail line would run along I-20 east to the Mall at Stonecrest, finally linking southeast DeKalb residents to the rest of the region.

All told, it would cost $8 billion. MARTA doesn’t have the cash to fund the expansion outright. Parker—not holding his breath for state funding, even though the vast majority of the largest American transit agencies receive some kind of state financial assistance—saw a window of opportunity open earlier this year. If done right, he says, MARTA could begin piecing together funds for the three rail lines because they’re all located in Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb—places MARTA already operates.

During the 2015 legislative session, state lawmakers passed a tax hike to raise an estimated $900 million to begin fixing Georgia’s deteriorating roads and bridges. In the session’s final days, a bill proposing to lift the spending restrictions on MARTA, a huge win for the agency, was amended to allow Clayton, DeKalb, and Fulton counties to place a half-penny sales tax increase on an upcoming ballot. Had the referendum been allowed, and had it passed, it would have meant $200 million more for MARTA annually. But on Sine Die, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the General Assembly’s fourth-most-powerful official, dashed the hopes of MARTA lobbyists by removing the amendment from the legislation, citing a “technical flaw.”
Parker wants to try again, but he needs help—in the form of continued support from lawmakers in pro-MARTA districts and pledges from other lawmakers to not meddle in an issue that doesn’t concern them.

If state lawmakers permit Clayton, DeKalb, and Fulton voters to decide whether to raise their own taxes, MARTA would then ask federal officials for matching funds to cover the other half of the expansion costs. Parker believes an application with three rail lines stands a better chance of winning federal approval than just one. But timing is crucial, given the vagaries and vicissitudes of federal funding. “If you don’t get your project in there, you may have to wait another six years,” he says. “It’s a scary [thought].”

With each annual budget surplus, Parker (and, by extension, MARTA) builds political capital. It’s a long way from the talks of privatization—or even a state takeover—that were once discussed at Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee (MARTOC) meetings. “It’s been a complete reversal,” says state Representative Billy Mitchell, a Democrat from Stone Mountain and a MARTOC member. Republican state Representative Tom Taylor of Dunwoody, the committee’s chairman and a regular rider, says the agency’s reputation—from “transportation for poor people” into a safe option for millennials—has further accelerated that progress. Governor Deal acknowledged as much in a recent meeting with MARTA officials, stressing the agency’s importance not only to the metro area but to the entire state economy, even if lawmakers outside the region fail to recognize those benefits.

“In the governor’s economic development efforts, connection to public transit, particularly MARTA, is of growing interest to many prospects,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson says. “He knows it’s important, and that’s why he’s glad to have someone of Parker’s caliber in that position.”

Gwinnett County, which is currently left out of the $8 billion plan, could be convinced to join MARTA should the endeavor prove successful. The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce last spring shared a poll that found nearly two-thirds support for transit expansion, but with only half willing to increase taxes. In late August, Gwinnett residents participated in a weeklong discussion series called the Great Exchange to look at the future of the county’s transit, a conversation expected to continue into 2016 and beyond. Meanwhile, in Cobb County, chairman Tim Lee recently doubled down on opposition to heavy rail, saying transit within the county, not outside of it, must be strengthened. But don’t rule MARTA out of Cobb yet, says Charlie Harper, founder of public policy advocacy group PolicyBEST— particularly if traffic around SunTrust Park draws the ire of enough residents, or if Cobb-based corporations follow the lead of State Farm and NCR and move somewhere with better transit access.

“I don’t spend any time worrying about what it would take to get Cobb or Gwinnett [to join MARTA],” Parker says. “If Cobb County or Gwinnett County wants to join MARTA, they’ll be joining a very strong organization that will bring them great value for the money they put into it.”

Edward Lindsey, a former Republican state rep from Buckhead, says Parker should “practice the art of relentless incrementalism” and make piecemeal gains each year toward MARTA’s full expansion. “Get what you can and move forward, get what you can and move forward, get what you can and move forward,” Lindsey says. “It really doesn’t matter as long as we get to the right place.” Although Parker isn’t opposed to that approach, proponents of all three lines want MARTA expansion to start now, not 10 years from now.

“Waiting years and years and years doesn’t seem to be the message we’re hearing,” Parker says. “[This] gives people from each one of those counties a way to sort of control their own destiny.”

Parker is running late for the party. Across the street from a row of million-dollar mansions in Roswell, he steers his car down a bumpy gravel driveway that winds into a forest. The heat slowly breaks as the late afternoon creeps into dusk. And at the path’s end, a 4,400-square-foot wooden house with a large patio decorated with string lights and plastic coolers appears in the clearing.

At the doorway is Jere Wood, the home’s owner and longtime mayor of the northern Atlanta suburb, who invites Parker and his wife inside. Country-fried steak, bacon-topped deviled eggs, and a stocked bar await the couple in the dining hall with two long tables, large white candlesticks, and decorative place settings. So does a cast of local leaders—Gold Dome lawmakers (Beach, Jones), Fulton County officials (Sheriff Ted Jackson, commissioners Bob Ellis and Liz Hausmann), metro Atlanta mayors (Jim Still of Mountain Park, and, of course, Wood)—many of whom would usually not be seen together in public but tonight are gathering for an informal dinner, the first of its kind for these North Fulton lawmakers.

Sheriff Jackson jokes about running Atlanta’s largest free hotel (at least for his guests). Speaker Pro Tem Jones sings the praises of the 12-acre lot on which she stands (she owns just eight). And Wood, a gregarious host quick to show off his sawmill on the forest’s edge, rattles off the names of his past neighbors, starting with a porn star and ending with Paul Newman. Without hesitation, Wood begins reciting the late actor’s resume: Cool Hand Luke, race car ownership, and . . .

“Salad dressing,” quips Parker, who after a long day has traded in his jacket and tie for a glass of red wine.

Throughout the evening Parker continues to make the rounds with Jones, Beach, and other Republican lawmakers who live in the county’s northern reaches, not far from his own home. The sight of a MARTA chief befriending these officials—who were once suspicious of the agency and in some cases actively worked against it—would not have seemed possible three years ago. Given the agency’s new stature, the American Public Transportation Association this year named Parker the nation’s best public transportation manager, an honor only two of his predecessors have won.

Because the praise has prompted speculation about Parker’s future ambitions—perhaps leaving someday for a larger agency or working for a presidential administration—MARTA board members this year extended the transit chief’s contract by two years, keeping him at the agency through 2019. Says Ashe: “I think he gets MARTA is at the cusp of a truly transformational period.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue.