When Keith T. Parker became CEO and general manager of MARTA in 2012, he was faced with not only a bigger agency than those he’d previously managed in Charlotte and San Antonio, but one with a $33 million budget deficit and a public relations problem. Employee benefits and absenteeism were costing tens of millions of dollars annually. Customers were angered by service cuts that saw bus routes and stops eliminated and wait times for trains grow to 15 minutes or longer. The operating budget struggled under decades-old, state-imposed restrictions on how MARTA could spend and make money. But by 2015, with the system steered into a major turnaround, it was evident Parker was up to the challenges. He’s balanced the budget and upgraded service (train waits are down to 10 minutes or less), all while avoiding fare increases.
Parker won over some hearts by commuting via MARTA almost every day. More of them became fans thanks to a crackdown on “knucklehead behavior” and practical touches like adding urine detectors to some elevators.
The harder task: winning over politicians and business leaders who have historically treated transit with skepticism, if not outright disdain. This year lawmakers lifted the 1971 requirement that MARTA spend only a certain percentage of its tax dollars on operations and encouraged more public-private partnerships. “Now we can spend the money as we deem best,” Parker says.
The business community approves, too. State Farm, NCR, Mercedes-Benz, and Kaiser Permanente all announced plans to relocate headquarters closer to MARTA train stations. Soon neighborhoods around several rail stations will benefit from plans to turn parking lots into developments. “We have intentionally not set them up so that the highest bidder wins,” Parker says. “Instead, they have to show us how they will improve the neighborhoods.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.