CEO Jeffrey Parker talks about MARTA expansion and “The ATL”

The transportation industry vet recently took the reins from Keith Parker (no relation)

Photograph by Marilyn Nieves via Getty Images

Every morning, MARTA’s new chief drives from his house in unincorporated Cumming to either the Windward Parkway Park and Ride in Alpharetta or the North Springs MARTA Station, before continuing by train to the transit agency’s Lindbergh headquarters. It might not be the simplest commute, but it provides a perspective that Jeffrey Parker, MARTA’s recently installed general manager and CEO, calls crucial.

Jeffrey Parker CEO MARTA
MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker

Photograph courtesy of MARTA

MARTA’s board of directors selected Parker (the lone finalist for the job) in March to succeed its former leader, Keith Parker (no relation), who departed in October to helm Goodwill of North Georgia. Many credited the former Parker with steering the nation’s ninth largest transit system back to financial solvency and bolstering its reputation. The new Parker takes the reins as the system enters an era of expected expansion, with unprecedented financial backing from state government and taxpayers.

Jeffrey Parker, 51, brings 25 years of transportation leadership experience to the table, including a mid-2000s stint with MARTA as senior director of operations, when he oversaw bus and rail service, MARTA Mobility service, and railcar rehab and maintenance. Elsewhere, he helped lead transportation authorities in Connecticut and Boston—experience that included building dense developments around transit stations, a key initiative MARTA has taken on.

Most recently, Parker was vice president at infrastructure and design firm HNTB Corp.’s Atlanta office, where he ran the company’s Georgia practice. His base salary with MARTA is $350,000.

One month into his tenure, Parker dished on his optimism for widespread transit expansion, MARTA’s venturing into mixed-use development, and the prospects of a region-wide system being called “The ATL.”

Keith Parker was known for riding MARTA daily. Are you following in his footsteps, in that regard?
Yes, I’m a daily rider. I think I’ve missed one day so far, when I had an event for my daughter somewhere up in Woodstock that I couldn’t possibly get to without driving.

How valuable is that perspective on the system?
It’s invaluable.

Parker was hired because MARTA needed saving . . .
I don’t know [if that was the reason] why he got hired. I think that was among the many things he did. He had to deal with the fact the country was in and coming out of a recession before his tenure. MARTA’s funding source is largely from sales tax, so when the economy’s strong, sales tax revenues are good, and when the economy slows down, we’re affected by that.

But now, several years later, the emphasis seems to be on growing and expanding a MARTA system that’s stronger. What’s your broad outlook on how to accomplish this?
MARTA has a significant expansion program in front of it, including the “More MARTA” program, which is funded by the half-cent sales tax the City of Atlanta levied a couple of years ago, as well as the commitment to Clayton County to expand fixed-route service [there] above and beyond the bus service. We’re working closely with both the City of Atlanta and Clayton County to finalize the prioritization and the conceptual planning of what those projects should be. We’re focusing on becoming a large-scale project delivery organization. We haven’t expanded any substantial transit programs in metro Atlanta in decades, and that’s in front of MARTA now.

The [new] transit governance legislation that passed [in March] gives the 13 counties [who can opt-in to a new regional transit agency called “The ATL”] additional ways of raising taxes—the ones that don’t have an expansion program, I should say. They now have a mechanism to seek funding for expansion. Critically important to however those projects get delivered is that the transit network that’s primarily MARTA right now; everything needs to connect together. So [we plan to work] with Gwinnett County, assuming they’re doing a transit study right now to lay out their vision. Fulton County just finished a transit study, and we’ll continue to work with them if there’s a referendum. Cobb County has a way of creating a transit district, and DeKalb County is also beginning the efforts to do a transit study to define what transit expansion would look like there.

[There are] a lot of strong opportunities to coordinate within the region, whether it’s MARTA service operating it directly or if it’s connected to MARTA.

When it comes to anything operating across county borders in metro Atlanta, the region’s not really known for being fluid in its operations. How tricky do you think it’ll be to get 13 counties on the same page and fold into that single brand?
I think one of the problems this bill strongly addresses is a clear, regional transit planning responsibility, and that’s with this new “ATL” organization. At its foundation the transit network is going to be laid out through a clear vision of what needs to be built and when. I don’t want to say anything’s easy here, but we’ve reset many of the obstacles we had before where a county just had to levy money out of their general funds to provide service—look at what happened in Clayton County several years ago when they just couldn’t afford service anymore. So the region [now] has a way of investing in transit to the extent counties want to.

How do you feel about the system being rebranded to “The ATL”?
I think that it’s a clear recognition that we need to build a transit network that is easy to use and understandable across the region by the people who use it. There’s good examples around the country. Phoenix has this model where individual counties own their own transit service, but it’s branded under a single name. The average [Phoenix resident] probably doesn’t even know that. I think the value here is that we’re trying to make transit more attractive to the people who can use it. I think that’s critically important to the success of not only transit but transportation in the region.

Do you think intowners will say “MARTA” regardless of what it’s called?
You know, who knows? I’m not going to predict. MARTA is a recognizable brand. People used it. And the legislation really calls for almost co-branding—clearly the important issue around the brand is making it easy to use.

On the topic of legislation, it was historic news that Georgia’s 2019 state budget is going to include $100 million for statewide transit projects. Do you foresee this helping MARTA?
Absolutely. There was another, similar round of $75 million that [the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority] oversaw, and we got how many million of that? The legislation is pretty silent on how the decision is made to select the projects. That will come up. The agency that oversees it will probably involve GRTA staff. And when we understand how projects will be rated, then we’ll put our best projects forward, and I’m confident we’ll get a piece of that. I think a lot of people, including myself, hope the state is able to maintain that level of investment going forward.

Speaking of regional projects, you’ve overseen transit systems in Connecticut and Boston. With that perspective, when it comes to expansion, do you see any unique obstacles in Atlanta?
No. Every region is just different. I don’t see that as an obstacle. What’s tremendous about the metro Atlanta region is that Fulton, City of Atlanta, DeKalb, and now Clayton County have decided locally to invest a 1 percent sales tax, and the City of Atlanta has added a half-cent sales tax on top of that, to fund transit and transit expansion. That’s different than the model in Connecticut and Boston, where things are done by the state, not by local communities voting to opt in. We’ve got a tremendous value of counties and cities making a local decision to invest in transit, and I think that’s critically important.

Beyond these funding sources, are there any unique advantages in Atlanta?
I think that’s it. People are going to make a decision: Do we value an investment in transit? And what you see around the country is typically significant local support when a referendum gets in front of voters for transportation projects, whether it’s [public] transit or highways. The vast majority of time, those things pass overwhelmingly. I think at the end of the day, we’re going to be a better region because of that tool that these counties have.

On that note, are you optimistic that this idea of a Gwinnett heavy rail line will come to fruition soon?
I’m not going to prognosticate on what mode people are going to want. What we’re committed to do is work closely with Gwinnett, Cobb, the folks who are already in the MARTA district, to use the expertise of MARTA to come up with a solution that meets the transportation needs that the folks in the county can get broad support [for]. We will be an authority, a partner in helping those decisions are made thoughtfully.

Switching topics: mixed-use hubs of apartments, shops, and mini parks are sprouting up from formerly underused MARTA parking lots across town. What’s your assessment of how MARTA’s venture into transit-oriented development (TOD) on a widespread basis is going?
I think it’s going phenomenally. I think under [Keith Parker’s] leadership, and I’m prepared to continue that, that MARTA has really turned a corner in working with—in a thoughtful way—communities and developers to come up with transit-oriented development scenarios and opportunities. But also, just working with corporations like State Farm and others who just want to connect to MARTA and [helping them] find ways to do it. But sitting here in my office at Lindbergh, I’m looking out over a TOD that has flourished over decades. While the focus is on delivering these projects throughout the system, MARTA’s got a long history of being successful around TOD, and that’s going to continue.

Are you optimistic to see these ventures in areas of Atlanta that haven’t seen as much investment recently but have MARTA stations, such as Oakland City?
Absolutely. I think that throughout the MARTA service area, we’re going to work with communities to provide TOD opportunities that are respectful of the community. And in many cases, I think there’s a great link between affordable housing and TOD opportunities. I know [Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms] is focused on affordable housing as a really important piece of making sure that this city continues to be competitive. I think we’re well prepared to be partners in helping her deliver that where we touch the city, which is pretty expansive.

What could TODs look like outside the urban core? Do you see this concept spreading father out, eventually?
Oh, yeah. It needs to fit the community that it serves. So a TOD in Doraville is going to be different than a TOD at Five Points. It’s going to be about us working with that local community, the county, to make sure zoning is right and that the development fits.

Are you optimistic we’ll see sky-rises jutting above MARTA stations in areas that are really dense anytime soon?
Well, I think that would be really cool. Obviously, it’s about permitting and what [high-rises] look like. I think there’s some stations in Atlanta where there’s great potential opportunities, and we’re going to continue to work with the city and developers to find those right solutions.

We’ve heard a lot about MARTA’s financial turnaround in the past few years. But how would you say public perception of MARTA has changed in Atlanta and beyond?
I think the board of directors, and my predecessor, and the staff here have done a phenomenal job in changing the brand of MARTA. If you look at how the media reports MARTA, it’s generally highly positive around the things that we’re doing. I think all those things play into the success of the legislature and being able to pass regional governance. The sense and the reality that MARTA is a well-run business and that it’s a tremendous asset.

Looking into the crystal ball a little bit, how do you think MARTA of 2025 or 2030 will be different? Will parking lots be obsolete? Any other significant changes?
By that time, we’re going to have new rail cars, which will be tremendous not only to the people who ride in them, but they’ll have better reliability and a lower cost to maintain. I think as we look out, there’s going to be a lot of success around counties investing in transit, so the network’s going to get bigger over time.

Look at cities across the world and [you’ll see] congestion is tied to economic vitality. And when you look at the economically vitality of metro Atlanta, it’s moving in an extremely positive direction, so the need for transit and other transportation options is going to become more and more critical.

I don’t know about you, but I still plan on probably owning a car in 2025. I don’t know if I’ll be driving it to work every day. Probably not, but I think that parking lots are still going to be needed, and probably more parking lots [will be necessary]. You know, as the network gets bigger, ridership is going to grow, and making sure that it’s accessible is going to be critically important.