MARTA board chairman: Keith Parker “transformed” transit agency

The general manager and CEO who helped turn around embattled system is heading to Goodwill Industries of North Georgia
Photograph by Myrydd Wells

Keith Parker, the MARTA general manager and CEO who helped pull the transit agency from the brink of insolvency and expand it outside Fulton and DeKalb counties for the first time since its creation, announced this morning that he was leaving the job to lead Goodwill Industries of North Georgia. Transit observers have long speculated Parker would eventually leave MARTA; since joining the agency from San Antonio’s VIA system nearly five years ago, Parker has overseen a far-ranging reform that has helped convince voters to add bus service in Clayton County and approve a $2.5 billion transit expansion in the City of Atlanta. Once often in the red, the balance sheet is now in the black, with roughly $250 million in its reserves. Robbie Ashe, the chairman of MARTA’s board of directors, talks about Parker’s legacy, what his departure means for the transit agency, and what MARTA needs in its next leader.

On Parker’s departure:
Keith is a fantastic person. He’s a wonderful manager and leader, and we wish him the best in this next stage of his career. Meanwhile, I’m confident in the team we have in place to make sure the trains run on time, to continue to protect the safety of our employees and customers, and balance our budget in a fiscal discipline.

At our board meeting on Thursday we will appoint an interim general manager and start the process of a national search for Mr. Parker’s replacement. That process will take several months because we’re committed to finding the person who will help us write the next chapter of our success.

It was a national search that led us to Mr. Parker several years ago and he leaves us a far stronger and healthier organization than when we found it. I’m confident we will have a wide and deep pool of first-class candidates to replace him. But we’re committed to taking our time to make sure we get the best possible one.

How his departure could affect expansion plans, including an estimated $2.5 billion build-out in Atlanta:
His team is in place. I expect that they will stay with us over the next several months. We will continue to deliver day-to-day excellence for employees, stakeholders, and customers.

The truth of the matter is Keith didn’t drive a train, he didn’t drive a bus. I expect there will be very little change, if any, in our day-to-day operations.

On Parker’s biggest legacy:
It’s fair to say he transformed our authority. We’re not done yet. But he leaves us a far healthier and stronger organization than when he came. If you look at our cash reserves (about a quarter billion dollars), our customer satisfaction, multiple expansions—all of those things unequivocally point to an organization on the rise. We’ve now finished four years in a row in the black. That’s certainly the only time in recent history that’s ever happened.

What the next candidate will need:
We’re going to look for someone first and foremost who’s an excellent manager and leader. I want them to be a strong communicator and someone who will make sure our internal operations are running well, and will partner with our external stakeholders.

We need to continue to exercise fiscal discipline. Some of our success over the past couple years might lead people to think we no longer need to exercise that discipline, that it’s easier to be tight with money and fiscal stewards when money is tight. Our challenge is to continue to manage those dollars we’re entrusted with as responsibly going forward as we have up to now. That’s what won us the expansion, that’s what won us the multi-billion dollar expansion in the City of Atlanta. We need to continue to do the work that’s allowed us to focus on our bottom line. Meanwhile, working with the rest of the region to see how we can serve them as well.

It’s a full plate. That’s why we as a board are going to be committed to making sure we get it right.

Whether the next candidate might oversee additional expansions into metro Atlanta:
I think the interest in expanding MARTA throughout other parts of the region is ongoing and will continue regardless of who our general manager is. To compete and to win the 21st century, metropolitan Atlanta needs more transit. And I think that’s the consensus that is increasingly shared across the region.