MARTA privatization bill to get Senate airing

Sen. Carter believes Senate will be less eager to meddle in transit agency’s affairs than House

A state House bill to force MARTA to hire private contractors to run many of its functions is scheduled to be considered by the state Senate on Wednesday and at least one member of the committee taking up the measure is hopeful the upper chamber will put the brakes on the privatization-at-all-costs train.

“The Senate will give the bill a thorough review to ensure that it makes sense for MARTA’s long-term health,” says state senator Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, a minority-party lawmaker in his sophomore year in the Legislature who also happens to be the only member of the Senate Transportation Committee whose district is served by the embattled transit agency.

Carter says the Senate has typically trod lighter than the House where MARTA is concerned and shown less interest in meddling in an agency that, while created and empowered by state law, serves only Fulton and DeKalb counties and receives no significant state support. The House, on the other hand, has, through its MARTOC (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee) group, been all too eager to scold and lecture the agency’s managers about how to run Georgia’s largest transit system.

This year, the House has elevated its meddling to new levels with a bill sponsored by MARTOC chairman Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, that would force MARTA to hand chunks of its operations—including human resources and technical support—over to private contractors. That provision, in particular, is strongly opposed by MARTA General Manager Keith Parker in part because it removes the agency’s ability to decide how best to manage operations.

“Jacobs’ bill calls for privatization whether it makes good business sense or not,” says Carter.

While Jacobs has said his bill follows recommendations of a KPMG study of MARTA, Carter believes House lawmakers’ real motive is control.

Senate lawmakers have so far been impressed with Parker, who joined MARTA in December, Carter adds, and thus might be inclined to give him more time to get a handle on the agency before stripping him of much of his managerial discretion.

Other parts of Jacob’s HB 264 are just as extreme, if less obviously impactful. One provision would effectively take away the power of the Fulton County Commission to appoint MARTA board members and give it to the mayors of Fulton’s fourteen cities—one appointee from the south end and two from the north. Under the bill, the governor would also get an appointment. If any aspect of the legislation appears dubious from a racial perspective, it’s the image of a group of mostly white mayors choosing representation for the county’s transit system rather than the mostly black county commission.

Finally, HB 264 also would divert new MARTA employees from the agency’s pension program into a 401(k) plan, reconfigure part of the arbitration process for employee complaints, and limit the agency’s bonding capacity. Carter and others are concerned that the privatization mandate and some of the fine-print details in HB 264 could run afoul of federal labor laws, costing the transit system ineligible for millions of dollars in federal grants.

The Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the State Capitol.