“State of MARTA”: Back in black, brighter than ever

Keith Parker in the spotlight at year-end breakfast

Among other changes, MARTA CEO Keith Parker has instituted casual Fridays at the agency’s Lindbergh Center headquarters. But staffers suited up this morning to entertain local politicians and civic leaders at a “State of MARTA” breakfast. State Rep. Mike Jacobs, Atlanta City Council president Ceasar Mitchell, the mayors of Chamblee and Dunwoody, and others sipped coffee out of fine china as Parker recapped his first twelve months via Powerpoint. (A video of the presentation, which streamed live on the MARTA website, is available here.)

There was reason to clink porcelain. The long-strapped agency finished the year $9 million in the black—a Herculean feat considering MARTA budgeted for a $33 million deficit and has only balanced the budget twice in the past fifteen years. The turnaround is a result of aggressive belt tightening. Cutting staff and improving efficiency in the IT department alone saved $14 million. The agency also did away with paper paychecks. A 2012 KPMG audit commissioned by Parker’s predecessor, Beverly Scott, recommended such cost-cutting measures.

On the flip side, riders are starting to feel the belt loosen. Earlier in the year MARTA scrapped a planned 25-cent fare hike. Some nighttime train and bus service increases take effect tomorrow, with dramatic improvements to peak-hour wait times coming in 2014, said Parker. New, functional signs displaying the train schedules are on their way to the stations. More than half of the existing bus fleet will be replaced in the next three years.

As a regular MARTA rider, Parker is exposed to the occasional hazards of using the system. He shared the story of riding in an elevator that smelled strongly of urine. On the elevator with him were four ladies, one of whom remarked: “We really need to bring some of our friends in New York City down here to show these people in Atlanta how to run a transit system.” [He mimed a dagger to the chest.]

And what do you know? At one of the stations there’s now a test elevator with cameras and sensors. This past week, he said, police intercepted an offender “quite literally with his pants down.”

Parker also promised that the agency has big plans for real estate and retail development around its thirty-eight train stations. “We’ll be making some major announcements on our transit-oriented development program in the next three to four weeks, including a huge new opportunity around the King-Memorial Station.”

To conclude the program, journalist Maria Saporta moderated a Q&A session with Parker, newly elected MARTA board chair Robbie Ashe, and outgoing board chair Frederick Daniels. And like so many parades, this one ended with a bit of rain. Saporta quoted Cobb GOP chairman Joe Dendy, who recently said of the Braves stadium relocation: “It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east . . . and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

“How do you combat that sentiment?” she asked Parker.

Displaying his political acumen and betraying, perhaps, his ire, Parker smiled and bit his lip. “I’ll pass it on to Fred I guess,” Saporta said.