I anticipate House Bills 264 and 265, two bills I introduced last year that would affect MARTA, will be revived for consideration in this year’s General Assembly. These bills had several mandates in them related to privatization and efficient governance. I will discuss these bills at greater length in a future update, but wanted to set the stage by republishing the following editorial I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on December 10, 2013:
December 2013 marked the one-year anniversary of Keith Parker’s installation as general manager of MARTA. He arrived in Atlanta from previous stints in Charlotte and San Antonio where he was well-liked and respected on both sides of the political divide.
When Mr. Parker arrived, parties who had been involved in his selection said he had the potential to be the transformative leader that MARTA sorely needed. The transit system had been slashing service and hemorrhaging red ink as far as the eye could see.
I was not optimistic. Now entering my tenth year as a member of the state legislature’s MARTA Oversight Committee (MARTOC) and my fourth year as its chairman, Mr. Parker is the fifth general manager to serve during my tenure. MARTA leadership has been a revolving door.
Today, after a full year of Keith Parker’s leadership, I can safely say that I was wrong, a rare statement to be made by someone in elected office. There is cause for optimism at MARTA, and Mr. Parker is at the root of it.
When Keith Parker arrived at MARTA, there was a management audit sitting on his desk that the accounting and consulting firm KPMG had completed in 2012 at the behest of MARTA’s prior management. KPMG recommended, among other things, the privatization of certain aspects of MARTA’s operations, including paratransit bus service, bus and train cleaning, human resources and payroll, and various information technology functions.
The aim of the KPMG audit is cost savings and efficiency. Its recommendations are drawn from the best practices of other transit systems and the private sector. For example, MARTA has had its own payroll department. Live MARTA employees have processed its payroll. This is a function widely outsourced in both the public and private sectors these days.
Some state lawmakers are determined to keep the KPMG audit from collecting dust. This is the fate of so many studies performed for governmental entities. Some studies deserve that fate, but not a study the purpose of which is to help MARTA save money and operate more efficiently.
Keith Parker assured me that the KPMG audit would not collect dust. I adopted the Ronald Reagan doctrine: “Trust but verify.” After all, savings and efficiency have not been MARTA’s strong suit over the years. Every couple of months, we hold a MARTOC meeting and put the implementation of the KPMG audit on the agenda.
KPMG furnished a five-year road map for implementing its privatization recommendations. Keith Parker is following through with his commitment. He and his staff are making progress where progress desperately needs to be made.
Another area where Mr. Parker has excelled is boosting confidence in public safety. MARTA’s crime statistics always have stacked up well against peer transit systems, but infractions like loud music and aggressive panhandling have tended to sour the public perception of safety. As with many things in life, perception becomes reality. MARTA loses riders as a result.
When I speak about MARTA at public gatherings these days, the “Ride with Respect” campaign always comes up. Spearheaded by Keith Parker, this effort includes a crackdown on unruly behavior and an aggressive public relations blitz. It coincides with MARTA installing closed-circuit cameras on all of its buses and trains.
The legislature and MARTA, a state-created authority, historically have had a chilly relationship. Listen closely, however, and you will hear the dripping of thawing ice.
The keys to improved relations with the General Assembly are implementing the KPMG recommendations, achieving cost savings and operational efficiencies in the way MARTA is run, and improving the quality of life for MARTA riders.
Clearly, Keith Parker understands what needs to be done. Hopefully the revolving door will stop spinning for a while. I am glad Mr. Parker arrived in Atlanta.