MARTA’s incoming chief says he plans to put a new face on the troubled transit authority for the public, politicians and the press by turning around its finances, increasing its ridership and recasting its image.
At a news conference Friday, newly hired general manager Keith Parker said he worked successfully with the legislatures in North Carolina and Texas to secure funding and laws that allowed transit agencies he headed in those states to expand.
He acknowledged Georgia may be a more challenging environment, which will quickly test the diplomatic tact his admirers say he has. He starts his job a month before the January opening of the Legislature — not usually friendly turf for MARTA — and faces contract negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union shortly after the session ends in the spring.
He is inheriting an agency with a $33 million operating deficit projected for this fiscal year.
Both the legislators and the union will be focused on a recent management audit by KPMG, which the MARTA board of directors plans to use as a blueprint for righting the agency’s finances. Auditors recommend the agency partly privatize, revamp employee benefits and curtail workers’ compensation costs.
“Many of its findings are daunting,” said Parker, 46,who recently resigned as the transit chief in San Antonio, Texas.
Parker’s five-year contract starts Dec. 10 and awards him a $320,000 salary and an annual $25,000 annuity payment. Current general manager Beverly Scott, whose compensation topped $370,000 a year, will head the transit system in Boston.
Republican lawmakers are likely to be demand that Parker privatize certain MARTA functions cited in the audit, which found between$60 million and $142 million in savings over five years through outsourcing certain work such as payroll and cleaning. Union leaders plan to fight privatization and protect their benefits, which the audit found to be $50 million above the national average.
State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, said lawmakers are discussing incorporating privatization requirements into the MARTA Act next legislative session.
Jacobs, who chairs the MARTA oversight committee, supported Dwight Ferrell, MARTA chief operating officer, for Parker’s job. He filed a complaint that the transit board violated the opening meetings law in its executive search, which Attorney General Sam Olens is investigating.
Asked if he would wait until Parker had a chance to tackle MARTA’s problems before further regulating the agency, Jacobs was noncommittal.
“Right now things are in a state of flux,” he said. “We need to sit down with Mr. Parker, and I look forward to doing that. Once that occurs we need to sit down as legislators and decide what course we are going to chart in the 2013 legislative session.”
Parker said he planned a listening campaign in which he would talk to the public and politicians about how they would improve MARTA service.
He said the 250 public meetings he held in metro Charlotte, which has a bus and light-rail system, after becoming its transit chief four years ago proved invaluable. Based on information gleaned in the meetings, more comfortable seats were installed and overhead storage was added in buses. That boosted middle-class ridership substantially with patrons who previously had relied on cars, he said.
The transit agency also changed hiring policies for bus drivers to find people who were more customer friendly, Parker said.
“You can train a person to be a … driver,” he said. “It is much tougher to train a person to be nice.”