MARTA general manager Jeffrey Parker said Tuesday he’s cautiously confident that Gwinnett County’s looming transit referendum will earn the endorsement of voters, and that his agency will be able to implement the suburb’s ambitious plans alongside other significant transit projects in metro Atlanta.
“I don’t have a framework to say how people get out and vote on a Tuesday in March and how that outcome is driven,” Parker said during an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I think what I’ve seen as I’ve moved around Gwinnett County is significant support for investing in infrastructure and investing in transit.”
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On Wednesday, less than a week before the March 19 referendum that could shape the transportation and economic development future of both Gwinnett and the entire metro Atlanta region, Parker sat down with the AJC’s editorial board for the first time since taking over MARTA’s reins one year ago. The looming referendum dominated much — but not all — of the wide-ranging conversation.
Parker put forth a vision of a connected metro Atlanta, with both increased transit options and more development built around existing rail stations.
If the Gwinnett referendum passes Tuesday, Doraville could be a prime candidate for one of these projects, Parker said, because parking utilization would likely decrease once a MARTA train station in Norcross was operational. Many Gwinnett County commuters currently use the Doraville station on their way into Atlanta and park at the station.
Despite some uncertainty as to whether pro-referendum voters make it to the polls on Tuesday in Gwinnett, Parker said he sees a healthy appetite for increased public transportation options throughout metro Atlanta, specifically citing bus rapid transit lanes along Ga. 400, for which $100 million in state funds has already been allocated. Fulton and DeKalb counties are both working on transit plans that could add new routes and options for residents. he said.
“There’s a lot of excitement about investing in more transit,” Parker told the newspaper’s editors and reporters.
“This region has created a deficit for itself both in roads and transit. We’re at this precipice now with transit trying to catch up with that.”
Thousands of Gwinnett residents have already cast early ballots in the county’s referendum. If it passes by the end of Election Day, Gwinnett’s pending contract with MARTA would be consummated and county residents and visitors would be committed to paying a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057.
The proceeds of that sales tax would help pay for a dramatic expansion of transit services in Gwinnett, including a five-mile rail extension from Doraville to Norcross; 50 miles of “bus rapid transit” lines; and other expansive additions to bus service.
MARTA would be tasked with making it all a reality — on top of significant expansion projects in the city of Atlanta and Clayton County and the agency’s many other initiatives. It’s a lot at one time, but Parker said MARTA will be ready.
“While we haven’t been doing expansion projects for 20 years, we have a pretty significant capital program going on,”he said. “Something I’ve committed to the board is to build an organization that’s going to be capable of doing this. And I have a high level of confidence that I’m bringing in the right people to do that.”
The transit agency recently hired new executives, including Frank Rucker, an engineer who worked on the $6 billion dollar capital improvement program at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Rucker is a few weeks into his new job as MARTA’s chief of capital programs.
When he took over, Parker inherited a stable financial situation that was a departure from much of MARTA’s history. When Parker’s predecesor, Keith Parker, took over in 2012, the agency was on the brink of insolvency and its spending under constant scrutiny. The two Parkers are not related.
MARTA has now run budget surpluses for six straight years, and Jeffrey Parker said Wednesday its his goal to keep the agency on a solid financial footing.
MARTA board chairwoman Freda Hardage, who also participated in Wednesday’s discussion with the AJC, said the fact that the agency hasn’t missed a deadline during its Clayton County expansion is further proof of its turnaround.
“The board is very focused on the fact that if we commit to expanding to any community, whatever that is, that we have to deliver,” she said.
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