MARTA CEO: ‘We will move forward’ with transit expansion

MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker has had an eventful first year at the helm of Georgia's largest transit agency.

Under his leadership, MARTA has refined expansion plans in Atlanta and Clayton County, negotiated a labor agreement that gives big raises to many employees and won acclaim for its performance during this year's Super Bowl. It also saw voters reject the Gwinnett County transit referendum.

Along the way, Parker called for a $100 billion transit "moonshot" for metro Atlanta — a milestone that seems further out of reach with the failure in Gwinnett. But Parker believes transit must play a big role as metro Atlanta seeks to accommodate hundreds of thousands of new residents over the next 20 years.

On Tuesday Parker spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his first year and his priorities for the years ahead. Here are excerpts from that conversation. They have been edited for length and clarity.

AJC: What has MARTA accomplished during your first year?

Parker: I think some of the accomplishments are really internal to the organization. I have spent a significant amount of time recruiting a team, organizing the agency in a way that is going to allow us to do some pretty substantial things over the next several years. I've got to have the right team to advance a big (expansion) program.

We are getting organized about what we are going to deliver for funded transit expansion programs (in Atlanta and Clayton County). We're working now to finalize projects that will be out over the next five years or so.

AJC: You got a lot of attention during the Super Bowl.

Parker: I believe we did a phenomenal job. We want to serve our riders, our community well. But it was also a boost for the morale within the organization.

AJC: The labor contract must have helped with morale.

Parker: I think it was a huge accomplishment. We are short bus operators. We've spent a lot of time this past year getting organized around hiring them. A piece of that has been making sure we had competitive wages.

AJC: The Gwinnett referendum didn't go as you had hoped. Any lessons learned?

Parker: I'm not going to get into the politics of when the election was held. We need to continue to help the region and, ultimately, the voters understand — even if they are not riders of MARTA — how public transportation impacts the regional economy. Getting people to work. Trying to deal with affordable housing and all of that. It is critically important to the region, just like the road system. We need to continue educating people about how MARTA plays a key role in that.

AJC: What are your priorities moving forward?

Parker: We have got to do some things to improve the conditions of our system. Over the past 40 years, we've done a phenomenal job maintaining our infrastructure. We've pivoted and focused on stations and shelters for our bus riders. It's critically important that our patrons see new amenities, particularly on the bus side. We've been talking for years about installing bus shelters.

We’re going to begin (renovating) some key rail stations over the next five-plus years. I believe at the next board meeting we’ll be getting permission to advertise contracts to help with design of stations. We’re off and running with a significant investment in our stations.

AJC: You've also talked about improving customer service.

Parker: I've laid out some things we want to accomplish, (including) hiring a senior-level position to lead our customer experience. We're working on that right now. We want to get that person in place and establish a rider advisory council. We want to make sure we listen better to our customers, that that bubbles up in the organization. The future is focusing on our customer experience, both on the bus side as well as the rail side.

AJC: What are MARTA's long-term challenges?

Parker: The long-term challenge is the growth that this region is going to be facing over the next 20 years. It's phenomenal. Trying to keep up with the infrastructure investments we need to make to move people around this region is going to be a challenge. That was largely my motivation for talking about the moonshot, talking about the $100 billion.

AJC: Gwinnett residents said "no" to investing more in transit. Does that make the moonshot less likely?

Parker: I believe that it's going to come in time. Gwinnett didn't pass. But none of this is an all-or-nothing proposition. We will move forward. Right now MARTA has a great opportunity to improve transit in the city of Atlanta and Clayton County. And we look forward to our next opportunity, whether that's Fulton or DeKalb County or Gwinnett or Cobb County. I'm sure those opportunities will come over time.