When Jeffrey Parker takes command at MARTA this spring, he'll inherit an agency on the verge of a major expansion, but uncertain of its place in the Atlanta region's evolving transit future.
He'll lead an agency that has gone from near insolvency to fiscal stability – but is still criticized for not giving some taxpayers more for their money. He'll run an agency praised for recent customer service initiatives but pilloried for an embarrassing meltdown after January's college football national championship.
In short, Parker will inherit an agency that has made great strides in winning over a region often resistant to mass transit. But he’ll have plenty of work to do as MARTA reaches further into once-reluctant suburbs.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said MARTA Board member Fred Daniels, who chaired the search committee that brought Parker on board. “We’re talking about jurisdictions that have been ambivalent about joining MARTA now looking at joining.”
On Thursday Daniels and the other board members unanimously affirmed that they believe Parker is the one to lead Georgia's largest transit agency into this uncertain future. They named him the sole finalist to become MARTA's next general manager and CEO.
A vice president at the infrastructure and design firm HNTB Corp., Parker has decades of public- and private-sector experience that admirers say will serve him well at MARTA.
"He's going to be really good to implement a regional transit strategy, because he gets it," said state Sen. Brandon Beach, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Parker said he’s looking forward to the challenges that await him.
“I can’t predict the future, but things are changing in a positive way,” Parker said. “We’re hitting our stride.”
Five years ago, MARTA was at a different crossroads. It was nearly insolvent and held in low regard by state lawmakers and much of the public. There was little prospect of expansion beyond Fulton and DeKalb counties.
That’s when MARTA hired Keith Parker. The CEO spent years shoring up the agency’s budget, cracking down on “knucklehead” riders, improving customer service and pushing for commercial development of land adjacent to MARTA stations. Under his leadership, MARTA’s reputation and financial standing soared.
By the time Parker left last fall to become CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, the transit landscape in metro Atlanta had changed dramatically.
Companies like State Farm and Mercedes-Benz had located corporate facilities along MARTA lines. Atlanta and Clayton County voters had approved MARTA expansions. Surveys showed suburban residents warming to mass transit. And Georgia lawmakers were discussing a significant state investment in mass transit for the first time.
Keith Parker's departure came at a crucial time for MARTA and the region. But he believes his successor has the personality to thrive.
“I think he’s a really good guy, and that goes a long way in being successful,” Keith Parker told the AJC.
“The enormity of MARTA will require a person who is pretty evenly balanced and who is really focused on success,” he said. “The things that I’ve gotten to know about him, I’m very hopeful that he will find that success.”
Jeffrey Parker has more than 25 years of transportation leadership experience. Among other things, he ran Boston’s passenger rail operations and served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, where he oversaw state highways, bridges, aviation, commuter rail and buses.
Parker also spent nearly three years leading MARTA’s rail, bus and paratransit operations before leaving for Connecticut in 2008.
“There were good leaders, but there was tremendous leadership turnover,” Parker recalled. He served three general managers in less than three years.
At HNTB’s Atlanta office, Parker has worked with MARTA, the Georgia Department of Transportation and other agencies. In 2014 Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to a task force that examined the state’s response to the infamous Snowjam that stranded motorists and paralyzed metro Atlanta.
House Speaker David Ralston commended the MARTA Board for hiring Parker. And Beach said Parker's contacts in government and elsewhere will be a big asset.
“The thing he’s really got going for him is his relationships,” Beach said. “He’s been in this market. He’s been on the private side. He knows what he’s doing.”
Expansion a “huge focus”
Those relationships may come in handy as MARTA negotiates a changing transit landscape. Two bills pending in the General Assembly would create a new board to oversee transit funding and construction in the Atlanta region.
Though the bills’ sponsors say MARTA would remain largely untouched, board Chairman Robbie Ashe acknowledged “there’s still a wide range of outcomes that are possible” as lawmakers deliberate.
MARTA expansions also could be tricky. Parker must help Atlanta and Clayton County finalize the details of their transit expansions and deliver the projects on time and on budget.
Other expansions may require sharp political skills. House Bill 930 would allow Gwinnett County voters to consider joining MARTA later this year – something they have twice refused to do. Fulton County also is considering a transit referendum – but some north Fulton politicians say MARTA should expand service with existing tax money before asking for more.
While juggling expansions, Parker must ensure that next year's Super Bowl isn't a repeat of the college football national championship, which saw hundreds of fans stranded at MARTA's Five Points Station after the game. And he must try to mend relations with a labor union unhappy with MARTA's decision to outsource paratransit service.
“I’ve never heard anything bad about this guy. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Stanley Smalls, a transit union executive board member. “I hope he’s coming in with the public and employees as his first priority.”
Parker said a “huge focus” of his job will be implementing the Atlanta and Clayton expansions. But he also pledged to improve customer service and working conditions for employees.
“There’s a lot of good things to be done,” Parker said. “It’s built on a base of tremendous success by the MARTA board and Keith Parker.”
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