Wanted: Another ‘5-tool player’ to lead MARTA after Parker’s departure

Keith Parker helped revive MARTA during his five years as general manager. Now state and regional leaders want another top talent to maintain the momentum for public transportation in metro Atlanta that Parker helped create. BOB ANDRES BANDRES@AJC.COM

Keith Parker helped revive MARTA during his five years as general manager. Now state and regional leaders want another top talent to maintain the momentum for public transportation in metro Atlanta that Parker helped create. BOB ANDRES BANDRES@AJC.COM

Whoever replaces Keith Parker as MARTA's general manager faces a daunting to-do list: Guide the agency through two major expansions while pushing for new service elsewhere. Make sense of the Atlanta Streetcar. Earn the trust of legislators debating state funding for mass transit. And generally help Atlanta solve some of the worst traffic in the world.

Oh, and do all of this while making sure the trains run on time.

In short, the new executive must do everything that Parker did and then some – all while filling the shoes a man who helped revive the image of public transportation in a region where "MARTA" has long been a dirty word.

Parker announced this week he's stepping down to become president and CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia. He leaves as public transportation has gained momentum and favor in metro Atlanta and at the Capitol after decades of inertia. State and regional leaders say finding the right replacement for Parker will be crucial.

A good pick could help Atlanta diversify its car-centric transportation network. A bad one could undermine Parker's achievements.

On Thursday, the MARTA Board of Directors took the first steps toward finding Parker’s successor. It named MARTA’s chief legal counsel, Elizabeth O’Neill, as interim G.M. It also solicited firms to conduct a national search for a permanent replacement. The search is expected to take six to nine months.

Many believe Atlanta can attract another talented leader to run its primary transit agency.

“We’re going to be able to recruit a top candidate,” said State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I think there will be people calling to get that job.”

Parker agreed. He likened his job to that of a runner in a relay race: “Take the baton from current leadership and advance us to the next level.”

Parker said that’s what he did, and he expects his successor to do the same.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a brand-new, fresh perspective about how the organization should be run,” he said. “They’ll find a number of areas for improvement.”

Engineering a turnaround

Parker’s replacement will be plenty busy. The next G.M. will have to win the trust of state lawmakers, manage two expansions and juggle lawsuits and other issues.

Clayton County must decide whether it can afford MARTA rail service or whether a bus rapid transit system – something like a rail service on tires – will suffice. The agency also must work with Atlanta to decide how to spend $2.5 billion for an expansion voters approved last year – a question that has become an issue in this year's mayoral election.

MARTA is negotiating to take over Atlanta's underachieving streetcar line. And ballot measures to expand MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb counties may follow next year.

Throw in lawsuits over MARTA's paratransit service and a recent shooting, and there's no shortage of pressing issues.

Parker said he was mindful of the timing of his departure, and thinks he picked a good time. He said his successor should be on board well before next year's potential expansion votes. If he had left, say, next summer, "it would have put that type of an effort in much more in jeopardy," he said.

Parker came to Atlanta in 2012 from the transit agency in San Antonio, Tex. He inherited a MARTA with declining ridership, a projected $33 million operating deficit and poor relations with state lawmakers.

Five years later, MARTA has more than $240 million in the bank and good relations with legislators. Ridership is declining again after rising for two years. But Parker attributes the decline to cheap gas and other factors and said ridership will rebound when conditions change.

Improvements under Parker paved the way for expansions in Clayton County and Atlanta. Fulton and DeKalb County officials also are talking about transit expansions. In perhaps the biggest political about-face, the Republican-controlled General Assembly – long hostile to public transportation and MARTA in particular – now is talking about state funding for public transportation.

With companies like State Farm, Mercedes-Benz and Kaiser Permanente building along MARTA lines, economic development prospects likely contributed to lawmakers’ newfound appreciation for transit. But many say Parker and his accomplishments were crucial.

“When he first moved here, he said, `I’m not going to come and ask the General Assembly for anything until I get my own house in order,’” Beach said.

Now Parker is leaving just as talk of state funding is getting serious.

“It’s a different (state) discussion now. It’s not, `nobody wants (transit) and there’s not enough money,’” said Atlanta Regional Commission Chairman Kerry Armstrong. “People are interested in it now.

“Keith turned it around,” Armstrong said. “It would help to find a top-level replacement.”

“The changes we’ve made here at MARTA are institutional, not personal,” Parker said. “The progress we’ve seen, I fully expect that progress to continue.”

Wanted: another ‘five-tool player’

Some wonder how much of Parker’s influence should continue. Benita Dodd, vice president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, called him “a dynamic personality” who has “absolutely transformed the agency.”

But she thinks the kind of passenger rail expansions MARTA has pursued under Parker are expensive and misguided. She’d rather see the agency outsource much of its service and take advantage of developing technologies like autonomous vehicles and ride sharing.

“Can MARTA continue his vision or is it time for a new forward-thinking vision that does not involve rail expansion, but more transformational transit approaches?” Dodd said.

So add “technological visionary” to the long list of attributes – transit guru, skillful manager, savvy politician, good listener – that observers say MARTA’s next leader should possess.

MARTA board Chairman Robbie Ashe will have as much say as anyone in choosing Parker’s successor.

“To use a baseball analogy, he’s a five-tool player. He does a variety of things well,” Ashe said. “It will be hard to replace him.”

Five years ago, before MARTA hired Parker, Ashe worried the agency couldn’t attract top-notch talent. But it did. And he’s not worried this time.

“It’s never a good time to lose someone who’s great,” he said. “But we are on far better footing today than five years ago.”