MARTA board names two finalists for general manager

The two finalists to head MARTA named Friday have backgrounds that would help them deal with the financial problems faced by the nation’s ninth-largest transit agency, but perhaps in different ways.

Stephen “Steve” Bland of Pittsburgh is known as a tough negotiator with unions who can squeeze money from legislators hostile to public transit and prevent layoffs during painful service cuts. Keith Parker of San Antonio gets points for balancing his budget without fare increases or service cuts in a recession and for finding money to implement a street-car system.

Neither man has run a system as large as MARTA, with its $435 million operating budget.

Whoever is named MARTA’s new general manager will be entering a hostile environment. Riders are smarting over two fare increases in recent years and this summer voters rejected a regional 1-cent sales tax that would have provided $600 million to MARTA for maintenance and upgrades. MARTA executives have said the agency is draining its financial reserves to avoid service cuts now but by 2016 it will need more money.

Since 2006, Bland has headed Allegheny County Port Authority, which provides bus, light rail and paratransit service daily to 230,000 riders in metro Pittsburgh. Stu Strickland, who has dealt with the authority for 20 years while on the Allegheny County Transit Council, said Bland has had an acrimonious relationship with the local Amalgamated Transit Union because of his tough negotiating on contracts and pension benefits. MARTA transit workers are also represented by the ATU.

But his negotiating saved 500 operator jobs from being cut this Labor Day weekend because the concessions he won persuaded the Legislature and governor to cough up more money, Strickland said. Unlike the Georgia Legislature, Pennsylvania provides substantial funding for transit.

“Bland was able to get a deal in place,” Strickland said. “Depending on who you talk to, Steve is either highly looked upon or highly reviled. From my perspective he is very fair and he is honest and upfront, but labor sees him as being anti labor and in the pocket of government.”

Bland also is one of three finalists for a job heading the Jacksonville Transportation Authority in Florida, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Parker has fans in San Antonio, where he heads VIA Metropolitan Transit and helped the city implement a street-car system that is scheduled to be running in 2016.

“From the moment we hired Keith Parker, we knew most likely it was going to be a short-term relationship,” VIA board member Mary Briseño told the San Antonio Express-News. “We knew he was a superstar.”

Among Parker’s top successes listed by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles were ridership increases in the past two years that ranked among the highest in the nation, a 20 percent decrease in bus and paratransit accidents, developing good relationships with legislators and federal officials, and securing $200 million in local contributions to implement a five-year transit capital improvement plan.

The search firm credited Bland with cutting $35 million from the cost of a $500 million subway project and developing a local funding source for transit now generating $32 million annually while making the necessary service cuts due to financial shortfalls.

Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit in metro Atlanta, said she would be comfortable with either Bland or Parker.

Some transit advocates had feared the board might give the job to MARTA Chief Operating Officer Dwight Ferrell, who had made the candidate short list of seven names.

“An outside candidate has the opportunity to provide a breath of fresh air,” Robbins said. “A vote for the internal candidate is a vote for the status quo, and the status quo isn’t working.”

State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, the head of the MARTA legislative oversight committee, had favored Ferrell because he believed Ferrell was committed to privatizing parts of the agency’s administration and support services. Jacobs considers that essential to building support for MARTA in the Legislature.

“He does not require a learning curve and was a candidate who was committed to doing what needs to be done to bring MARTA’s financial dire straits under control,” Jacobs said.

Under the open meetings law, the MARTA board will have to wait at least 14 days before voting on its final choice, who will replace General Manager Beverly Scott, who said last year she would resign at the end of 2012.

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