MARTA CEO: Ridership, revenue up. Wifi on horizon.

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this report.

MARTA ridership and revenue are up, signs the transportation system is at long last rebounding from a steady five-year decline.

The upshot for passengers: continuing improvements to service, including a proposal announced Thursday for adding hi-tech “smart restrooms,” one of which is already open as a pilot project.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker said the system is now operating in the black, with $422.8 million in revenue during the last fiscal year, up from $332.9 million in 2009.

And while ridership figures are still far below the 156 million annual trips MARTA saw five years ago, the system has recently seen an uptick, adding a million new trips in the first quarter of this fiscal year, a 6 to 7 percent increase from a year ago.

Much of that gain, Parker said, is seen in Buckhead, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody.

Parker, who joined the once-troubled agency two years ago, said the growth stems from improving perception and services, such as on-time performance. At the same time, the agency is working to appeal to an influx of millennials flocking to the city with technological advances, like tracking trains with smartphones.

With those improvements in service, technology and police presence, “We think we’ve made it a lot cooler to ride the service.”

Adds Chief Administrative Officer Edward Johnson: “We believe the riding passenger has more confidence in the system now … the customer experience has been a lot more pleasant.”

There are more practical reasons for increased ridership, however, in MARTA’s internal analysis. This year MARTA restored more frequent train service, and it may have accomplished its goal: luring back train riders.

After factoring out other changes from September 2013 to September 2014 — such as service schedules, weather and special events — MARTA recorded passengers boarding 690,000 more times than they would have expected. The shorter waits between trains and better connections instituted may well be the cause, the agency reasoned.

The increase is a dramatic turnaround from recent years. During the worst of the recession, MARTA ran a deficit and neared what agency leaders called a “fiscal cliff” as bus and rail ridership declined. MARTA responded by raising rates 42 percent while slashing services. With revenue in a free-fall, the agency lived off reserves.

The system’s surplus has allowed MARTA to build its savings, and in turn invest in new buses while adding services, the agency said.

On Thursday Parker announced the system plans to convert some of its station bathrooms to “smart restrooms,” a high-tech facility that uses motion sensors and software to track users and maintenance needs.

MARTA’s pilot restroom is now open at its Lindbergh rail station, with the next to open in East Point by late summer. The high-tech toilets alleviate the need for around-the-clock restroom staffing, and the agency hopes to ultimately re-open the facilities that were closed during the recession.

Parker said MARTA is now working on additional technological improvements to appeal to modern passengers, such as adding Wifi to buses and trains. The agency is also exploring smartphone apps that would allow passengers to make mobile payments and use their phones to access MARTA .

“We want to do everything we can do to keep our customers connected, that’s what the young folks tell us,” he said. “…Bottom line is you won’t need a Breeze card. You will just need your phone.”

MARTA is experimenting with improving revenue through additional transit oriented development, targeting several stations such as King Memorial, Arts Center, Edgewood/Candler Park and Brookhaven for office, residential and retail development.

And the agency expects the expansion of bus service in Clayton to begin in coming months as the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County have each signed off on the project. The system is recruiting police officers, bus operators and related positions there, Parker said, with hopes of beginning its three initial routes next year.

“Ridership is up. Revenue is up. Clayton has joined. Crime is trending in the right direction, and we have some technology improvements we think will put us at the forefront in the nation,” Parker said.

And Parker believes upcoming state legislation that could lead to greater infrastructure funding “is poising MARTA to be in a very solid position.”

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