MARTA’s choice of CEO could help it with legislators

The MARTA Board’s choice for a new CEO could determine whether the Legislature exerts more control over the transit authority or stands back to allow that leader to do what’s necessary to get the agency out of financial trouble.

Chief Executive Officer Beverly Scott told the board last December that she would not be asking for another contract when the one in place expires at the end of this year. The agency has yet to set a deadline for choosing a new leader. Eleven candidates have been reduced to four and at least one of them is a MARTA executive.

Atlanta Rep. Mike Jacobs — chairman of MARTOC, the committee that has legislative oversight of MARTA — said the next CEO needs to immediately address MARTA’s “very serious financial situation starting on day one. I’m not sure MARTA has any time for a learning curve.

“It’s my understanding that MARTA has a very good internal candidate,” said Jacobs, a Republican, referring to deputy general manager and chief operating officer Dwight Ferrell. “The decision the MARTA Board makes … may well determine in the very near term the direction of its relationship with the General Assembly. An internal candidate who is committed to doing the work that needs to be done to get MARTA’s fiscal ship righted could go a long way to shoring up and bolstering the relationship with the General Assembly.”

Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said legislators were not threatening MARTA. “It’s just sound advice. I’m going to want someone with more experience [with Atlanta’s system],” said Riley, who also serves on the Legislature’s MARTOC Committee.

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Privatizing some MARTA functions is essential, Jacobs said.

MARTA is not releasing the names of the four finalists; state law requires them to be made public when there are three. But Jacobs confirmed two of them are Ferrell and Keith Parker, president and CEO of the bus system in San Antonio.

Board members have agreed to defer to the chairman when questioned about the search for a CEO. Whoever is chosen also will be the agency’s general manager. Chairman Fred Daniels declined Friday to be interviewed for this article, saying he recently participated in a “question and answer” piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

According to a transcript of that interview, Daniels said the board initially agreed to consider CEO candidates whose experience did not include transit, but have since decided a history in the industry is key. The next CEO must work well with the business community, as well as the Legislature, while also focusing on improving service and meeting customers’ needs, Daniels said.

“An ability to clearly articulate our transit ideas is critical,” Daniels said.

Over the years, the Legislature has been hostile to MARTA and critical of how the agency runs the system and manages its money, which comes a penny sales tax collected in Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties.

At the same time, MARTA has said some of its financial woes can be attributed to the state law that allows MARTA to spend only half of its revenue on running the authority. The law says the other half is reserved for capital improvements and other major projects.

Because of the economic downturn, the Legislature temporarily gave MARTA more financial flexibility. That exemption from the law ends next June.

MARTA is predicting a $33.29 million deficit in this year.

For years, legislators have threatened to give the state more control of the transit agency, and some want the authority to privatize certain functions to reduce expenses.

“This discussion about MARTA’s fiscal situation, from this point forward, will be established by its choice of a general manager,” Jacobs said. “There are legislators who view the MARTA Board’s choice of a general manager as a very serious matter. MARTA has a very serious fiscal situation that it needs to address very quickly. But if it doesn’t, the General Assembly may have to step in to require MARTA to do what needs to be done.”

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