MARTA wants lawmakers to reverse privatization demand

MARTA directors want the state Senate to reject proposed changes to state law that would mandate privatizing certain functions of the transit authority.

General Manager Keith Parker said the revisions demanding that private companies manage parts of MARTA’s business, ranging from para-transit to payroll, could jeopardize federal grants and result in inferior service or higher costs.

“We don’t think that would be prudent,” Parker told board members Monday. “This is to make sure that as the legislation proceeds, it not have any unintended consequences.”

Parker, who began overseeing MARTA in December, and the board of directors plan to pursue privatization to revamp the financially-strapped authority over five years. But they fear legislation the House passed last month will handcuff their decision-making.

They say it requires implementing privatization recommendations before the authority has vetted them.

Consultant KPMG did a management audit for MARTA’s board. It found that MARTA, which runs an annual operating deficit of about $30 million, spent $50 million above the national average for employee benefits and could save between $60 million and $142 million over five years by outsourcing many functions.

“We as a board need to have flexibility and we shouldn’t be constrained,” said director Rod Edmond. “To sit back and mandate things that people don’t know anything about is dangerous.”

State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, who authored the legislation, said he expected it might be tweaked to ensure it didn’t run afoul of federal rules protecting the union’s ability to bargain with management. But he said he didn’t expect major revisions.

Meanwhile, union officials are trying to rally MARTA riders against any privatization, claiming it will endanger service, salaries and eventually safety.

Last week, about 20 union members handed out pamphlets at the Five Points rail station. One rider, Alexandria Mayers said she feared privatization would mean more fare increases and service cuts for MARTA, which had already raised fares by 43 percent and cut service since 2009. “I don’t want to pay more and get less,” she said.

Georgians for Better Transit, a group allied with the Amalgamated Transit Union, collected 1,839 signatures opposing privatization last week to present to the state Senate, said Ashley Robbins, campaign director for the group. The group is the state affiliate of Americans for Better Transit, of which former MARTA general manager Beverly Scott is a director.

Union leaders contend privatization is a politically driven move to benefit private companies, such as Veolia Transportation, which runs bus services in Cobb and Gwinnett counties and will expand to regular bus and rail operations at MARTA.

“As I understand it this is the opening of the door to much broader privatization — that is what this bill is designed to do,” said Larry Hanley, president of the International ATU in Washington. “Believe me, Veolia would not be nipping around the edges in Atlanta. They want everything that is not tied down.”

“The union appears to want to find a hidden agenda lurking behind every corner,” Jacobs said. “They really need to just go back and read the KPMG audit for answers to their question about why House bill 264 is moving through the General Assembly.”

Hanley contended Veolia has cut service and raised fares when it has contracted to run transit elsewhere around the county.

Alan Moldawer, general counsel for Veolia, said the private contractor just bids on the service offered and only the public authority could cut service or raise fares.

Jacobs, who chairs a legislative oversight committee of MARTA, noted para-transit service for Medicaid recipients could not be cut because it is mandated by federal law. He would not rule out future privatization of MARTA bus and rail but said that would be based on privatization’s performance and recommendations by outside auditors.

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News photographer/reporter John Spink contributed to this story