How Lt. Gov. would engineer MARTA’s future

Perhaps no Georgia Republican has supported transit more publicly than Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Certainly, none who holds such a high office and aspires to a higher one.

So, as the legislative session wound down last month, I asked Cagle about a pared-down bill to expand MARTA in Atlanta. He spoke, animatedly, for almost an hour — giving the impression he didn’t fault MARTA for originally seeking a larger expansion so much as having too little vision.

“There are people being served by this entity,” Cagle began. “But I would submit to you that if it were truly adding immense value, it would be oversubscribed. And I don’t know that we’re at that place. … How do you fix that? What do you make MARTA?”

Note the transformation implied there. Cagle is clearly more impressed by other U.S. systems — “Go to D.C., go to any other metropolitan area, and you will find a system that people see value in. And they are utilizing it daily.” — and by intercity networks abroad. Consider “the ability to get on a train and go anywhere in Germany you choose, with an app on your phone that says exactly when the train is arriving.”

In Georgia, he suggested, that could mean “a true commuter option” enabling “someone in northern Gwinnett to get on a train and come to the city (of Atlanta), with all of those amenities, with WiFi (and) the ability to do an hour’s work.”

That involves more than rebranding the agency or improving security, perennial ideas Cagle echoed, or adding fancier train cars. It would require a revamped MARTA, one he described as “country club” and even “elite.”

“If you have (more) capital, you could introduce new types of deliverables for consumers that are more of a nonstop approach,” he explained. “There is no reason why you couldn’t introduce express (service) with local and integrate it with the existing system and add to it.”

Sounds expensive. But Cagle warned the state won’t invest in MARTA until it’s convinced the agency is on a new track. He called for changes like those that turned around Grady Memorial Hospital, including a “sustainable financial model” and a “governance structure in which the state and all stakeholders feel confident investing.”

This may be surprising to those who thought MARTA's general manager, Keith Parker, already led such a turnaround. "I think Keith, when he came here, he had a lot of challenges — I mean a lot of challenges — he had to face," Cagle allowed. "And I think it was more of steadying the ship than thinking futuristically about what could be. …

“Whoever leads this organization’s going to have to look at it that way,” he continued. “But I don’t think Keith’s had the freedom and the ability to look at it that way. … You can’t place all the blame at his feet. It’s like a football coach. If he doesn’t pick his players, are you really going to blame him for losing?”

MARTA, he said, needs “the right people in all of the positions” so that “you really do have a board, and it is made up of independent experts.” The agency should be run “as a business, not a political organization.”

His bottom line: “You’re sitting on a gold mine, and unfortunately you’re squandering it. That’s the way a business guy looks at it.”