MARTA betrays its workers

Early next month, Atlanta may wake up to shocking news: the dismantling and selling off of MARTA, our public transit system, to private companies.

MARTA Board Chair Robbie Ashe, CEO Keith Parker and the MARTA Board of Directors are promoting this scheme as “progress,” using fancy titles like “public-private partnerships.” They say their goal is to shore up finances.

How would they do that? First, they want to tear up MARTA Mobility, the paratransit service that seniors and people with disabilities rely on. According to one internal MARTA memo, the plan includes shoving riders into taxis to “off-load a portion of trips” to make their numbers look better. It means endangering riders aboard unsafe vehicles operated by overworked and underpaid part-time employees driving over 30 hours per week.

But on top of abandoning riders and exploiting workers, they want to sell Mobility altogether, letting a private company manage the service. Another internal MARTA memo quotes one out-of-state bidder, saying, “Cost savings is not one of the objectives of this proposal.” Huh? That sounds more like deception than progress.

Clearly, the goal is not to improve transit service or reduce costs. It is to enrich a few at the expense and impoverishment of many.

Mr. Parker earns $325,000 per year plus a $25,000 bonus for every year he stays on the job. That’s far more than transit chiefs earn in larger cities like Chicago or Dallas. It’s also exponentially more than paratransit workers and riders make. Yet in their memo, MARTA officials acknowledge that “low wages” and “inflexible work schedules” lead to high turnover. That truth was echoed by Mr. Parker in his previous life, when he commissioned a report sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration that said privatizing paratransit doesn’t work, partly because low wages paid by privateers lead to high turnover.

Confused? Apparently so are Mr. Parker and Mr. Ashe. They justify their hoodwinking with a 2012 report from accounting firm KPMG, which recommended outsourcing. That report, however, has been widely discredited including by Dr. Elliot Sclar, a specialist in the economics of public services, who asserts KPMG’s conclusions are “based on false comparisons, illegitimate cost measures, and incomplete data.”

Tellingly, Mr. Parker and Mr. Ashe refuse to show the public the raw numbers KPMG used to reach its conclusions. Those details are locked in a vault in Mr. Parker’s office. They claim that the numbers contain “proprietary information.” News flash to Parker and Ashe: The people of Georgia, not you, own MARTA.

Ironically, the website of Mr. Ashe’s law firm brags about handling cases for people seeking open records under Georgia’s laws. His firm also touts that it once “settled a case against accounting titan KPMG and investors seeking $500 million caused by fraudulent tax shelters.”

There also are many cautionary tales of paratransit privatization in cities such as Dallas and Palm Beach, Fla. Private contractors make lofty promises that can’t possibly be honored by locking cities into multi-year paratransit contracts and then failing miserably, providing awful service on unsafe vehicles that are not fit for anyone.

Keith Parker was against outsourcing paratransit before he was for it. Mr. Ashe was against government secrecy before he was for it. At least now, both men’s positions are clear. They both support breaking up our public transit service, eliminating as many as 1,000 jobs, and telling citizens one thing while they share internal memos saying the opposite.

Georgia has the highest unemployment rate in the country. The policies of bureaucrats like Ashe and Parker will only make it worse. MARTA once lifted a generation of workers, especially African-Americans, into the middle class. Now, the guys in charge are pushing the middle class toward extinction.

If they succeed, we may soon be living in the old Atlanta, where working and disadvantaged Georgians are left behind while the privileged and wealthy race ahead. I say “might” because MARTA workers, our riders and our community allies will do everything in our power to stop this campaign to rob Atlantans. We hope Mayor Kasim Reed, with his three MARTA board appointees, and the leaders of Fulton and DeKalb counties, who appoint the rest, will stand with us, their citizens, and do the right thing.

Curtis Howard is president of Local 732 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 2,859 of MARTA’s 4,553 full-time employees.

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