When Keith Parker can, he takes the stairs. And he doesn't just take the stairs, he jogs the stairs. On a recent Friday after lunch, the upbeat 46-year-old hustled up a half-dozen flights from the atrium of MARTA's Buckhead headquarters to the sixth-floor executive offices. Parker took over as CEO in mid-December from Bev Scott, who, after five years of leading the embattled transit agency, moved to Boston. Along the way, he stops briefly to introduce himself to employees he hasn't yet met. One is from the budget office.
"We need to talk," he says with a smile.
Parker, who came to MARTA after leading San Antonio's VIA system and the Charlotte Area Transit System, is walking into a minefield. Auditors say that MARTA's economic model, which mostly relies on a one-cent sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb counties and fare collections, can't continue to support a robust transit system and is unsustainable. State lawmakers seem intent on either overtaking the system or, at the very least, gaining enough control to cut its service to nothing, or privatize everything from the janitorial services to the rail repair.
Solving the problems will require tough choices, innovation, and the ability to forge relationships with the state, which has in the past been indifferent and at times outright hostile to the transit system. According to MARTA, it keeps an estimated 185,000 cars off of the road and is responsible for the creation of more than 20,000 jobs throughout the state.
Parker plans to spend the coming months asking riders what they want out of MARTA and considering whether to follow through on some recommendations made in a multipart audit commissioned in 2011 by the transit system. According to the report, changes in how the agency is operated could free up millions of dollars, which Parker says could then be reinvested in the MARTA buses and trains. Come summer, he'll sit down with transit union officials to renegotiate contracts — a potentially contentious process, but one that could free up cash. He will also look at how MARTA can partner with the private sector to develop the properties surrounding its rail stations into mixed-use hubs, a move which could raise money, build ridership, and help keep cars off the roads.
Parker's main focus, however, seems to be on giving transit-dependent riders — whom he refers to as "customers" — the most "dignified" trip possible and wooing people who choose not to use the system.
In other cities where he's worked, Parker oversaw free-bus ride days to get people hooked on the service. He also developed a system that texts people when their bus or train approaches to save them time. In Charlotte, transit officials held hundreds of meetings to ask citizens how they could coax them onto a bus. After the transit agency was given a laundry list of grievances — uncomfortable seats, grumpy drivers, lack of storage space — they built a bus with those features.
"We made a bus that met those needs," Parker says. "More reclining seats, plush seats. Individual air controls with individual lighting. Overhead storage. Wi-Fi on vehicles in San Antonio. All these things were relatively low cost. ... But the impact on the riders is huge. They viewed it as a first-class airplane trip versus the traditional, as they would argue, uncomfortable bus."
He's also bullish on releasing more of the data that the agency collects to programmers and developers to create apps or build websites. It was his idea to post his contract on the Internet as a sign of transparency.
If successful, the moves could help win over the transit agency's longtime critics, ranging from state officials to anti-transit policymakers in the suburbs. And perhaps maybe, just maybe, convince the state, which has never helped fund the system's operations, to finally invest in MARTA by showing it the important role transit plays in metro Atlanta.
"When you change how people fundamentally feel about the transit system, I think you can change how they feel about investing in the transit system," he says. "If we get our act together here, make great improvements here, get people excited about it, people talking about it, I think great things will come."