The second meeting of the House Commission on Transit Governance met at the MARTA headquarters on Wednesday. The meeting opened up with a thanks from the commission chair Rep. Kevin Tanner (R- 9 Dawsonville) for MARTA CEO Keith Parker, a fellow transit commission member and recognized direction-changer at the formerly perennially plagued transit system.
Following his recognition from the Chair, Parker proceeded to give an overview on MARTA. It is the United States ninth largest transit authority. It started out as a bus only system in 1971 and added rail in 1979. There are now 38 rail stations and nearly 600 buses, with an additional 200 vehicles providing services for those with disabilities. Every day, MARTA provides approximately 400,000 trips. It is one of the state’s largest employers with nearly 5,000 workers. It is also the only top 10 transit system that receives no annual dedicated state funding.
Like most businesses during the recession, MARTA was hit hard. It had to trim $100 million from its budget and laid off more than 700 employees. Over the course of nearly 10 years, most employees only got one raise. They also eliminated one-third of all bus routes and waiting times for trains were dramatically increased as well. Fares were also raised approximately 42%.
Parker came in at the end of 2012 and was faced with some daunting numbers. At the time, “the transit system was in an unsustainable freefall,” says Parker. The system was losing between $25 and $35 million a year. The 2012 annual audit predicted that by this year, the budget reserve would be at 0 and the system would be fiscally insolvent. Since Parker arrived, this has changed.
Within the first nine months of Parker coming on board, a projected budget deficit of $33 million was turned into a $9 million surplus. Each year since then, they’ve been able to add to the budget reserve with continuing surpluses and they now are carrying a nearly quarter billion budget reserve. Thanks to the fiscal turnaround, MARTA has been able to receive upgrades in their credit ratings and has turned that into savings – totaling approximately $48 million.
Parker also discussed MARTA’s efforts to change the behavior of riders and crime. The Ride With Respect campaign took a zero tolerance policy and suspended (usually temporary for two to four weeks) more than 10,000 people from the system for a variety of infractions – loud music or fare evasion, for example. According to the FBI, MARTA is second for fewest number of serious crimes. Thanks to all these efforts, MARTA has seen a significant increase in people’s views of safety on the system.
Following Parker’s presentation and some questions from fellow commission members, Tanner reiterated his optimism for the goals of the committee. “If we’re ever going to be able to make great strides in this area of transit, we’ve got a group of people here who, for the first time, quite frankly in a long time, are liked minded to put personal differences aside and to really focus on what’s in the best interest of our citizens, of not just Gwinnett or Cobb or Fulton but for the whole region. I think this is an opportunity we can really make some progress and I’m looking forward to seeing that happen over the next year or so.”
The next step for the commission is releasing an RFP to hire a consultant with expertise in transit. The consultant will conduct a study for needs assessment. It will also develop both long and short-term plans for transit. The commission voted unanimously to move forward with the consultant plan and hopes to make a selection by the next meeting.