One week ago today, the City of Atlanta received the sad news that MARTA CEO Keith Parker would be resigning to take over management of Goodwill of North Georgia. He had held his post for nearly five years, during which time he proved to be a transformational leader of the agency. Upon assuming leadership of MARTA, he quickly turned their finances around by changing their budget deficit into a surplus. He worked with the Georgia Legislature to create extra financial flexibility for the agency. He oversaw successful efforts to begin expanding MARTA and increasing revenue for transit service. Twenty years from now, he will likely be viewed as a revolutionary who not only saved MARTA, but turned it into the world-class transit service that it is now on the path to becoming.
Of course, that is assuming that his successor can effectively follow in his footsteps. Parker was an eminently qualified individual who had the skills and knowledge to get MARTA back on track – it now falls to the MARTA Board of Directors to find a similarly competent candidate to lead the agency. In the meantime, MARTA’s chief counsel Elizabeth O’Neill will serve an interim general manager and CEO. She has been with the organization for 22 years, making her a wise, experienced choice to lead while the board conducts their search for a full-time CEO.
MARTA is at a critical juncture. There are many great things planned for the agency, but for now, that is exactly what they are – plans. If MARTA wishes to continue the progress they have made over the last few years, they will require someone with the vision and the steady hand comparable to that of Parker.
The Atlanta metro area is in dire need of MARTA’s services. The city is growing every day, traffic is getting worse, and commutes continue to consume too much time and energy from local citizens. A state of the art, expansive transit service would do a great deal to alleviate many of the problems from which the area suffers.
Fortunately, Republican leaders at the Capitol who once seemed disinterested at best and hostile at worst towards transit are increasingly looking at public transit as a viable solution to transportation issues, just as their Democratic colleagues have been for years. Georgia Senator Brandon Beach (R) has been the GOP point person on transit, going to bat for MARTA when few others on his side of the aisle would. Now, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston have both expressed interest in finally taking action on MARTA’s future.
The 2018 legislative session will present a golden opportunity to create new resources for MARTA’s improvement in the coming decades, but the right leader will need to be in place to seize that opportunity. Parker is leaving behind large shoes to fill, but I am confident that MARTA’s Board of Directors will put politics and favoritism aside to ensure the agency has a bright future.
Tharon Johnson is a consultant with Paramount Consulting Group and a Democrat strategist.