After leading MARTA for less than a year, CEO Keith Parker said Atlanta’s troubled transit system is in need of more investment — wherever it can get it — to thrive.
Parker, who spoke to the Buckhead Business Association during its weekly breakfast meeting Thursday, said MARTA is the ninth-largest public transit in the U.S. and has an annual economic impact of $1.4 billion, according to Georgia State University.
He spoke of MARTA’s five-year plan to become financially sustainable despite dwindling ridership and lack of funding sources.
“The agency has been through several challenges. Most transit systems have a two- or three-leg funding stool. MARTA has one leg,” Parker said, referring to sales taxes from DeKalb and Fulton counties.
He also discussed the fiscal 2014 operating budget of $426.9 million, which did not include a previously projected 25-cent fare increase.
“We were anticipating in the budget yet another fare increase that would be going into effect right about now, but we’ve eliminated that fare increase,” Parker said, adding fares will likely not go up for the next few years until the transit system has more riders to support it.
Increasing ridership involves restoring services that were cut, including bringing back train and bus routes and opening up restroom facilities that have been shuttered at some stops, he said.
Parker said MARTA has $100 million in reserves that is being tapped out by its budget deficit, but he expects to balance the budget in the next three to five years and eventually get the agency in the black. The money-making strategy includes developing public-private partnerships, charging parking fees and amping up advertising initiatives.
“We are going to be a much more aggressive agency in terms of looking for revenue generation opportunities,” he said.
On top of the restored routes, Parker said while MARTA is ranked one of the safest transit systems in the country, people “feel just a bit uncomfortable” when they get on trains so the agency will add additional security cameras and police presence to deter what he referred to as “knucklehead” behavior.
He said the goal is not to arrest people deemed a nuisance but to get riders to respect one another.
“If people don’t feel comfortable on our services they won’t ride, so we are going to go very aggressively after uncivil behavior that some of our folks exhibit, whether it’s loud music or too much jostling around or eating or what have you. … This is what I call knucklehead behavior and this is the type of thing that makes the ride unpleasant,” Parker said.
He said MARTA does need to focus on expanding into counties like Cobb and Gwinnett and confirmed leadership in those counties are getting on board with the effort, with 32 percent of MARTA ridership coming from outside Atlanta.
“One of the challenges of our region is that many of the folks who would traditionally ride our system are moving well beyond our service lines because the housing is cheaper in the suburban areas and they are being replaced by more affluent people who are tougher to convert to mass transit,” he said.
But first and foremost, the agency must find the funds to reach beyond the city.
“Overall, what’s happened to the system is that it’s been de-funded to the point where it’s become a skeletal system on the bus side in particular,” he said. “And there’s no other word to describe it: it’s crummy service in a lot of ways.”
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, association member Brian Maguire asked how the new Buckhead pedestrian bridge, which will connect the Buckhead MARTA station to nearby developments, will impact the Ga. 400/Lenox Road area.
“It’s going to really transform the way this area looks,” Parker said of the structure planned to be completed in December.
He added that the bridge will make people likely to use MARTA to take a trip north to the Perimeter Mall area or south to the airport and make places like shopping destination Buckhead Station more walkable.
“When the bridge is finished, that literally becomes a one-block walk from the train station,” he said. “And then the connectivity that’s going east and west so dramatically improves.”