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Keith Parker

General Manager and CEO

(David Kidd)

(David Kidd)

For decades, Atlanta’s transit system was an unloved afterthought in a car-centric region. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) struggled to attract riders, avoid big deficits and win some respect at the state Capitol downtown. All of that has changed, though, since Keith Parker took the helm of the agency in 2012.

Parker, 50, who previously led transit systems in Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio, helped steer MARTA in a different direction almost as soon as he took over. The hardest part, Parker says, was just “convincing people to give us a shot.” His pitch to skeptics was: “Don’t give us anything. We’re not asking for anything from the state, from the cities, from local governments. We’re not asking for any new money, any new legislation, anything like that. Just give us a year to prove ourselves, and then we can talk about future investment.” 

He launched a safety campaign on MARTA’s trains and buses, decreased wait times, reopened bathrooms, gave employees bonuses and finished his first year with a $9 million surplus, instead of the $33 million deficit that was projected before he came in. Parker also helped MARTA build trust with riders and the general public by focusing on some of the smaller parts of the customer experience. He tries to instill an approach of “routine excellence.” He figures that if buses are clean, if they run on time and if drivers are polite, other things will fall into place.

So far, the approach has worked. MARTA expanded its footprint for the first time in its history in 2014, when Clayton County voted to join the service area, just the third county in the Atlanta area to participate. Voters in Clayton approved the change by a 3-to-1 margin, even though it came with a 1-cent sales tax increase. MARTA now operates bus service in the county and is planning for a commuter rail line, or another high-capacity option, in the near future.

That paved the way for the vote by Atlanta residents this November to raise $2.4 billion for MARTA over the next 40 years. MARTA will use the money to modernize and expand its bus fleet, allowing the agency, Parker says, to dramatically change its bus service to attract new customers. The money will also help build new light rail lines and upgrade train stations and bus stops. 

In the meantime, the agency is pushing efforts big and small in response to riders’ demands. That includes promoting transit-oriented development; helping attract employers including Mercedes-Benz, Kaiser Permanente and State Farm to new office space near MARTA rail stations; and developing a new smartphone app that will allow riders to use their phones to pay their fares. The agency has launched community gardens, soccer fields, farmer’s markets, and concerts by classical and jazz musicians in MARTA rail stations.

Parker didn’t come up with all of the ideas for MARTA’s turnaround himself. The agency’s board put together a strategic plan even before he was hired. And Parker spent three months before he started his job holding listening sessions with just about anyone who had a stake in MARTA’s future. “We listened very intently,” he says. He believes getting that feedback and investing in employees were crucial to turning around the agency.

Today, Parker is regarded by many as the man who saved MARTA, but he is focused on the work ahead. “We’re not doing any victory laps yet,” he says. 

-- By Daniel C. Vock

See the rest of the 2016 Public Officials of the Year.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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