Surprising Similarities between the Realities Facing St. Louis’ and Atlanta’s Transit Systems

12112012 Martaparker ba01The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the 9th largest transportation system in the country and has been known for its racial, regional, and partisan acrimony since its beginning.  Any of these challenges sound familiar St. Louis?

Originally envisioned to be a system that crossed 5 different counties, MARTA has never expanded past its initial two counties in the heart of the Atlanta region.

While most of the nation’s transit systems get about a quarter of their income from state funds, the MARTA system doesn’t get any operating money from the state and is heavily dependent on local sales taxes – very similar to the St. Louis system.  This reality has made MARTA vulnerable to economic downturns that has led to route eliminations, extended wait times for trains, closed restrooms on the system and more.  The suspected worst was the 40% fare increase passed on to passengers.  And ridership dropped by a sixth in 4 years time.

According to many in the transit industry, managing MARTA is one of the toughest jobs in the country, but Keith Parker is helping to change its downward spiral.

Helped by economic and demographic changes, commercial construction restarting after the recession, and new projects like State Farm’s campus linked directly to one of their stations, the tides for MARTA seem to be changing.

In his first few days on the job, Parker googled stories about MARTA and he didn’t find a single positive article about the agency in the past 6 months, so he viewed changing that negative image as one of the major tasks to undertake.  His efforts were further supported when he told residents he was looking for a house next to a MARTA rail station at his initial press conference.  As someone who appears on TV regularly, he is also easily spotted riding the train to and from work everyday, as well as to meetings throughout the day.

Early on, Parker learned that the MARTA anticipated a deficit of $25 – $30 million in one year, with similar deficits anticipated for years to come.  In response, Parker began soliciting ideas for how to save money.  In one department, he listened to the ideas for saving money from the employees and saved the agency  $250,000 a year.  He also brought technology services in house and cut the costs of tech consultants by $14 million, another example of cost saving measures.  All in all, instead of a $33 million deficit, MARTA closed the books with a $9 million surplus.

He then took to the road.  He made sure that the Wall Street rating agencies knew about MARTAs progress with a personal visit, leading to an upgraded Moody rating saving the agency another $4.2 million on a bond offering.

In terms of TOD, Parker pushed 5 new transit oriented development projects on MARTA land to transform the areas around the stations.  They replaced surface parking lots, built mixed use projects, as well as leased rather than sold the land in order to provide the system another stream of income.

He also worked to increase Atlanta’s abysmal 3% of commuter ridership.  He did this by reducing wait times on the light rail line, increasing bus routes, opening bathrooms, giving employees raises and more.  Though the agency still lost ridership, it was by a much smaller percent than in years prior.

The agency sought to attract customers by addressing passengers concerns about safety.  Most safety complaints involved small nuances such as pan handlers, passengers blasting loud music, or rowdy teens fighting with each other (sound familiar St. Louis?).  To address these concerns and attract new riders, MARTA launched the “Ride with Respect” campaign, to address what he called “Knucklehead behavior” on the system.  To enforce the message, the systems security began cracking down on passengers who violated the systems new code of conduct by suspeding and sometimes banning some people’s ridership.

He also took to the airwaves with TV ads featuring Ludacris and Jeff Foxworthy.  “In the ads, rapper Ludacris says he likes to play his music loud – but not on MARTA light rail and buses.  Comedian Jeff Foxworthy cracks that he likes the system better, now that some of his cousins aren’t allowed to ride.”

With these favorable public efforts, state officials have started to see the agency in a different light.  Through all of these efforts, Parker asked for very little from state officials and did not seek a financial bailout.  Now, that the impressions of MARTA are moving in more favorable directions, legislation has been cleared to make a system expansion possible, the first in the agency’s history.

Between the lack of state funding, the low ridership, the perceptions of safety, and the slow move toward expansion, the similarities between Metro and MARTA seemed worth exploring.  We hope Atlanta’s example might inspire some thinking and planning in the St. Louis region.

Article Source:  “Getting There,” by Danial Vock in Governing, October 2014 issue.  Pg 52 – 55.