Mike Jacobs

A new year means a new start, and MARTA is fortunate to have new leadership at the helm — General Manager Keith Parker. The highly-acclaimed administrator has a good management record in which he worked to improve transit in his previous cities of San Antonio and Charlotte.

Parker’s appointment couldn’t have happened at a more crucial juncture for MARTA, its patrons and its taxpayers, as MARTA’s financial stability remains in limbo. Just last week, MARTA said it was entertaining yet another 25-cent fare hike to balance its books.

With new leadership at MARTA, it’s time for MARTA’s management and board of directors to embrace creative ideas to ensure the transit system is still with us in the future. The fiscal solution is not continued fare hikes or calls for taxpayer infusions of cash into the beleaguered system. Instead, MARTA needs to embrace the 114-page roadmap put before it by KPMG last fall in an audit that outlines smart choices to get its finances in order.

For example, one of KPMG’s suggestions was that MARTA should outsource seven “back office” business functions to one or more private operators including payroll, employee records and accounts payable, for a projected savings of $17 to $27 million over five years.

KPMG’s auditors also offered the idea that MARTA hire private contractors to operate five other services such as cleaning, customer care and the highly expensive paratransit bus service, which serves disabled citizens with a virtually personalized service. This could result in an additional $43 to $115 million in savings over five years.

Of course, MARTA’s union is opposing such ideas including the concept of shifting the employees’ retirement plan to a 401k plan – the type of retirement system found virtually everywhere outside of government service and gaining widespread acceptance in government, as well. MARTA could save $59 million with modest changes to its healthcare plans and $34 million if it gradually moved to a 401k, according to KPMG.

MARTA’s union contract expires this summer. Now is the time for its board to extract concessions to bring transformational change to a culture at MARTA that yields high absenteeism and a disregard for efficiencies. The board can’t expect to keep squeezing money from cash-strapped patrons, and state leaders have said they won’t consider funding MARTA until there is dramatic change in how it operates.

And the future isn’t pretty for MARTA, either. MARTA’s debt service is 40 to 45 percent of its annual prior year sales tax revenues. In comparison, the state is constitutionally limited to a 10 percent debt service. The annual debt service for MARTA is projected to escalate annually for at least the next 10 years.

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. With Keith Parker at the helm, we may get great ideas to lead MARTA out of its financial mess, but this requires a board willing to support those ideas. That’s why it is essential we restructure the MARTA board so that the new cities in Fulton and DeKalb counties have representation on the board.

Cities are closest to the people in making transportation policy, and citizens in Sandy Springs, Brookhaven and Dunwoody have chosen to give their cities the power to speak on their behalf in this regard.

Many of these much-needed changes could be led by Parker and the MARTA board. Other changes will require action in the General Assembly, which is likely to occur in this year’s legislative session. With MARTA’s union contract expiring this summer and a new general manager, the time is right to embrace change at the South’s largest transit system.

MARTA cannot sustain itself with continued red ink. More of the same policies will only cause more pain for patrons and taxpayers. The time is right for MARTA and its leaders to truly lead MARTA into the 21st Century.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) is chairman of the MARTA Oversight Committee (MARTOC), a joint committee of the Georgia House and Senate. Rep. Jacobs can be reached at (404) 656-5116 or repjacobs@gmail.com.