MARTA is gaining lots of praise—and new transit riders—for stepping up service after the I-85 highway collapse that is snarling metro traffic. But Keith Parker, the transit agency’s CEO, says he’s not patting himself on the back or cheering the silver lining.

“By no means do we gloat or bask in this,” Parker said of the I-85 disaster at an April 11 Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce luncheon. That’s not to say he was shy about touting his own speedy Red Line commute time, which drew several exclamations of “wow!” from the crowd.

Keith Parker, MARTA’s CEO and general manager, speaks at the April 11 Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel. (John Ruch)

“I got on the train at 8:48 this morning and was at my office at 9:01,” said Parker, a Roswell resident who rides from Sandy Springs’ North Springs Station to MARTA headquarters at Buckhead’s Lindbergh Center Station.

Parker’s long-scheduled appearance at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel luncheon was intended to highlight the now familiar story of MARTA’s dramatic turnaround since he became its CEO and general manager in 2012. Parker presented his standard financial and customer charts laden with upward-tilting arrows, and touched on such other hot-button issues as the Braves stadium and the Atlanta Streetcar.

But the March 30 fire-triggered collapse of the I-85 overpass, which happened within smoke-smelling distance of MARTA’s HQ, has become a watershed moment for Atlanta public transit. It earned its own slide in Parker’s updated presentation.

“And then there was a little bridge collapse,” he said.

Parker noted the disaster site near Piedmont Road is about a third of a mile from MARTA’s Lindberg Center headquarters and the Armour Yard, a railyard where the agency keeps many off-duty trains. He said he saw the smoke from his office.

“As soon as we saw it, we sprang into action,” he said. That meant increasing service capacity by about 20 percent and extending service frequency and hours. Currently, he said, train frequency from North Springs is about 7 to 10 minutes, and in Downtown Atlanta, about 5 minutes.

The agency also leveraged existing partnerships with the car rental services Uber and Lyft to offer discount rates to people going to and front MARTA stations. Internally, MARTA staff are urged to help first-time riders who may be confused and irritated.

“They can be as rude as they need to be to us. We want to give them a dignified ride,” Parker said.

While MARTA is seeing big ridership boosts, that also creates new challenges. Paying for extra service is a major one that the state and federal governments have pledged to assist. Another is “enormous pressure” on station parking, with garages filling up quickly. After the luncheon, Parker said that specific plans to borrow overflow parking near North Springs and Sandy Springs Stations are in the works and will be announced soon. The agency also launched a web page showing real-time information on station parking availability.

While running trains, Parker also had to derail rumors “that I had started the fire—I’m not kidding.” He said reporters and Twitter users asked about a conspiracy theory that MARTA had set the blaze to boost ridership. (An avid social media user, Parker said in an admittedly unusual introduction that he planned to live-tweet his upcoming colonoscopy to be a good healthcare example to his children.)

More seriously, Parker described MARTA as a family member of, not a rival to, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

“We view ourselves as part of the transportation network,” he said. “All of us are part of the solution…In this case, one part of our family solution has taken a hit.”

Braves and streetcar

Audience members asked Parker about another looming traffic concern, the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park in MARTA-free Cobb County, and a public transit service that hasn’t been so well-received, the Atlanta Streetcar.

On the Braves, Parker had a brief but pointed comment: “We’ve not been formally contacted by the Braves to provide service. So when they’re ready, we’ll be ready.”

On the troubled Atlanta Streetcar, he said the “critical safety issues” that led to a brief service stoppage have been resolved, and predicted the streetcar, which currently runs a Downtown circulator route, will be a success once it plugs into planned transit service on the BeltLine.

“When that [BeltLine connection] happens, I think it changes the game…When you’re in a circle, you got limited appeal,” Parker said.

That transit is coming, as Atlanta voters recently approved a 0.5 percent sales tax boost devoted to MARTA funding. The agency expects that to raise billions over the next three decades for major citywide transit expansion.

“For their half-penny, they’re going to get a tremendous return on their investment,” he said.

Transit-oriented development and HQs

Parker said he’s pleased with MARTA’s role in attracting major corporations to sites near rail stations, including State Farm in Dunwoody and WestRock and Mercedes-Benz USA in Sandy Springs. “That’s something we feel very proud about,” he said.

It’s also among the reasons MARTA still intends to push for extending the Red Line farther into North Fulton. Parker playfully asked for support from Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who replied, “I’m trying.”

Parker also noted the agency’s recent successes in bidding out some station parking lots for transit-oriented developments, including a project about to break ground at Chamblee Station. However, he did not mention the recent failure, amid community opposition, of another TOD proposed at Brookhaven/Oglethorpe Station.

Past successes, future improvements

Parker took over a struggling agency that was losing over $25 million a year. Now, he said, it has a $250 million reserve fund gathered while expanding service, giving employee raises and not raising fares.

But he also warned that “the funding model for MARTA is not good,” because it relies on sales taxes, which are “vulnerable and volatile.” The 2008 economic crash starved the agency. It’s also got only half the miles of service originally planned in the 1970s, he said, as many metro counties have not signed as MARTA participants.

As things stand, however, Parker touted various surveys showing MARTA providing good service. Among major U.S. cities’ transit systems, he said, MARTA has the third-lowest fares, the second-lowest rate of major crimes, and the top service reliability rate—97.5 percent, which means the service runs within 5 minutes of the schedule.

In the current relatively good times, MARTA is planning several significant service upgrades. It is replacing all train cars, at a cost of nearly $1 billion, with new models that Parker said will have “incredible creature comforts.” And having already rolled out Wi-Fi service on buses, the agency will add it to all trains.

MARTA wants its stations to be more attractive and will be adding public art to all of them, as well as allowing musicians at some. The agency recently hired an arts director who previously served in a similar role at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Parker said. All signs will get improved signs that show not only transit arrival info, but also weather updates and emergency alerts.

A farmers market that MARTA started at its West End Station in Atlanta has expanded to three other stations, Parker said. “So instead of the kid picking up the soda and the candy bar at the transit station, they can pick up the peach” or other fruits, he said. The program drew audience attention and support for further expansion.

Another applause-producing innovation that Parker promised is a forthcoming “very cool” app that will allow riders to buy fares on their phone. They can then use the phone rather than a card to enter a vehicle or station, so “the phone itself becomes your ticket,” he said.

“We’re taking the need to think away from you. That was a joke,” Parker added. But the joke echoed a theme of his discussion—keeping transit-riding simple and pleasant as possible, the qualities that have made it an attractive alternative in the I-85 collapse era.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.