Keith Parker, the MARTA CEO and general manager who helped put mass transit back on the agenda in north metro communities, will leave for another job this fall, he announced Sept. 5. Now local leaders are expressing a mix of gratitude and uncertainty as they push ahead with that transit agenda – including key General Assembly proposals next session.

Parker, who is leaving to become the new president and CEO of Decatur-based Goodwill of North Georgia, spent nearly five years as MARTA’s chief. In that time, he oversaw a financial cleanup – from massive debt to reserves of more than $240 million – and improvements to service that also reduced the perception linking MARTA to rampant crime.

Keith Parker, MARTA’s CEO and general manager. (Special)

Years of progress

A politically savvy leader, he built relationships with local and state leaders, whetting an appetite for more transit. That helped to win landmark MARTA expansion funding, including to Clayton County via a 2014 vote, and last year’s voter-approved sales tax boost within the city of Atlanta. The Atlanta funding, expected to draw more than $2.5 billion over 40 years, could bring light rail to Buckhead’s BeltLine segment and the Clifton Corridor out of Lindbergh Center Station, among many other improvements.

Parker also led the agency through new attempts at transit-oriented development with varying results; in Brookhaven, the community earlier this year rejected a planned mixed-use redevelopment at the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe Station. Local transit-oriented corporate development has been more successful, such as the new State Farm office tower that is directly connected to the Dunwoody MARTA Station platform.

Then there was this year’s fire and collapse of an I-85 overpass in Buckhead, which Parker could see smoking from MARTA’s Lindbergh Center headquarters. The snarled traffic afterward was a watershed moment for Atlanta transit, and Parker was widely praised for MARTA’s increased service for the many new riders avoiding the disaster.

Parker’s resignation comes at a crucial time for state and local transit planning. The General Assembly is expected next session to have unprecedented proposals for possible increased state funding of mass transit and of a new, regional transit governing agency. Fulton County is attempting to quickly wrap up a “Transit Master Plan” of priority projects to take advantage of any funding that might come out those discussions.

MARTA’s board will name an interim general manager while conducting a search for a permanent replace, MARTA said in a press release. In addition, the board has named a deputy general manager, Arthur “Rob” Troupe, who will start work Sept. 18. Troupe arrives from the infrastructure project consulting firm HNTB – one of the companies working on Fulton’s Transit Master Plan – where he led the Northeast Division’s transit and rail services. Troupe previously served as a deputy general manager at the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Leaders react                                                                            

Among local leaders, the loss of Parker was met largely with caution that transit talks will find a way forward without the pioneering transit agency chief.

The new State Farm tower’s dedicated entrance on the Dunwoody MARTA Station platform. (John Ruch)

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul has emerged as one of the north metro area’s biggest transit evangelists. Earlier this year, speaking about regional transit solutions, he prophetically warned that MARTA’s improved reputation could be in trouble if Parker leaves.

“How long is he going to be here? Will MARTA revert to its previous behavior if someone new comes in?” Paul asked at the time.

In a written statement on the day of Parker’s resignation announcement, Paul expressed the need for continued good leadership.

“By correcting many of its management deficiencies, he has completely turned around the perception of MARTA among the policymakers across the region, though MARTA has been slow to develop a regional plan for transit expansion,” Paul said. “I hope the MARTA board will find someone with similar credentials who can build on what Keith has done and develop a consensus around a true regional transit strategy.”

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said that a “key player change that occurs in the midst of significant initiatives always creates pause for thought. Keith’s leadership has been terrific and his involvement with the Fulton transit study and the upcoming General Assembly session would have been positive.”

But, Morris added, MARTA has good board and staff leadership, and “a growing group of legislators who know how important transit will be to the region’s future. So I am optimistic that the change will not set us back.”

State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) has a wide-angle view of MARTA’s leadership question as a member of MARTOC, the General Assembly’s joint committee with oversight of the transit agency’s budget, and as a member of the new House Commission on Transit Governance & Funding. Taylor says that while Parker’s loss will be felt, there are other political factors as the General Assembly takes up a likely discussion on a broader, regional transit system.

“My first thought — ‘Gosh, he’s going to be hard to replace,’” Taylor said. But, he added, “No one’s irreplaceable and the system is going to be there … But I think you’ve got some hard political choices to make … With more state funding [of transit] comes more state control.”

MARTA’s immediate challenges, Taylor said, are filling Parker’s big shoes from a small pool of likely candidates, at least in terms of executives who have run large transit systems. He said the larger political question, however, is whether the timeline for hiring a replacement wraps up by, say, year’s end with someone who could participate in General Assembly discussions. Parker has been serving as an ex officio member of the Transit Governance & Funding commission, which next meets on Sept. 15.

Other political factors have nothing to do with MARTA’s leadership, Taylor said. On the funding end, he said, a big question is whether Atlanta will annex the Emory University area of DeKalb County and thus automatically provide its newly boosted sales tax money to fund a missing link of that planned Clifton Corridor light rail. And there are leadership questions not only for MARTA, but for the General Assembly and MARTOC itself. Taylor noted that state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), a fellow MARTOC member, and state Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) recently resigned to make runs for other offices.

“I don’t know who the new faces are going to be,” Taylor said.

But whoever is in that next General Assembly session, Taylor said, “I think you’re going to see more of a move to expand regionally [beyond MARTA’s current three-county system]…and I’m not sure what that animal looks like.” Asked whether such talk of a regional system — maybe an agency that could supersede MARTA — could have been a factor in Parker looking at new job opportunities, Taylor said he doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think that is the issue,” Taylor said. “He was not being looked at like a guy we need to get rid of — quite the opposite.”

The two candidates running to be Fulton County’s next chairman – Robb Pitts and Gabriel Sterling — had somewhat differing takes on a Parker-less future.

Sterling, a Sandy Springs City Council member who led that city’s latest Fulton Transit Master Plan meeting, said the “disappointing” loss of Parker “clouds it a bit” for General Assembly talks.

“There was a lot of comfort with Keith Parker there,” Sterling said. “With him now not there, that adds to the uncertainty of the future … People and markets don’t like uncertainty.”

But he noted that MARTA’s board found a great leader in Parker, and “hopefully, they can do so again.”

Keith Parker speaks to a Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce luncheon crowd in December 2015. (File)

Pitts, a former Fulton commissioner and Atlanta City Council president, said, “My first reaction is, I am still in shock … It’s a huge, huge, huge loss.”

However, “I don’t think that will impact our plans whatsoever” at the county level, he said, because government can carry out the will of the voters. “He’s been a strong hand, obviously, and hopefully whoever replaces him will be as strong a leader,” Pitts added.

State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) called it a “tremendous loss … He certainly put MARTA on the right track – right choice of words – going forward.”

But asked about effects on the General Assembly proposals, Millar said, “I don’t think so. I think it’s more of a governance situation we’re looking at anyway,” rather than funding models that Parker might have helped to sway.

Parker’s exit “also calls attention to the fact of how important it is to have regional transit,” Millar added, and not just MARTA as it exists today with limited county participation.

Fulton Commissioner Bob Ellis was another leader expressing caution about continued transit progress.

“Mr. Parker has made significant contributions to MARTA, and his leadership will certainly be missed,” Ellis said in an email. “As the Atlanta region continues to grow, congestion and traffic will as well and it will be critical for smart and aggressive transit planning to address the current and future challenges we will face in Fulton and the Atlanta region. Despite a leadership change at MARTA, it is important that efforts like the transit plan that is being developed in Fulton and the work being done at the state level not be delayed.”

In Atlanta, which already got the MARTA expansion funding it wanted, Mayor Kasim Reed expressed gratitude.

“Keith set a new standard for the role of general manager,” Reed said in a press release. “I cannot compliment him enough on the terrific job he did at a pivotal time for one of the most important public transit agencies in the nation.”

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