By Steve Visser
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – October 4, 2012
The MARTA board of directors picked a rising transit “star” with a reputation for working with Republicans as the general manager Thursday to revamp the troubled transit authority.
Board Chairman Fred Daniels said the board would be negotiating a contract with Keith Parker, who is currently the chief of VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio.
Daniels noted that Parker was coming from a politically conservative area. He hoped that would serve Parker well in negotiations with Georgia’s GOP-dominated Legislature, which provides no funding for MARTA, if the Legislature “gives him a chance.”
“He has worked well with both the business community and the political community,” Daniels said. “He has a track record in San Antonio of working with both Republicans and Democrats. Same thing in Charlotte.”
Almost immediately after news of Parker’s selection broke in Atlanta, the San Antonio Express-News reported on its website that Parker plans to meet with the VIA Board of Trustees at a special meeting next week, according to an email sent to the board.
Parker proved to be a transit star early on, being hired at age 32 to head the Vancouver, Wash., transit system, but he has never run a system as large and complex as MARTA, the ninth-largest public transportation system in America.
He will likely get a big bump in compensation from the $310,000 he made this year in San Antonio. Current General Manager Beverly Scott’s total compensation is more than $370,000 a year. Daniels said Parker’s compensation was still under negotiation. Scott is to remain general manager until the end of the year, then she is going to head the Boston transit system.
The 46-year-old Parker gets high marks for his diplomatic tact, but he hasn’t before headed a transit system with the challenges of MARTA. He will now have to take on an organization with monumental challenges — financially, structurally and politically — and which faces questions from suspicious politicians, patrons and the public about its spending. That wasn’t the case in San Antonio or in Charlotte, where he worked previously.
In Charlotte, he was first the chief operating officer, overseeing the bus system, while the region was installing its light-rail system.
By the time of the 2007 political battle over cost overruns — the system’s first rail line cost $236 million more than initially projected — Parker was ensconced as Charlotte’s assistant city manager. Anger over the cost fueled a voter referendum to revoke the half-cent sales tax that funded the light rail and prompted the transit chief’s resignation.
Parker was hired to head the Charlotte Area Transit System a month after the referendum failed in November 2007. He was charged with rebuilding the trust with the public and finishing the light-rail plan.
City Council members and area leaders, who had felt blindsided by the cost overruns, welcomed his leadership.
“His style is communicate, communicate, communicate,” Councilman Anthony Foxx told the Charlotte Observer when Parker was hired. “He is the kind of guy who will sit down with you and listen 75 percent of the time and talk 25 percent of the time. I think people trust him.”
But the economic downturn slowed the light-rail and commuter rail expansion, and Parker put both on hold. Within two years, he had jumped to VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, where he got a big bump in salary and ambitious board chairman Henry Munoz wanted to bring streetcars to the Bexar County despite a 2000 voter referendum nixing plans for light rail.
Then-Cornelius, N.C., Mayor Jeff Tarte, who had worked with Parker on regional transit planning, said that Parker was an ace in political skills, technical knowledge and character.
Now he is exiting San Antonio, which has no rail system, just as another political battle is brewing over the funding of the streetcar system, scheduled to open in 2016. Opponents question Parker’s securing permission to shift $10 million of funding for a compressed natural gas facility to streetcar cost and Bexar County’s using $92 million in sales tax for the system.
The MARTA situation in Atlanta is also a hostile environment, which took another twist this week when the state attorney general’s office said it would investigate whether the MARTA board violated the state Open Meetings Act when it conducted its general-manager search. That investigation is unlikely to impact Parker’s hiring.
But the complaint, filed by state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, is another instance of state lawmakers challenging MARTA on how it operates. Jacobs, who chairs the committee that oversees MARTA, was last year viewed as a potential MARTA ally in a Legislature where it has few.
Riders are smarting over two fare increases in recent years, and this summer, voters rejected a regional 1-cent sales tax that would have provided $600 million to MARTA for maintenance and upgrades. MARTA executives have said the agency is draining its financial reserves to avoid service cuts now, but by 2016, it will need more money.
A new management audit done on behalf of the board describes an institution that could benefit strongly by privatizing many functions and renegotiating labor contracts to rein in benefit costs.
Auditors also concluded high absenteeism among MARTA’s 4,500 employees cost about $11 million a year. Union officials blame the absenteeism on bad management, saying managers often don’t approve requested — and needed — time off.
Parker beat out finalist Steve Bland, the transit chief in Pittsburgh. Both were among seven candidates interviewed by the board search committee from a short list compiled by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.