Partnerships Needed in Overhaul of MARTA

JohnKeysBy John Keys 

The 2013 Georgia General Assembly discussion on “MARTA privatization”– a concept initially required in specific areas in proposed legislation – became a zero-sum game proposition, in which “one side” was seen as losing everything and the “other side” winning everything if it became law. 

Legislators were seemingly in the position of having to choose one “winner,” with no middle ground available between both positions. There is a middle ground in the debate on this issue, however. It is to require that MARTA not be forced to rely exclusively on “privatization” to accomplish parts of its work tasks, but to require that MARTA adopt the working concept of using “transit partnerships” to do its job. 

Transit partnerships would require what many great systems in this country have adopted: a cooperative model of transit service delivery.  

Systems using this model embrace the concept of “mobility management,” under which numerous transportation options are provided to customers to deliver quality, economical service. Often, providers of these options bid against each other, but can also frequently work in partnership to win bids to provide transit service.  

These options are linked through use of technology (using “apps” to connect transportation providers and their customers), and most important, through a cooperative spirit to serve the customer and taxpayers rather than “winning the game.” 

Mobility management focuses on what the discussion should be about: service to the customers of transit systems and the taxpayers who support them. The focus is not on who provides the service but on how service delivery is best provided, which is often through a number of providers. The partnerships involve private, non-profit and other entities. In these systems too, non-profit organizations representing the disability community are frequently a vital component of the partnerships created – working with other partners to deliver tasks which are performed under contract with these transit systems.  

Organizations like Goodwill Industries, JF&CS, Easter Seals, United Way, and many others are frequently encouraged by their community’s transit systems to bid on services such as cleaning vehicles, rail cars and buildings, staffing call centers, and training drivers and other employees of the transit system on how to serve disability community customers of the system. Thus, members of the community who are frequently the most transit-dependent can benefit from job opportunities at their transit system through the concept of partnering.

Where does this concept work? Strange as it may seem – given the vocal union discontent here in Atlanta regarding outsourcing – in union towns! 

One of the best examples is Denver, whose transit system has used in-house union and private/non-profit partnering since 1993. Other cities where unions and private sector and other transportation providers work in partnership are San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, Oregon, just to name a few.  

All of these cities have developed partnering opportunities in which everyone benefits. They use taxis, shuttle buses, limo services, and private bus operators to deliver the goods. They even let unions bid on jobs for the transit system when they are periodically put out for bid, and where appropriate to do so.   

Georgia’s General Assembly should require partnerships among the numerous transportation providers delivering transportation options in our area, not merely privatization. Outsourcing is one approach, but a combination of approaches and partners, including the private sector, is already a success in the nation’s top-notch transit systems, and desperately needs to be done here.

John Keys, a transportation consultant, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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