Dr. Beverly Scott, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) CEO and current American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chair, isn’t what you would expect from someone in her position. As we sat down for the interview, she told me a story about her granddaughter trick-or-treating and it was exactly what you would expect from someone’s beloved grandmother. Not exactly what I had pictured for someone who has worked in some of the toughest places for transit in the United States, including New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
But it’s just that, her charming and disarming demeanor, as well as a grizzled veteran’s knowledge of transit’s innerworkings, that makes her so successful. Scott is a “let’s get to it” type of person — even in an interview — quickly telling me she knows I know all about her history, so let’s just talk about how she came to Atlanta. And much like Shakespeare’s Henry V, one of Scott’s first actions was to go among the troops and see what they were like even as they remained unaware of her true identity.
Before accepting the job as MARTA CEO, Scott came to Atlanta to meet with the board and decided she needed to get out on the system as she hadn’t been on it in years.
“Nobody knew who I was. So I got on the system, got out to the airport, nicest lady, Miss Tamara, nicest lady. I mean she’s showing me how to do … and I’m acting real stupid you know, I’m saying how do you tap and how do you do this,” Scott says.
After getting on the system, she decided the next place she had to see was “Big Bad Five Points [station], because Five Points is the Five Points.
“So I just had surgery in July. So I was coming down the stairs and swear to God this supervisor … once again, now remember it’s hot, it’s Atlanta, OK … Mr. Randall Robinson. I come down the stairs and I was holding onto the handrail just taking one step at a time. And he walked behind me, and when I got to the platform, because I guess I looked a little unsteady, he said, ‘Are you doing all right? I didn’t want to make you nervous. You OK?’ I was just playing with him, I said, ‘I’m just doing fine,’ I said I really appreciate it. I’m just moving along, a little old grandmother.”
Her undercover trip on the system let Scott see what she calls absolutely wonderful employees and she took the position when she met with the board later that day.
MARTA has had its share of bad press. But while other transit agencies may claim the local media targets them more often than they should, it may have just been the case.
“Believe me I have no issue in terms of if an agency is deserving of it, take the hit. But when it simply becomes fawn sport,” Scott says, “when it simply becomes, you know, we got nobody better to hit on, so let’s just kick MARTA.”
Scott says some of the press coverage of MARTA was deserved and some wasn’t but what was interesting to her was the fact that in a region that clearly needs more transit, the image wasn’t the best. And image is important to a transit authority because unless you’re in a major urban area like New York, most of the people being asked to support a system are never going to use it.
“And so you know that on the one hand absolutely your customers are your heart and your soul. But your broader community at every point is as well,” Scott says.
“You know if you’re lucky maybe you wind up consistently being able to have 25 to 30 percent of a market, but many, many people are never going to wind up using the service.
“So anyway, one of the biggest challenges over the past year and I will say probably over the next several years will be not just for MARTA but honestly trying to help to raise the image and just the perspective, the general perspective, in terms of public transit.”
When she first came to MARTA, Scott said, “My No. 1 goal is to ensure that MARTA is a premier transit system — one that provides safe, reliable, clean and courteous service to our customers.” I asked her about this quote and what steps she had taken to make MARTA a premier system. Scott said it started on day one with two letters to the employees that established the vision she had for MARTA, to be the No. 1 system in the United States.
“It’s about what are your expectation levels relative to the standards that you want. And I am truly a person who believes that if you are not shooting for A, you’re not going to get it,” Scott says.
She also set about establishing the basic issues she planned to address and how they would be handled within her tenure at MARTA.
“You have to be very clear about what are the values that are going to drive the organization,” Scott says.
“The two sets of communiqué that I did to employees backed up by town hall meetings was to say this is what’s the vision. And let me kind of give you a little bit of not 10 commandments, but pretty much like that, and then some very basic areas like just fairness and equity and transparency in terms of how I like to get out in the field and talk with folks.
“We are an industry of big things that move, but the bottom line is it’s all about people. And that’s people both externally and internally.”
Scott says she’s a person who likes to run her system by the number. “There’s always the soft side of things, but I’m a Dave Gun baby, OK. So issues and terms, state of good repair, fix it first, your best marketing is the product you’re putting out today.”
Transit’s Dirty Little Secret
Even before her first day on the job at MARTA, Scott has eyed the people running the system as the key to its success. She says her big focus when it comes to employees is availability and that may just be the seamy underbelly of the transit industry.
“What I call the dirty little secret of transit, and it’s not just public transit, but transit. And I think it’s a combination of many things. I think it’s a combination of just the differences in the work force. We are not a very family-friendly — just traditionally — work environment,” Scott says.
“People gotta work. If we’re not there then folks are depending on us and because we are 24/7 operations, it is what it is. And then when you look at the change in the household composition. I mean people on both ends, you’ve got single parents and then on top of that you have people who have issues in terms of elder care.
“So I mean it’s just a whole lot of things going on, but at the end of the day we are what we are. It’s the work we’ve chosen to do. So all of those kinds of issues are just significant in terms of employee availability.”
Scott says she looks at labor as a partner and anyone who can’t work with them is probably not the right person to have in that job. Scott says labor is part of her world because her people are members of those unions, but first they are her employees. She wants to do the right thing with them, not as part of a bargaining process or because she is put in a position where she has to, but because it’s the right thing to do.
“The better that I think you can have that as being a constructive relationship as opposed to having it be adversarial meaning … we got processes, we should both be focused on some of the same big things. The better this organization does, the better [the labor unions] do in terms of membership and profile and stature. It certainly doesn’t help [them] if we’re not doing well,” Scott says.
Every year Mass Transit runs a readership survey to get a snapshot of what’s currently on the mind of our readers and by association, the transit industry itself. One question we ask as part of this is for people to rank the critical issues facing their transit agencies. Historically, funding has always been either the top or second from top critical issue on the minds of our readers. But MARTA’s Scott thinks funding should be taken off the list not because it’s not critical, but because it always will be.
“Funding is always a critical issue. So I kind of take that one and rather put it to the side because if you let yourself get twisted around, ‘Oh I can only do this when I in fact wind up getting more funding,’ then this is not the business that you need to be in,” Scott says.
“And I can close my eyes and it doesn’t matter which agency you’re at. And it’s relative. If you have $12 million you needed $15 million. If you have $25 million you needed $50 million. I haven’t worked any place where being flush was the condition since I started out at Houston Metro 30 years ago, and Houston doesn’t have that condition today.”
MARTA’s current funding issue isn’t just making sure it has enough money to spend, it’s being able to decide how to spend it. The system has a legislative mandate to spend half its money on capital expenditures and half on operating costs. The system has managed to get dispensation from the legislatures to modify this 50/50 split in the past, but only for limited durations. This hard split of funds leaves the system with conundrums like being able to purchase more buses, but not being able to run them. Scott says this split also has the potential to be the seed for even more problems.
“What it does more insidiously is that it really winds up causing you to not be as good in terms of your regular business practices as you should be,” Scott says.
“Because when you wind up having that kind of forced stranglehold in terms of the split on your funding, it causes people to become more creative in terms of how they can wind up doing the things that they need to do using capital dollars,” Scott says, leading people to not consider what the long-term operating costs of a capital investment may be.
One particularly irksome issue for MARTA is the fact that while the state legislature is mandating how it controls the funds it has, Georgia doesn’t provide any funds itself for MARTA. It’s only one of nine states in the country that doesn’t provide any dedicated transit funding.
“When you look at the states surrounding [Georgia], I mean it’s like you try to find any rationale why Georgia is doing this. You know you say to yourself well you know it’s those Northeastern cities. I mean if you look at places like North Carolina and Florida, the ones that are right in our bailiwick in terms of what they’re doing and how they are beginning to really support mass transit,” Scott says.
“I very much believe we are the epicenter of the Southeast, but candidly, if we don’t quickly get about the business of really recognizing how behind we are in terms of public infrastructure, and particularly transportation infrastructure, and take some very serious steps to in fact wind up reversing what has just been a terrible trend, we’re going to find we are going to be left behind.”
Transit is kind of like Chinese food. No matter how much you get, eventually you’ll get hungry for more. If an area has a good bus system, people will start talking about bus rapid transit (BRT) or rail. And if you have bus and rail, the whispers of streetcars are starting to pop up in some places. Scott knows that while MARTA has both excellent bus and rail systems, it’s not a complete system.
“See I tell people I am not at all a modal elitist. I don’t think you have to have it all.”
What is a complete system? Is it a system that incorporates bus and rail? But what kind of rail is being used? There is a myriad of choices on the rail side alone — heavy, commuter, light, streetcar. And buses are expanding in variety every year.
“The other pieces that are critical, and this is part of working with our partners, are things that we do not control,” Scott says.
“When I talk about we need to make sure we get the product mix right but then the key to it is we also have to with our jurisdictions, work with things like having complete streets.”
Scott says that a key element many agencies miss is good pedestrian connectivity between the different modes the system offers. As she puts it, nobody wants to have to stand up in some mud on the side of a road while waiting for a bus.
“I tell people all the time, everyone coming to use us is first and foremost a pedestrian, and they have to use sidewalks and they have to use streets.
“It could be more valuable, to tell you the honest-to-God’s truth, for a community to wind up putting an investment in some pedestrian amenities and sidewalks in the first instance than it would in terms of putting a major investment in public transit to run down streets that don’t have those kinds of amenities there.”
Scott says this investment isn’t just in terms of pedestrians, but also for bikes as well, anything to incentivise people to use transit. And this comes from the idea of looking at transit in terms of total view, not just moving people from place.
“It was kind of like here we are. Emerald City came up. Right outside of it when you start looking at all the things that are the connectors. That just could’ve been done and planned and thought through with our partners much better.”
Scott pointed out to me that transit is a competition. It’s not a competition of cars versus transit, though. What transit is competing against is a trip.
“I’m competing against one person [whose] trip starts from the moment that the individual is making that decision to put their foot outside their door and then what they’re going to have to do before they put their foot into where they are going on the other end,” Scott says.
“And I am competing against them being able to go put their foot, walk a few steps, maybe into their garage or down to the street and put their foot in their automobile and get off on the other end.”
Scott says the competition comes down to a variety of issues, including personal independence, security, the “one-seat ride,” and incentives and disincentives such as parking availability. To compete, transit needs to look at the trip itself and think bigger, think about not the ride, but the total package.
She says the industry over the last decade or more has questioned itself on why European cities were doing so well in terms of transit. What were they doing so differently? The answer was they weren’t building systems for people who needed to use them, but for those who wanted to.
“They are absolutely building systems of first choice, not last resort,” Scott says.
“And I’m saying and that is a whole, not only psychological, but then what winds up happening is that because they were building systems of first choice, all of their public policies and everything synergistically were lined up to support that outcome.
“So their parking policies. Their petrol prices. I mean it wasn’t happening by chance.”
Scott says this is why the upcoming SAFETEA-LU reauthorization is going to be critical, not only for funding, but in terms of federal policy making. It’s about the big picture, encompassing not just transit, but land use, sustainability, the environment, homeland security and more.
“So candidly to me whether we drill now, didn’t drill now is insignificant. The point is that it is a limited resource and it is the wrong resource for us to be trying to utilize as being what’s going to be our economic engine to drive to move forward,” Scott says.
“So when are we going to kind of connect all of the dots. Who would ever had believed, my God, not six years ago, not four years ago, that the public, the information and the facts that are out there that people really would begin to connect the dots.”
Scott says the unsustainable engine driving the transportation automobile right now is petroleum, more specifically a society and economy that are built on the voracious consumption of petroleum.
“Unless we make a major shift in that paradigm we are not going to in fact wind up having any real impact in terms of what we’re doing with the environment.” Scott says.
“This federal authorization is critical. [We] can’t do it the way we have been doing it. We laugh at national vision. We don’t have any coherence in terms of our overall transportation policies. And I am really … I believe there is clearly an element of evolution. You can’t automatically after 50 years throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Scott says in the end it comes back to the numbers. Performance metrics need to be established so we can answer questions like what are we doing to reduce vehicle miles traveled, carbon emissions and our dependency on foreign oil. She says it might be heretical, but as an industry we need to stop talking about need and start talking about outcomes.
“These are significant public investments and we must be prepared to stand up and be accountable and transparent for moving the bar.
“And I think we need to be real clear on a national level about what bar are we trying to move.”
More Related Information:
Archived Article: Manager’s Forum — Accident Preparedness