MARTA CEO Collie Greenwood wants Black bus and train riders in the Atlanta area to know their local travel needs will remain top of mind for him as the transit authority moves forward with its planned infrastructure ventures this year.
Greenwood joined MARTA as its chief of bus operations in June 2019 before replacing former CEO Jeff Parker in January of last year after Parker was hit and killed by a train in what MARTA says was a suicide.
After graduating from the University of Waterloo in Canada in 1988 with a degree in political science, Greenwood worked full time as a bus driver in Brampton, Ontario. He has spent most of his adult life working in transit services, a career that spans more than three decades.
The 57-year-old says the organization he began leading on an interim basis more than a year ago, before becoming its official chief executive in October, is “poised for growth.” He’s feeling positive despite reports of a $1 billion funding gap for upcoming projects.
On Jan. 25, members of Atlanta City Council’s Transportation Committee grilled Greenwood about MARTA’s money woes after a former deputy manager who said he was fired from his job last month revealed alleged details about MARTA’s funding gap in a LinkedIn post.
MARTA originally had planned to complete 17 infrastructure projects, which the organization’s board approved in 2019. The estimated total cost was $2.7 billion.
Greenwood told council members that MARTA is nearly finished finalizing a revised list of seven Atlanta expansion projects that account for rising costs and other factors. Mayor Andre Dickens said he plans to meet with MARTA leaders in the coming days to discuss which projects may need to be abandoned in light of the transit authority’s financial crunch.
Black Atlanta residents, Greenwood says, were instrumental in officially founding and shaping MARTA back in 1971. Many Black folks couldn’t afford cars back then, so they embraced the idea of creating a public transit system to help them travel throughout the city after concessions were made to ensure Black neighborhoods would receive the same transit service quality as white ones.
But white voters in more-rural surrounding counties largely rejected support for the regional transit system to keep Black folks in the city from traveling into majority-white areas. MARTA may never have been established if it wasn’t for support from the local business community and Black Atlanta residents, according to Greenwood.
“MARTA is never going to lose sight of the fact that Black Atlantans were there for MARTA when we were a fledgling organization,” Greenwood said. “We will grow. We will expand, but we will also focus on the people that are here with us today.”
Capital B Atlanta spoke with Greenwood about his background, MARTA’s revised project plans and how the organization is working to improve service for Black residents. Below is a partial transcript of the conversation. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Capital B Atlanta: The Atlanta City Council gave you a hard time about MARTA’s plans for expansion. What are your thoughts on the meeting?
Collie Greenwood: I thought it was a good meeting. I would rather City Council call us in and ask us these questions instead of giving time and space to random reports that were uncorroborated. So at least it gives MARTA an opportunity to clear up the record. I mean, I don’t even want to say that they gave us a hard time. What they did was give us a platform from which to speak the truth, and that is what we will always do. I expect at times it’s going to get uncomfortable for me as a leader of the organization, but that I will never not speak the truth because I want to sleep well, I want to breathe right.
You told the council MARTA has tentatively prepared a list of seven projects it believes it can realistically pursue given financial constraints. What can you tell me about those projects?
I can tell you that they’re the projects that have largely been agreed to by a project governance committee that’s comprised of MARTA and the city of Atlanta. I can tell you that there’s been a lot of work and discussion in order to shape that list. And I can tell you that what has to happen next is that we have to put that seven into two different groups in terms of this is tier one and this is tier two.
Until the committee comes to a consensus on that list, that’s about as far as I can go in giving details about what’s in there. But I can also say that I’m very confident we’re very close to the point where we can come out as a combined group in defense of this list of seven, and that there’s some good projects in there, projects that are well underway.
What are some of those projects?
I mean, Summerhill is no secret. We’ve already started construction on that line, so clearly that would be a lot of sunk costs if Summerhill didn’t make the list. There are a lot of other projects in there, like Campbellton Road, that we’ve had a lot of talk and discussion about, and we feel very strongly about Campbellton Road. It’s already received federal acceptance into the [Capital Investment Grants] program, and again, 30% designed. So work is underway on these.
And I can tell you that most of that list already has had a lot of program development work — whether it’s planning or design, they are well on their way. So when this list gets approved and we’re able to go full steam ahead and link arms with our program governance committee partners and say, “This is it,” we are also going to be in a position to say some of these things are going to start coming online as soon as 2025.
MARTA, as you know, has been accused of prioritizing building transit services in areas of the city that don’t need it, such as the Old Fourth Ward, instead of underserved, predominantly Black areas. … You mentioned Campbellton Road and Cascade. What are you doing to ensure Black folks in these areas have improved access to transit services?
We acknowledge that the transit network, just like so many other things, was born in a time when structural discrimination was very active and it has shaped a lot of the city that we live in, and transit’s not excluded from that. I will also say that we are in the throes of doing a bus network redesign, which is the first time in 40 years. And it’s a holistic review of origins and destinations and how routes run and how efficiently [we can] get it. … When we build transit and when we plan routes, it’s subject to a … Title VI review of the work that we’re planning to do to make sure that it does not disadvantage underserved communities. So that’s always an intrinsic part of any services that we plan.
(Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Title VI made it illegal for any program or activity that receives federal funds or financial assistance to discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.)
There were a couple of reports recently about Georgia being one of the most dangerous states to travel on foot. City Council member Jason Dozier talked about predominantly Black parts of the city where the infrastructure for walking across the street, for example, crossing lanes and things of that nature, is not built up. How is MARTA trying to change that narrative, particularly because a lot of the Black folks are disproportionately impacted by auto accidents?
That’s an important part of the work that MARTA’s doing. So, Safe Streets to Transit is a program that we have that when we are establishing a bus stop or a station stop in the case of the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit], we make sure that within a certain distance, there are sidewalks. We make sure that the width of the sidewalk is appropriate. We make sure that there’s amenities. We can’t put an amenity at every stop, but appropriately placed where you have a place to sit, a shelter, some lighting, garbage receptacles.
So we’re moving away from the old view of a grassy hill somewhere in the middle of two divided highway lanes and just a bus stop pole stuck in the middle. We want to make sure that all of our spaces are properly planned and managed so that the customer gets a sense that we’ve been expecting them and it’s a safe harbor for them to sit in, to stay in.
We also have the 1,000 amenities program. So every year MARTA puts in an extra 200 bus stop amenities and benches and covers throughout our service area. So it’s throughout the different jurisdictions and the city of Atlanta. That’s a five-year program. That’s been going very, very well. …
I want to reassure people that MARTA’s working hard to make sure that our spaces continue to be a safe place for people to go for help and a safe place from which they can plan their travel in a safe, secure environment.
What’s a good model for Atlanta transit going forward?
I’ve never really thought of it in terms of, “I want to be like that system or this system.” I want to point to things like our cleanliness program where I want to compare … MARTA today to MARTA of yesterday.
I want to point to the targeted clean programs that are going on everywhere in our subway, in our train network, where the stations are visibly cleaner. I want to point to the fact that all 38 of our stations are going to have washrooms, smart restrooms. So we’re becoming a better, cleaner, more reliable version of ourselves as opposed to trying to cut and paste from another city that doesn’t have our history. So that goes on. So better trains, electric buses, smart restrooms everywhere. A station rehab program that’s already started at Five Points and at Airport Station where the as-built environment is going to be visibly different, palpably different to our traveling customer. So that’s my vision, taking what we have and building it such that those other transit networks are going to start celebrating about what we have.