Oct 04, 2017

Wanted: Leaders Not Lifers

It’s a season for change in the top position at many U.S. transit agencies. As veteran CEOs depart, what should transit boards, governors, mayors and other leaders who appoint transit leaders look for? Someone who can punch above their weight politically by framing the advantages and benefits transit brings to a city and region. And, critically, to talk about what transit does not do well, to fend off the the inevitable demands for more service or expensive rail construction in low density, low ridership areas.

In June, the Maryland Transit Administration booted its CEO and recently named Kevin Quinn, director of planning, to his slot.

In Austin, Linda Watson will be stepping down as Cap Metro’s CEO by the end of the year.

In Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County forced out its CEO and is looking for one with more transit experience.  

Well-regarded Atlanta transit boss Keith Parker is leaving transit for a top post at Good Will Industries.

And in New York, new MTA chairman Joe Lhota has been charged with a top to bottom review of the organization, “with no sacred cows.”   

Transit does best when its leaders act as public figures able to shape the narrative about the role it can or should play in a region.  At certain moments, elected officials can play this role, but that is rare. Nashville’s Mayor Megan Barry and King County (Seattle region) Executive Dow Constantine stand out in this way today.

The rebuilding of New York’s transit system in the 1980s and early 1990s benefited immensely from leadership that was not chained to the Governor of NY State or Mayor of NYC, who advocated directly for the needs of transit.  MTA leaders Richard Ravitch, Robert Kiley and Peter Stangl, as well as NYC Transit president David Gunn, routinely sparred with Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Koch, transit unions, advocates and the media to press their positions on issues of the day. According to Ravitch, “if you run a system, you have to be honest with the public about the needs.” He was renowned for listening to hours of testimony from frustrated riders and courted the media to successfully make the public case for additional funding.

Atlanta’s Parker is a contemporary example. He spent his five year tenure improving MARTA’s public image, as well as building relationships with the business community and suburban legislators typically hostile to transit funding. Republicans often cite Parker when describing their changed attitude toward transit in metro Atlanta.  Parker oversaw a far-ranging agency reform that convinced voters to approve the first MARTA expansions since 1971: extending bus service into Clayton County and rail and bus expansion within Atlanta. Perhaps most profoundly, Georgia is now considering providing dedicated funding to MARTA for the first time in state history. As CEO, Parker is a daily MARTA rider who was also willing to publicly apologize when things went wrong.

D.C. Metro’s Paul Wiedefeld is also a public figure by necessity, having taken on the job of rebuilding both Washington’s rail system and the institution that is supposed to manage it. One of Wiedefeld’s main tasks has been to tell the governors and legislatures of Virginia and Maryland and mayor and council of the District of Columbia the tough news that transit isn’t coming back without sustained investment and dedicated sources of funding.

Transit leaders who step into the limelight will inevitably become a lightning rod for public criticism. But honesty pays dividends in terms of a more trusting and empathetic public, less overall cynicism and a stronger claim on the resources to get more done.

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