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2013 Women In Transportation: Kate Riley

Posted on September 24, 2013 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

Riley cites her work as a human resource manager for Sun Tran, where she interacted with all departments, as key preparation for her roles as interim and GM.
Riley cites her work as a human resource manager for Sun Tran, where she interacted with all departments, as key preparation for her roles as interim and GM.
Kate Riley

General Manager, Sun Tran

Tucson, Ariz.


Born in Seattle into a fairly large family, Kate Riley had hopes of moving to Arizona to become a nurse. Instead, her father persuaded her to take management courses at a local college. As luck would have it, she met her husband, a local Tucsonan, while in college.

She eventually moved to Tucson, Ariz., where she applied for a human resources job at Sun Tran, which she received after the first candidate didn’t work out. She held the post as director of human resources for 27 years before becoming the assistant GM in 2007. When the GM role opened up, she became interim GM and applied for and received the GM post in January of 2012.

As GM, Riley interacts with the departments and directors for both Sun Tran and Sun Van, which operate 253 and 125 vehicles, respectively. Sun Tran provides about 20 million rides a year, with paratransit providing 544,000. Sun Tran and Sun Van are operated under a  transit management contract and report directly to the City of Tucson through Tucson’s Department of Transportation.

“We provide oversight for fixed-route and complimentary paratransit service that serves 25 square miles.” Riley and her staff are responsible for all aspects of the organization, ensuring the system meets its performance goals and ensuring that it is managed in an efficient and effective manner.

Riley cites her work as a human resource manager, where she interacted with all departments and was involved in labor relations and negotiations, as key preparation for her roles as interim and GM.

“The GMs I worked under were very good about making sure that I was involved in all aspects of the organization, not just recruiting and benefits and compensation, but a broad scope of the responsibility at both the fixed route and later, paratransit.”

The most challenging aspect of her job is ensuring that Sun Tran and Sun Van meet needs of the City of Tucson and the community. “It’s a balancing act,” she says.

Riley likes making things work, she says, and bringing issues to the table and discussing them. “It’s never boring. There are hard days, but then there are other days where things fall into place. It is exciting to be part of the larger picture.”

Skills that have helped her do her job include being a good listener and facilitator. She relishes the analysis part of the job. “Sometimes you have to make quick decisions, but there are times where you are able to look at the whole picture and determine how it’s going to affect all entities, not just your specific corner of the world.”

Riley feels her agency does many things well, including working with the community, which plays into Sun Tran’s START training, an accessible travel training program that teaches people how to use the fixed-route system. “If we can get folks to move even some of their trips from paratransit to fixed route, I think that is a success.”

The agency recently made the transition from magnetic fare media to smart cards, which she likened to a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, but she says it is going well. The most rewarding aspect of the project has been seeing employees realize the benefits of the technology and seeing the project progression from start to implementation.

Riley says one of her main goals as GM is to help the community understand that public transportation provides an important service to those that live and work in the area. What she envisions is having a well-run system that’s efficient and effective and a true partner with the community.

Her favorite off-duty pastimes include reading, traveling and working in her yard. “I love spending time with my kids, but they are all grown up now and have jobs. It makes me proud to see what they’ve accomplished and to see that I’ve had a hand in it.”

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