November 2009

Omnitrans Chief Reflects On Industry Changes, Success

by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

With 39 years in public transportation service and 16 years as CEO/GM of San Bernardino, Calif.'s Omnitrans, Durand L. Rall will retire in late December. Rall was appointed interim GM of Omnitrans in 1993, serving for nine months in that capacity until being given the job permanently. During his tenure, the agency twice received the American Public Transportation Assoication's (APTA) Outstanding Transit System Award, and significantly grew its services, employees and ridership.

METRO: How did you get involved in transportation?

Durand Rall: By accident. I was living in Minneapolis at the time. I went to work on February 2 and got laid off. I looked for a job for quite some time. The Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) in Minneapolis was the first to offer me a job, and that's how I got started in transit. It was 1971.

What was the draw to continue in the field?

The people were great, the job was great, and it was interesting and challenging. It was during that era when all of the private companies were being sold to cities or public commissions and so on. I got to do some work through the condemnation process, evaluating assets and pensions and all that stuff to determine sale prices, so it was an interesting thing. From that point on, one thing led to another. I was picked up by a management firm, ATE/Ryder Systems Inc., and, of course, worked for them for 23 years until I came here.

What other transit properties did you work during your career with ATE?

I went from Minneapolis to Tidewater Metro Transit in Norfolk, Va., then to SunTran in Tucson, Ariz., and, from there, went to RTA in Riverside, Calif., all under contract with ATE.

How do you feel the industry has changed?

It has become a great deal more regulated than it was back then; much more political. At the point where I began, [public transportation] was just coming out of the private sector into public, and it was considered, I think, as just-hanging-on-to-a-lifeline service for certain people. It has grown now to become intertwined with greenhouse gas regulations and everything else as we're trying to make transit systems part of the solution, rather than just being [a means of] transportation for those who can't afford an automobile. Now, transit has become a very important part of what happens in our society and the improvement of quality of life, quality of air and a lot of other things. I think that is a substantial change from what transit was in the past.

When you got started, did you ever suspect that mass transportation agencies would have that kind of role?

When I first came into the business, it was [heading] downhill, but some of us saw the potential for it to come back. We realized it needed to be set up differently, it needed to be financed differently, and I think the reason it failed as a private sector [entity], obviously, was because it had to make money and it wasn't. But, that didn't mean it couldn't be successful as a public entity. The advent of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, now currently the Federal Transportation Administration, saw an infusion of money that created an opportunity to really start to build transit back to where it was, to try to get a bigger share of that market. In the large cities like Minneapolis back then, buses were running three-minute headways from downtown. At the point where I began in the industry, transit was a real viable part of that area. In California where the sprawl and the build is different and development is more linear rather than vertical, it really became a much greater challenge to provide public transit.

What were some early goals when you started at Omnitrans and what challenges did you face trying to meet them?

It was a system that had stagnated and was at a level that everybody was comfortable with. Getting the system to grow was a real challenge.

The challenges were getting the board excited about public transit. The [system's] staff had slacked off a little bit in their desire to make change because making change wasn't really appreciated. We created a different attitude. We started some very aggressive team building and found processes to really knock down those paradigms [by allowing people] to make suggestions with no restrictions, regarding how [they] would want to grow this agency and find our niche markets. That led us to some really creative things.

Shortly after I came here, we started [using] alternative-fuel [vehicles]. We are now 100 percent natural gas fleet, which is supplied by Clean Energy Fuels Corp. We've got about a 91 percent customer satisfaction based on our surveys we did recently, which I think is really remarkable in today's world. We have a 90 percent on-time performance goal, and we usually perform at 95 percent or above in our time record.

Approximately four years ago, we started into this process of creating a bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor, which we have named the SBX for San Bernardino Express. One-third of this corridor will be center-running exclusive lanes through the downtown core of San Bernardino and to Loma Linda city limits. It connects a major Cal State University in the north, with the Loma Linda University and Loma Linda Medical Center on the other end, so we've got two really powerful anchors. We also have the Veterans Hospital in the area. In Loma Linda alone, there are about 40,000 people a day coming into that little town and they all come there for the Veterans Administration, hospital, school, etc. But, those that come to the hospital have nowhere to go, there's limited restaurants and hotels. Now, they will have a service with 10-minute frequencies that takes them right to the heart of hospitality lane, which is the core of all the great restaurants and hotels.

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