As Darrell Johnson assumed his new post as the CEO of the Orange, Calif.-based Orange County Transportation Authority
(OCTA) on March 4, his initiatives include a safety review, sustainability, workforce development and restoration of service.
Under the direction of the board of directors, Johnson is responsible for planning, financing and coordinating Orange County’s freeway, street and rail development, as well as managing bus, commuter rail and paratransit service.
Johnson, a 20-year veteran of the transportation industry, joined OCTA in 2003 and has served as the deputy CEO since 2010. He helped lead OCTA on local, state and national issues related to transportation programs and policies and assisted the CEO in coordinating business, operations and management activities.
Johnson was selected by the board of directors to succeed Will Kempton, who retired in February, to become the executive director of a nonprofit public transportation advocacy group, Transportation California.
First, Johnson is emphasizing safety. On his first day on the job, he wrote a letter to the president of APTA asking for a top to bottom safety review of OCTA.
“I don’t think we’re unsafe by any means, but it’s good to continue to focus on safety,” Johnson said. “We requested APTA do that in the next 90 days, so we have a solid baseline of where we’re at, at this point in time.”
OCTA had completed a review with high-quality status about three years ago. Still, he stresses, “Safety is something you can’t take your eye off of. If we were to go on a normalized cycle, we would not do this again for another year. I want to make sure that is engaged right away, underscoring our commitment to passenger, customer and employee safety.”
Johnson also plans to promote environmental sustainability in all of OCTA’s capital programs and initiatives.
“Whether it’s a station, shelter, parking structure or bus [maintenance] facility, we need to do better at integrating sustainability in both operations and capital,” Johnson said. “We’re going to seek a baseline assessment and integrate sustainability options into the entire capital program.”
Part of that initiative is the agency’s first bike share program, which it will implement on a pilot basis by the summer, connecting bike trails city by city into a regional network.
Additionally, Johnson is implementing a succession planning effort, stressing the need to develop and nurture the workforce on all levels, he said.
“One of the things we don’t do well in the industry is cross-train people,” John-son added. “We develop really good transit operations, budget and government relations people, but don’t push cross-training. I’m going to continue to push that under my leadership.”
Johnson will expand succession planning efforts at the executive level into the agency for key positions, particularly in the transit operations group, which has an aging workforce.
“We’re trying to get ahead of that curve, as opposed to being taken by surprise,” Johnson explained.
OCTA currently offers a one-year leadership development academy, which focuses on senior-level managers. Participants receive exposure to various departments, from transit operations to government relations; training in presentation and writing skills; and understanding how transportation projects are financed.
That successful model will be modified as a management development academy, under Johnson’s direction.
Meanwhile, OCTA is in a position, after the recession, to begin restoring bus service.
“We cut about 20% to 23% of our bus service in 2009 and 2010. We’ve added about 5% back,” Johnson said. “We’re going to continue that with this year’s budget and [be] selective [in] how we put things back.”
The agency is also looking into rolling out three express bus routes, one of which will launch in June.
“It’s really important to me to make sure that we’re looking at how we serve the customer, making sure we understand the regional context of the work that we’re doing,” he added.