As his leadership at Grand Rapids, Mich.’s The Rapid
(Interurban Transit Partnership) shows, Peter Varga, CEO, and chair of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), is passionate about enhancing public transportation, particularly for future generations, by creating more access to jobs and education. To make that happen at his agency, he has spearheaded the call for more local funding, seeing four property tax referendums pass successfully. He brings that skill to APTA, working to get members on board with a comprehensive reauthorization plan.Beginnings
Like the most recent former APTA chair, Flora Castillo
, Varga also originally hails from outside the U.S. He was born in Ethiopia, the son of Hungarian exiles. His family moved to the U.S. when he was 13.
Varga started his transportation career driving a cab in New York while he was in college. After moving to California, he drove buses and eventually became a safety and training coordinator for Santa Cruz (Calif.) Metropolitan Transit District. He also worked at Muskegon (Mich.) Area Transit System as executive director of its bus systems before coming aboard The Rapid in 1994.
Varga’s theme for his year as chair, “America’s Future is Riding on Public Transportation,” reflects his emphasis on millennials as crucial public transportation customers.
“Transit is also increasing in popularity among seniors and baby boomers, but the millennials are a demographic we need to pay attention to,” he says.
People in that age group see transit as more viable than cars, which they view as a last resort, he says. Since these riders “want to be in a high-tech world,” as he puts it, transit systems need to be on Google Transit, and offer Wi-Fi on buses as well as bus tracking, he says.
A longtime member of APTA — since 1991 — Varga was invited to chair the association’s Small Operations Committee after taking over as CEO of The Rapid in 2000. Soon after, he became chair of the Executive Committee.
Known for his strong focus on legislation, APTA members encouraged Varga to run for chair this year, with no one running against him, which was a vote of confidence, he says.
“Peter has a keen and intuitive knowledge of the federal program, and more importantly, understands how to set the stage for successful legislation,” Jeff Nelson, GM of St. Louis-based MetroLINK, says. “Peter’s talent and skills will shape our legislative accomplishments in the years to come.”
What has driven Varga most in his work for APTA is the need he sees for members to coalesce behind a proposal for comprehensive reauthorization.
“Whether we will be successful with Congress or not, a plan will be there,” he says.
Under Varga’s leadership, The Rapid won APTA’s Outstanding Public Transit System award twice, first in 2004 and again in 2013, for expanding to accommodate a significant ridership spike as its 281-square-mile service area grows, and leading efforts in sustainability.