Management & Operations

Weathering the Storm of Transit Politics

Posted on April 1, 2006 by Lori Acken

Tap a group of public transportation managers to name their toughest political challenges and you’ll earn yourself a variety of responses — from stone silence to a laundry list of responsibilities that would make the most seasoned politician blanch. According to Art Guzzetti, director of policy and advocacy for the American Public Transportation Association, political sensitivities come in many forms and varying degrees of complexity and precedence, ranging from the agendas of governing parties, to priorities in regional planning, to the voracity of both local advocates and opponents. Add to these the issue of whose name shows up in the papers when things go right — or wrong — and it’s not difficult to imagine the exhaustive litany of potential political pitfalls facing transit general managers today. At the same time, the industry is home to an equally vast array of management styles and personalities, so making a solid match between general manager and agency is indeed at the heart of the matter. Still, as a region’s political landscape often precedes the general manager’s tenure by decades, there is no such thing as a sure bet. To shed light on this unwritten part of the job description, a quartet of longtime public transit management veterans discuss current quagmires and potential solutions, displaying why time and talent have taught them how to come out on top. Paul Jablonski
The challenge — Doing what’s best for the region and the agency and trusting your board to deal with the politics. “It’s really difficult when you’re in a location for a couple years and the politics are 25 and 30 years old,” says Paul Jablonski, CEO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. “This isn’t just for San Diego, it’s everywhere,” Jablonski says. “When you’re dealing with board members and others who are long-term members of the community, they have relationships that go back decades — political allies and political adversaries — and it’s nearly impossible to get a finger on all of it. You have to approach it by doing what you’re trained and experienced in doing and not try to get cute about it and play the game.” Jablonski doesn’t view himself as a political person. “I view myself as the professional hired to run the transit system and to make the best decisions possible on how we spend money and what we do,” he says. “When I sense that there are political issues evolving, I utilize my board — utilize those policy makers who are in politics, who are elected officials — to help navigate through those things.” In Jablonski’s case, that board is made up of 14 elected officials from as many county, state and local governments, all of whom are currently and significantly affected by the Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) he championed shortly after his January 2004 arrival. The COA will realign bus routes with evolving housing and development patterns and stanch operating deficits projected toward $25 million by 2010. To avoid uproars in the boardroom, the press or the voting booth, Jablonski says it’s his role to arm board members with relevant facts and information, both good and difficult, then step aside and allow the true politicians to provide sound, truthful answers to constituents. “We’ve operated a fair amount of rural service here for a number of years and we realized that some of that was requiring a $60-per-passenger subsidy,” Jablonski says of the COA findings. “Board members got involved and ultimately made the decision to substantially reduce that service and to put out a service that has a chance of being more productive. I give them a lot of credit. “I don’t think that means they are there to rubber stamp,” he adds. “Boards should be involved in the business to an extent that policy boards should be, but they should ultimately be helping you deal with the significant issues of the agency. When you approach it that way, one, you build the relationship and, two, you build respect. That leads to good, solid decision-making and leads you away from the ‘parochial-ness’ of politics. I’ve got an executive committee that is very diverse, but every week they come to consensus on issues and support. It’s a good sign.” Peter Varga
The challenge — Keeping a bipartisan focus when your project’s at stake. You’ve heard the adage about wearing two hats. For Peter Varga, executive director/CEO of the Interurban Transit Partnership (The Rapid) in Grand Rapids, Mich., it’s a $14 million proposition. As head of The Rapid, the only agency in Michigan currently through authorization on a federal New Starts project, Varga stands to gain $14.4 million in expansion funding. As president of the Michigan Public Transportation Association, he must champion a process that could cost him every dime. Central to the issue: a cash-strapped state that had been using comprehensive transportation funds to balance the general fund, forfeiting state match revenue money in the process and putting tremendous pressure on legislators to find a better way. At the same time, Public Transportation Authority Act 196 prevents agencies from levying crucial property tax millages for more than five years at a time, effectively — and confoundingly — eliminating them from any hope of New Starts funding due to the program’s requirement that grant recipients submit a 20-year financial plan. With that in mind, Varga and local legislators sought to amend the 1986 law to allow 25-year millages for all transit authorities involved in fixed-guide way projects. When the bill reached Republican House leaders, however, it was revised so that only the Grand Rapids region would benefit — a move that made little sense to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who vetoed the bill as biased and unfair. This sequence of events left one champion of both state and Grand Rapids transit to work some championship diplomacy skills. “Information is what clears it up,” Varga says. “Communicating to other state transit agencies and advocates who thought we were the cause of a bill that limited them from going forward that we weren’t the cause; that’s just how the bill came up through the legislature. And at the same time back home, making sure everybody knew what the real issue was — but also that we do have a project that is almost ready to go out of alternatives analysis, so we really can’t afford to lose more time.” Varga credits good consultants — DMJM Harris and AECOM for modeling work and Holland & Knight’s Jeff Boothe for legal affairs — with helping to keep the proverbial train on track at home while he tends to the media and takes meetings on both the state’s and The Rapid’s behalf to keep the legislation afloat, taking pains not to blur the issues in either setting. “That’s why I use the word navigate,” Varga says with a chuckle. “It’s like sailing. Sometimes you have a lot of storms, and you just have to stay alert, so after the storm abates, you’re still there and you’re still on course and able to meet your destination.” Raymond Miller
The challenge: Overcoming the past and a misunderstood streetcar line. “I’ve been pretty well accepted, but the agency continues to take some arrows,” says Raymond Miller, executive director of Tampa’s Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), who took the reins of the long-troubled operation in January 2005. “Not to the degree that it did when I got first got here, but there is a lot of history that is going to take time to change, including the culture and how we do business here.” History lesson No. 1: An epic dissonance between Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa, which sometimes seeps — and occasionally blasts — its way into Miller’s operations, due in no small part to statistics that show 60% of HART revenues accrued via property taxes from unincorporated areas in the county that, in turn, get about 40% of its service. The numbers prove particularly prickly for two of Miller’s most outspoken board members, Hillsborough County commissioners Ronda Storms and Brian Blair, who have long championed taking the matter to referendum. History lesson No. 2: the $56 million TECO Line Streetcar System co-developed by HART, the city of Tampa and the non-profit, volunteer-run Tampa Historical Streetcar Inc. (THS). In short, the city holds ultimate financial responsibility for the line and owns its track, power and stations, while HART controls the cars and maintenance facility. It’s a business model that frequently invites discussions that beat a short path back to the first history lesson. “Whenever the streetcar is brought up, it opens old wounds on the political front,” says Miller. “But the streetcar is here, and we should be embracing it. It’s doing what it was originally sold to do and that’s be a part of economic development. I’m looking out my window and there are 19 cranes in downtown in Tampa, most of which are along this streetcar line, constructing high-rise, high-end condos.” Though his recommendation of returning operation of the line to bid fell victim to joint nervousness over the RFP process, Miller’s board recently approved a study to extend the streetcar line into the downtown business district. While he’s the first to admit that he’d happily set aside the politics in favor of progress, Miller is equally adamant that he understands the debate. “You need to respect the position and the people in the position, and recognize that they have a job to do,” he says with an enviable degree of calm. “A lot of that job is to work in real time representing their constituents’ concerns. “I try to take their problems away from them and make them my problems and come up with a solution to get the situation resolved to their liking. Easier said than done in some situations, but the point is to be accessible — and listen.” Richard Simonetta
The challenge: Blending seamlessly into whole-cloth government. If you’re new to the topic, understanding the deeply interconnected network of government entities of which Arizona’s Valley Metro Rail and its CEO Richard Simonetta are part requires at a minimum, a pencil, paper and some serious charting skills. If you’re Simonetta himself, an inexhaustible constitution, excellent time-management skills and a first-rate staff do the trick. In the course of doing business as usual, Simonetta and his team are regular fixtures at the meetings and in the offices of the region’s city councils and city management, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the Regional Public Transportation Authority (RPTA), his Valley Metro partners, a intercity rail management committee, the four mayors who comprise his board, the Arizona Department of Transportation and entities known as intergovs comprising staff people for each of the cities who specialize in intergovernmental relations — all of which are wholly invested in his operations. “This is very different than MARTA [Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority], than Columbus, than Denver,” Simonetta says of his past employers. “Those were single organizations that had a significant amount of autonomy. We had a board of directors that was appointed by elected officials, but the elected officials themselves were very rarely involved in policy-level issues related to transit. Here, we have a really interesting dynamic where you actually have mayors and council members and city managers directly involved in policy decisions.” To that end, Simonetta has a single-word, multi-faceted secret for success: partnering. “When you view yourself as being in a partnered situation, you focus on mutual understanding of each other’s needs, issues and priorities, and you end up having a mutual understanding of the challenges that everyone faces.” The best proof, says the CEO, is the 2004 passage of Proposition 400, the regional transportation tax that led, in part, to the creation of his role and the light rail line at the heart of its mission. “Prop 400 was passed on the basis of a plan put together by a committee made up of all of the [region’s] mayors and other support staff,” says Simonetta. “They voted unanimously to adopt this compromised regional plan — because it had in it what each city in the county thought they needed. Some said they needed nothing but freeways and that’s what they got. Some needed a blend of freeways and arterial street improvements and that’s what they got. Some needed some pretty extensive bus improvements. And, in the case of the core cities, what they needed was transit — high capacity transit to mitigate the effects of our growing population.” Simonetta says the challenge now, both for the region and the transit entity, is to implement that plan as closely as possible to what the voters approved, providing each city with annual financial forecasts that are updated quarterly. It’s a challenge he is pleased to be part of. “The thing that happens in this kind of structure is you have absolutely clean government,” Simonetta says. “Having lived in other parts of the country where you have mayors that don’t have city managers running the city, you can end up with all kinds of stuff like, ‘My brother in law has this contract…’ and ‘My cousin has this job.’ That just doesn’t happen here.” It’s a refreshing, and comforting, change. “It creates an accountability level that makes professionals feel very comfortable,” he says. “If you really don’t know what you are doing, it’ll come out pretty quickly in this environment!”

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