Management & Operations

New Chief Brings Entrepreneurial Spirit to the FTA

Posted on January 12, 2007 by Janna Starcic, Managing Editor

As a former truck driver and business owner, James Simpson brings a slightly different mindset to the FTA’s top post.

Simpson, who took over the position last August, does have a transit background, including 10 years of service on the board of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). He has also owned his own moving and storage company and drove a tractor-trailer rig while in college.

These experiences, Simpson says, have provided him with a real-world understanding of the bottom line that he hopes will add value to his leadership of the FTA.

His experiences as a transit user in New York during his youth also have provided currency. “I’ve experienced firsthand how public transit shapes Americans’ lives,” he says.

METRO Managing Editor Janna Starcic recently spoke with Simpson about his background and key issues facing the transit world and the FTA.

JANNA STARCIC: In a recent speech you mentioned your own use of public transit while growing up in New York City, can you tell me about this experience and how it influenced your thinking?
JAMES SIMPSON: I literally grew up on transit. In fact, my entire family was dependent on transit. We didn’t have a family automobile until I purchased a car when I was 17. Because of that, I know what good transit is, and I know what bad transit is.

When we lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn, we had fantastic transit. When I was a teenager, we moved to a less urban area, Staten Island, which doesn’t really lend itself to transit because of the low density and hilly terrain. I lived in the middle of Staten Island, but went to a high school in Brooklyn. I’d leave the house at 5:30 in the morning and take four buses to get to school at 8 o’clock. And I’d go to school till noon. Then, after school, I’d take the bus and subway to City Hall to work at AT&T from 1 to 5. From City Hall, I’d have to take buses and the ferry back to Staten Island and not get home until 7:30.

So I spent about four and a half hours a day commuting, five days a week. I spent as much time commuting as I spent in school. And I swore that I would have a car someday because I wanted to make my mobility simpler. There are times when bad transit doesn’t work, and a car is the solution.

I’ve got a clear understanding of what good transit is, what transit isn’t and how important it is for our society, particularly if we’re going to make people upwardly mobile.

Do you still use public transportation?
I use public transportation whenever I can so I can experience it all over the country. There are times, because of scheduling, I just can’t, but I really try as much as I can. When I went to APTA’s annual meeting in San Jose last year, I took public transit all over the place.

Although there was a long period of time as a business owner that I did not use public transit, it was only because I was in too many locations. There will always be a need for the automobile, and we have to make sure that transit and automobiles complement one another. When we talk about transit in this country, we’ve got to try to make it the journey as well as the destination.

Transit needs to be a pleasant experience. We really need to see that transit is well-lighted, secure and safe so that discretionary rider will decide that it’s the way to go. We can’t push people into taking transit; people have to want to do it.

Could you be effective in your current role if you hadn’t ever used public transit?
For me, it’s making the job a lot easier. For example, when I was in Chicago with Frank Kruesi [president of Chicago Transit Authority], he did not have to tell me how much money was needed to keep his transit system in a state of good repair. I could walk the platforms; I could see the progress that they were making; and I could see the needs that that system, which is close to 100 years old, needs in order to maintain itself in a state of good repair.

More than 30 years ago you drove a tractor-trailer rig while you were in college. How would you say this has influenced your thinking about service transportation?
It’s really impacted me in terms of safety, operating costs and running a business.

First, through my experience as a truck driver and as chairman of the safety and security committee at the MTA, safety has always been paramount to me.

Secondly, operating a truck is no different than operating a bus, in terms of dollars and cents. They both need fuel and drivers, and they both have to satisfy the customer. You accomplish that by having good business principles, by managing the customer’s expectations and by making sure that what you’re measuring is important to the customer, not what you think is important.

In terms of operating a company, you need to make sure that you buy your fuel properly and you’re maintaining your equipment properly so you don’t have breakdowns, because a breakdown is customer disservice. So all those things certainly are a natural progression.

I was in New Orleans recently and spent two days with NORTA [New Orleans Regional Transit Authority]. They’ve done a tremendous job of bringing their system back with all that they’ve gone through. I spent a lot of time talking to the mechanics and drivers. So when I talk to a company about how they’re managing their operation, I understand it because I managed a similar operation. There’s a lot of carryover from the business that I was in to this business.

Three months into your job, what would you say is the most striking or surprising discovery about the FTA and its role in public transportation?
I had no idea that the FTA is in many ways like a private business. The people here are really committed, they believe in the mission and they don’t run home at 5 o’clock. They work really hard, they’re dedicated and they have an entrepreneurial spirit about them. I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that we administer the New Starts program, in which there’s a lot of risk involved. They take these New Starts projects seriously because they want to see them succeed. They’re not just sitting at a desk stamping formula grants and giving out money when all the boxes are checked appropriately. These people are involved in seeing these projects go forward on-time and on-budget.

Because they’re so excited about what they do, it made it easier for me to introduce the idea of the “hybrid organization.” FTA is not a private company, it’s a federal agency. In a hybrid entrepreneurial government, we take best practices from both the public and private sectors and bring them into the government. Then we have the best of both worlds.

Have you identified areas at the FTA where improvements are needed?
From my first day I’ve heard about the need to streamline the New Starts process. We’re looking at that. Everybody needs to understand that we’re the custodian of the New Starts projects. The Bush Administration has a lot to say in what goes on with it and so does Congress. So if we start to look at streamlining it, we need to get our partners involved to make sure we’re all on the same page. Since I’ve been here, there’s a new sense of urgency with the New Starts program. I ask a lot of questions on specific projects. I want to make sure that folks at the FTA know that when the ball is in our court, it’s now our turn to sort through material and make a decision or get back to the grant recipient.

We understand that time is money, and I’ll give you a perfect example. We’ve got a couple of big projects out there. In New York, we’ve got the Eastside Access Project, which is a $7 billion project. If you were to assume that every year the cost of a construction project goes up by 5%, that would be $1.3 million each day. When you put it in those terms, how important is it to get these projects done? So we are looking at that so that everything that we can do internally on our own to speed up the process, we will. And if we can’t, then we talk to our other stakeholders and the Congress and say, “Look, we think we have a better mousetrap.” We’ve asked everyone to tell us what we can do to make it better.

One of the things that I said initially that I would love to have is a continuous improvement program at the FTA. I did that at my own business and felt it was just the right thing to do. So I’ve taken a hard look at different continuous improvement programs. I want to make sure that it outlives me and is not just another management fad.

We looked at a couple of things, including the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes U.S. organizations for their achievements in quality and performance in several areas, including leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, measurement, analysis and process management.

With the support of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, we’ve been given approval to pursue the award. So, my goal at the FTA is to win the Baldrige award at the end of 2008. We already have committees put together, and we’re in the process of getting the message out to the entire workforce that we’re serious about continuous improvement, customer focus and reducing waste. We want to deliver the most bang for the buck.

For the past several years FTA has had ridership growth as a key priority, has that priority changed?
Not at all. Ridership will always be a cornerstone because at the end of the day, it’s a result, and that’s really what matters. Our goal is to continuously have more riders every day. And I don’t believe that any administrator or administration would discount the fact that you need to measure ridership.

Alternative fuels seem to have gained traction recently, especially with the rise in gasoline and diesel prices. Is the FTA focusing more attention on the development of non-petroleum based propulsion systems?
Yes we are. As a matter of fact, we’re focusing more attention on all alternatives, even some that have a long lead time before we see them into final development. We’re providing $49 million over five years that’s going to be matched dollar-for-dollar for hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel-cell technology is the perfect technology because the byproduct is water for the most part.

The other thing that is growing is the use of natural gas-powered buses. In recent years, about 22% to 23% of new bus orders have been CNG fueled. Also, we provided about $185 million under the AFI program for the purchase of more than 1,000 alternative-fuel buses. So we kick started that. It may sound like we’re anti-oil, but we’re really not. We understand that there needs to be a good mix. And hybrid electric is very, very promising.

A new party is set to take over both the House and Senate. Do you think this is going to have any impact on how the FTA goes about its business?
No, I don’t think so. My quote on that is “Good policy is good politics.” We at the FTA aren’t looking at issues based on whether they’re supported by Republicans or Democrats. We’re politically neutral. We are here strictly to serve the entire riding public and the non-riding public as well.

How do you like working with Mary Peters, the new Secretary of Transportation?
She’s working with us very well because she understands transit and knows a lot of people in this industry. The first day I met her, I could not believe how much she knew about transit. I think that comes from her days as head of the Federal Highway Administration [FHWA) and, in addition, her days as being the secretary of transportation for the state of Arizona. Because she sat in on so many meetings with the other modal administrators during her tenure at FHWA, she understands the issues involving aviation and surface transportation. There’s a lot of cross-fertilization.

I’ve heard some complaints that SAFETEA-LU funding is slow to make its way to transit systems for the purchase of new buses and other capital equipment. Is this something you’re hearing as well?
I haven’t heard that, but I’d be more than happy to look into it. And I would just say this, if any transit operator has a problem with anything at the FTA, they can bring it right to us. I have a sign on my door that says “The buck stops here.” We have enough staff here at the front office that we can address every single call; every single complaint will get to me. I’m the CCO, the Chief Complaint Officer. Bring it right to my office, and we’ll address it. If I don’t hear about it, how would I know to fix it?

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