Management & Operations

Paul Jablonski Navigates Challenges for San Diego's MTS

Posted on August 25, 2008 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

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 [IMAGE]MET8p42large.jpg[/IMAGE] San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) CEO Paul Jablonski began his career in the transit industry at an early age by driving a bus for the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst, where he ultimately moved up to managing the bus system. He then moved on to the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) in Albany, N.Y., where he was an assistant to the executive director of the system. After working on numerous projects, he was given the opportunity to manage one of CDTA’s divisions in Schenectady, N.Y. Jablonski then transferred to the private sector, working for ATE (the predecessor for First Transit), where he was assigned to develop a transportation system in Saudi Arabia per a joint venture with DMJM Harris.

During his nearly four-and-a-half-year stint overseas, his company managed about 60-plus systems in Saudi Arabia. Jablonski was promoted to general manager of the country’s largest system based in the coastal city of Jeddah. This operation consisted of 275 buses and carried an estimated 300,000 people per day. According to Jablonski, the system turned a profit in its final year of operation via ATE.

Back in the States, he continued to work for ATE on various projects, including the company’s first foray into school buses — managing a contract for the Cleveland public school system. In between additional consulting assignments, Jablonski took a break from the industry and took ownership of a New England-based travel agency.

He then headed back to the public side, taking on the assistant general manager position for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in Cincinnati. Within a year, he became general manager, where he stayed for 11 years before taking on the job in San Diego as CEO of MTS.

Recently, METRO Executive Editor Janna Starcic spoke with Jablonski about his involvement in the transportation industry and how he is guiding the MTS to its future.

How has the increase in fuel prices affected your operation, and what are you doing to offset this?
Unfortunately, that problem is compounded for us because the state of California has huge financial issues. For the past two years, the money we receive from gas tax sales revenues has been diverted into the state’s general fund. We have lost in excess of $60 million, which has had a huge impact on our capital plan.

On top of that, with the housing decline, we’ve seen a substantial decline in local sales tax. A good chunk of our operating subsidy comes from a portion of state and local sales tax revenues. For the past year, sales tax revenues have gone from a 5.5 percent increase to a decline of about 2.5 percent. Last year, we were faced with an estimated $14.5 million loss to subsidy revenue in our operation. We had to increase fares on the bus side in January, and we’re increasing fares and changing the fare structure pretty substantially on the rail side in September.

San Diego has had some financial issues too. After 9/11, there was a big decline in tourism and travel, and the military was being deployed. Ridership started to decline, and service wasn’t adjusted fast enough. When I joined MTS at the end of 2003, there was a pretty dramatic budget issue here, with the budget being supported by reserves rather than money that comes in every year.

Instead of just cutting service, we started a two-year initiative called a comprehensive operations analysis (COA). We put our entire system, predominantly the bus side, under a microscope and looked at what was performing and what wasn’t. We also did an analysis of our market to see where people wanted to go and where they didn’t need to. We restructured 95 percent of our service and put resources where ridership was and expected to grow, and removed service where it was low and subsidy was high.

I tell you that story because it positioned us very well for where we are today. With the decline in the sales tax revenues, but more importantly, the increase in gas prices. We were positioned to take advantage of people’s desire to start riding transit in higher numbers. We’ve been seeing a ridership increase since 2005, when we finished that project. Between 2005 and 2007, ridership has increased 12 percent.

With gas prices really ramped up here, we are seeing much larger ridership gains this spring than we are year-to-date. The trolley side year-to-date is growing at about another 7 percent to 8 percent. We still have capacity to absorb, but we are getting closer to reaching capacity. As gas goes [higher], I think we are going to have a more prevalent problem. We do have an overcapacity issue on some of our heaviest lines like the route that goes to the zoo and Balboa Park. We are running articulated buses on those routes now, and they are at capacity.

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