Mobility

Q&A: Reno, Nev. transit agency CEO talks customer service, collaboration

Posted on May 9, 2017

Lee Gibson, seen here addressing members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, has served as the CEO at the RTC of Washoe County since 2009.
Lee Gibson, seen here addressing members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, has served as the CEO at the RTC of Washoe County since 2009.
By Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Lee Gibson serves as the CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC). The RTC is an integrated transportation agency serving as the metropolitan planning organization (MPO), public transit operator, and street and highway agency for the Reno-Sparks metropolitan area, as well as the unincorporated area in Washoe County, which includes a portion of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Since his appointment in 2009, Gibson has focused on customer service, partnerships, collaboration, and reducing agency operating costs, as well using alternative project and program delivery methods.

What pivotal moment helped you get to where you are today?

I will tell that story starting with a little background — I am not an engineer. I am an urban city planner and started my career in New Orleans after graduate school, which is still a city that is very near and dear to my heart and still influences my thinking to this very day. I was still working in my first job out of grad school, which I had been at for about six years, and was getting antsy and looking for a change. New Orleans was in a deep recession, so I started looking at the American Planning Association’s JobMart, as it was called back then, and saw a job in Las Vegas that I applied for. Back then, it was about the size that Reno is today. [I got the job] and moved out to Las Vegas to start working for the RTC of Southern Nevada under a very influential person named Kurt Weinrich. That is where I got my first taste of what it’s like to have the MPO, street and highway, and public transportation functions all put into one. I also had to deal with rapid growth, like we are experiencing here.

Then one day, I came to Reno and I just loved it. I remember coming in and seeing trees, which there weren’t a lot of in Las Vegas. So from the start, I’ve always really loved this area. My wife is from here. It’s a great place to live and it’s been a real fun place to work. The institutional structure that we work under, I learned how to work under and leverage in Las Vegas. I brought with me my appreciation of traditional city planning and the challenges that urban areas have, as well as the sensitivity to history, from my experiences in New Orleans. Those were probably that two pivotal moments that got me here.

What is a typical day at work like for you?
Our setup here is unique in that we are the MPO, transit authority, and the street and highway construction entity for Washoe County. Therefore, I can come into work in the morning and my first order of business might be strategizing on how we are going to deal with a particular component of our regional transportation plan and how we’re setting those priorities, especially the highway priorities between the state and our agency. Or, it could be that I have to deal with a matter pertaining to our transit system or with construction issues on a major highway project.

In addition, as CEO of the RTC, it is also my responsibility to partner with our local elected leaders and the business community. When you wear three hats in one job, it is really varied, challenging, and fun.

What is your greatest challenge both from an operational standpoint and a managerial perspective?
Operationally, our system is doing very well. We have a very high on-time performance rate, and thank MV Transportation, our contractor that operates our fixed-route system, for their work. We have a well maintained fleet. Our services operate on time. And, we are also delivering new technology to our fleet, especially the Proterra electric buses.

From a management perspective, my greatest challenge is also my greatest asset. I speak to a lot of people in our industry that say they wish they were the MPO. Well, we find that while there are a lot of advantages to that, but there are also a lot of challenges. We have to work just as hard as any other MPO or transit authority to build the coalitions, partnerships, and understanding in the community to deliver service effectively.

From an institutional perspective, you can be one with respect to those three functions, but you still have the challenge, day-to-day, of being in the field and talking to business owners, elected leaders, and the riding public to make sure they are getting the services they need. One thing about the Reno-Sparks area it is a very involved community. We take our history very seriously, and because of that, when we approach projects we want to be mindful of that history.

The RTC is delivering new fleet technology, including four electric buses manufactured by Proterra.
The RTC is delivering new fleet technology, including four electric buses manufactured by Proterra.

How has the RTC’s service area changed, in terms of population growth and development, and how have you responded to those changes?
Our employment base is becoming more focused on high technology industries. We are seeing a more educated workforce emerge in the community, and as a result, we are focusing more on what we call livability projects and services. One of the things we have had to respond to is making sure we provide choices for people in transportation. We are very proud of our multimodal project planning design and operations approach to delivering services. We go into a corridor, and not only improve the transit service we provide, but also improve safety, traffic flow, opportunities for cyclists, and enhance the pedestrian environment.

We are seeing a degree of suburbanization here. Our service area is a very long narrow valley to the north and the south, which puts a lot of pressure on us because it is very difficult to provide traditional fixed-route services, especially since we are still recovering financially from the Great Recession. Our sales tax revenues, which funds our operations, have not quite recovered to the levels we would like to see them at, so we are fiscally constrained in our ability to provide new services. With that said, we are looking at implementing a commuter bus service out to the Tesla facility east of here in the near future.

Moving forward, the suburban needs are really going to be a challenge for us fiscally, and we are going to have to look at new service delivery models. Something that is working well for us here right now is the vanpool program. We have more than 110 vanpools today, which is essentially more than double the amount we had three years ago.

What RTC project(s) are you most excited about?
I love all of our projects. Virginia Street, which is still in NEPA, and our 4th & Prater bus rapid transit project, which is under construction, are both very exciting. But, what I am really excited about is that we deliver and operate an extraordinarily unique and effective public outreach campaign and program for these projects. For example with 4th & Prater, we just didn’t do the standard public outreach programs; we partnered with historical societies and brought in a historian to help us prepare a written and pictorial narrative about the corridor. That did a couple of things. One, it really helped us solidify an awareness of how important the corridor is to the community — people learned about the history and the uniqueness of the corridor and its sense of place. Most importantly, we were able to create designs that will allow us to build and operate a BRT system that is sensitive to that history.

We live in a world today, where all of us in the industry are grappling with things like Uber and Lyft, ridesharing, and bikesharing. And, we live in a world where oftentimes we hear about the overburdensome nature of regulations, sometimes including Section 106 (National Historic Preservation Act of 1966). But, what people still need to recognize is that when you are building infrastructure in an integrated fashion, it is part of a long-term story of city building and living. I want to make sure that we are going to be very mindful in how we design, develop, and operate our street and highway and public transportation services.

Lee Gibson
Lee Gibson
What are your thoughts on the federal government’s role in public transportation moving forward?
The federal government has a tremendously important role in funding public transportation, particularly through the Capital Investment Grant Program. Our Virginia Street BRT Extension project is an important Small Starts project for us. Let’s not beat around the bush, the Fast Act was very difficult to get to, and nonetheless, it represents a bipartisan agreement to fund infrastructure and the Capital Investment Grant program was a key part of the transit title. We spent local resources getting ready to go into many of the Fast Act programs, so I hope we will see the Congress appropriate the authorized levels and continue the partnership.

Sometimes you will hear people ask ‘what does public transportation do for interstate commerce?’ Highways obviously transport people and goods across state lines. But when visitors fly in and out of here, that is our interstate commerce. When we can move those people in the tourist areas, we are engaging in interstate commerce and supporting the benefits that we obtain from people coming here and enjoying our assets.

We are also becoming a freight and logistics center here. We are becoming a key locator for a lot of goods that flow into this country from the Bay Area. Once they are here, they either continue to make their way around the nation, or they are improved upon in our growing manufacturing sector and then moved onto other parts of the country. When we move people to those jobs via transit, we are supporting interstate commerce. A predominant amount of our riders are going to work. They are going to work to add value to goods and services that get exported. If they get exported, that is ultimately good for our country.

Living and working in a fast-growing community, the federal partnership is something I want to see continued. In fact, I want to see it enhanced. It is time for this nation to really grab a hold of this infrastructure issue. I am encouraged when I read the Administration wants to take a long-term infrastructure perspective and invest, but public transportation really needs to be at the table for that discussion.

Have you partnered or are you exploring the possibility of exploring partnerships with Uber/Lyft, ridesharing, or bikesharing groups to provide more options for riders?
We are looking at all of those, actually. For instance, we are looking at Uber and Lyft as potential partners in the delivery of paratransit services. Today, technology is significantly influencing the way we do things today including transportation and we want to make sure that we have more accessibility for people to have information via technology. One of my biggest concerns I have had is making sure that people understand how to use our transit system, and the more information we can provide via a mobile device, the easier it is, I believe, for people to use the system. Bikesharing is another area we are exploring with our community partners. Right now, we are in discussions to determine the feasibility of implementing a bikeshare program in the region.  

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