All public transportation general managers need to demonstrate a commitment to the communities in which they work, but some have an additional link: They provide service in the city or town where they grew up. The following comments and reminiscences are from a few of these home-grown general managers. This is the second part of a two-part article. See the first part in the Nov. 18 issue of Passenger Transport.
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
Minneapolis native Brian Lamb has been involved with Metro Transit since he was 14 and rode buses to get to high school and recreational activities. In 1980, as a new graduate of the University of Minnesota who worked for a member of the Minneapolis City Council, he accepted a temporary six-month assignment with the agency then known as the Metropolitan Transit Commission.
That “temporary” assignment lasted until 1999, when he left Metro Transit to operate the state’s driver and vehicle services division. He subsequently became a member of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s cabinet.
“In 2004, my predecessor left Metro Transit. They said, ‘Why don’t you come back?’ Running Metro Transit was always my dream job,” he said.
Lamb described the special rewards of providing public transportation to his family, friends, and neighbors: “I take quite a bit of pride in growing up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. To help this area continue to grow and thrive is so much more than a paycheck. We’ve had a lot of success over the past 10 years, and I enjoy being part of that.”
Lamb said he gets feedback from friends and family members who use the service on a regular basis. “My sister is a daily rider and she keeps me balanced in terms of the quality of service we provide and her expectations. Like many other riders, she has a choice whether or not to use transit,” he said, adding: “I value that our service is on display, not just for the people I don’t know, but for the dozens and dozens I do know and who know me. They are my kitchen cabinet.”
Of course, things don’t always go smoothly. “This past week, I received a call from a very good friend who said his bus arrived 15 minutes late, causing him to be late for work, and what that meant to him,” Lamb said. “Having that kind of feedback loop is very important for me.”
President and Chief Executive Officer
St. Louis Metro
St. Louis, MO
“I was born, raised, and educated here,” said John Nations.. “I always lived in St. Louis. I’m a third-generation St. Louisan and a seventh-generation Missourian. I never seriously considered living anywhere else.”
His strongest memories of using public transportation as a child were of taking the “Redbird Express” to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games: “I lived in a suburb called Webster Groves. With this service it was easy for me to ride into downtown, get to the game, then get home again.”
Nations had no background in public transit: He was an economic development lawyer and served as mayor and a city council member in Chesterfield, a suburb about 20 miles west of St. Louis. Still, in 2009 when Metro proposed eliminating service to his city as part of overall service cutbacks, he realized how many workers relied on the service to get to work and became an advocate for retaining it.
“You do a lot of things as mayor and sometimes you’re surprised by the reaction; few things I did got attention like that,” he said. “Here was the mayor of an upper-middle-class suburban community, saying the buses are important. The fact is, if you’re going to have a successful community, you need public transit.”
Following that effort, Metro officials invited Nations to lead a campaign to put the public transit tax back on the ballot. After the measure succeeded by a sizable margin, Metro approached him about succeeding the current chief executive.
Regarding his familiarity with the city and its history, Nations said: “I realize that every day I’m helping my family and friends—even the ones I haven’t met yet—helping them get to work and improve their lives. It’s such a rewarding thing to grow up in a community and feel that I’m making a difference to improve it.”
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority
Joseph Casey is a lifelong Philadelphian: “I was raised in Philadelphia, went to school here, and never left the area. The reason I didn’t is, it’s home. I love the city and I love being close to my family.”
As a child, Casey rode the city’s trolleys, buses, and subways. He noted that he used city buses for the daily trip to high school and then took the train into downtown to attend college. He worked for Conrail after college, then joined SEPTA in 1982.
Casey says his visibility as the general manager of SEPTA is both an advantage and a challenge. He gave an example of a childhood friend who reconnected with him because of his job.
“Recently, a labor lawyer downtown dropped his wallet on the train,” Casey related. “Before he could call anyone, the conductor found the wallet and was able to reach out to him, even driving to his residence to return the wallet. The lawyer called me to say thank you—and to reminisce about how we played football together while growing up.”
He added: “The downside is that people sometimes want specific help, asking if I can get a job for someone, or if I can tinker with the train schedule so the caller can get to work on time. I just accept that I can’t help everyone.”
Chief Executive Officer
Joni Earl has lived in “the beautiful Puget Sound region” for her entire life, but she was never a regular user of public transportation until she joined the agency in 2000. Her previous work experience had been in local government, serving as a city manager, deputy county executive, and county budget officer.
“Before this, I worked close to where I lived,” she explained. “Even when I went to school, our home was within 12 blocks of the school. So, when I took this job, I decided that I would ride public transit from day one. That gave me a perspective I’ve never forgotten: what it’s like to try transit when you’re a total newbie.”
Her own learning experiences helped Earl understand the challenges an agency must face in reaching out for new and choice riders—from the rider’s point of view.
“Because people who know me know I was not a regular transit rider before, they are amazed what an advocate for public transit I’ve become,” Earl continued. “Anyone around me can see how taking transit has changed my life. I use it every day, going out of my way not to drive. Now I’ve been able to get friends to start using it as well, letting them see how stress-free it is.”
As the head of a regional public transit agency, “I’m definitely visible,” she said. “I get the occasional e-mail from friends about asking me about the best route to a specific destination. Also, I hear the complaints if someone I know has had a bad service experience—on any public transit system in the region, not necessarily Sound Transit.”
Metro Transit GM Brian Lamb addresses a group of bus and train operators at the 2013 Metro Transit Outstanding Operator Awards ceremony.
John Nations, president and chief executive officer of St. Louis Metro, takes the podium at a press conference to announce a project to restore the city’s historic Eads Bridge.
Joe Casey, SEPTA general manager, boards a Broad Street Line car with the Phillies Phanatic.
Sound Transit Chief Executive Officer Joni Earl helps a rider find his destination on the agency’s light-rail opening day.