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Meet Thomas Lambert!
President and Chief Executive Officer
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), Houston
Member, APTA Board of Directors; member, Committee on Public Safety, Bus and Paratransit CEOs, Rail Transit, Legislative committees
Please describe your agency.
About 3,600 people are employed at METRO. We’re multimodal—bus, rail, paratransit, vanpools—but we’re really a true mobility management agency in the sense that we’re part of the city’s Motorist Assistance Program (MAP) and Houston TranStar, a regional transportation and emergency management center. We’re also aligned with a network of partners in all modes of transportation—bicyclists, pedestrians, and so on.
Our service area is 1,285 square miles. The city of Houston is our principal service area, but there are 14 other cities in our area too—all within or surrounding Harris County. There are 3.5 million people in our service area, and the population is growing by leaps and bounds.
Our annual ridership is about 80 million boardings. Just as APTA reported overall growth in ridership nationwide, we’re seeing similar increases. We’re also beginning to see behavioral changes too as people use public transit. We estimate a 20 percent increase in ridership over the next couple of years.
How long have you worked in the public transportation industry?
I’m in my 35th year. I’ve been involved with APTA in a number of ways and through committee work. Through APTA, I’ve also been fortunate to be involved in other organizations—like DOT, the Department of Homeland Security, and ITS America, where I served as chairman.
What drew you to a career in public transportation?
I was born and raised in Houston, but I left for college in Austin. I was on my way back for a job interview in risk management when I stopped for a cup of coffee in a small shop. I sat down next to a bus operator—the only seat available—and we started to talk. He told me I should interview with METRO, which was just starting the first transit police force in Texas. Because of my background in law enforcement, I was really intrigued, so I applied for a job.
I accepted my first position in transit as a security investigator for METRO in October 1979. It just went from there. I was named interim CEO for 14 months and permanent in March of this year. I’ve spent my entire transit career at METRO.
What have you found to be the most valuable APTA benefit or resource?
It’s networking—people sharing information and experiences. One thing I know about this industry is that people are willing to share what they know, what they’ve experienced, what insights they’ve gained, how to think about the consequences of a decision.
When you’re trying to do the right thing, it’s a tremendous benefit to have people tell you about their similar experiences. They can help you avoid making a mistake you don’t have to make or give you insight to not make the same mistake twice.
What do you like most about your job?
The people. Transit is an area of tremendous opportunity to meet fascinating people—people you work with and people you serve. We add to the quality of life for our riders. That’s a tremendous benefit—reward—of this work.
What would you like APTA members to know about Houston before they attend October’s Annual Meeting & EXPO?
Houston is a warm, friendly, hospitable, diverse community—there’s lots of opportunity here. Jobs, entertainment, restaurants . . . you can find every culture here. We have the best food anywhere, a thriving downtown, museums, cultural attractions, and a busy theater district. Houston’s second only to New York City in its number of theaters.
We want to showcase all of that to our friends. Houston—and transit—have changed significantly since APTA was here for the last Annual Meeting & EXPO in 1990. I credit the METRO staff, of course, but also the board of directors over the years.
What is unique about your agency? What would readers be surprised to learn?
We view ourselves as mobility managers. For example, we share 25 percent of the sales tax we receive with our member jurisdictions, and they can use those funds any way they want to make some aspect of transportation better—building or improving streets, sidewalks, and so on. Our partnership in MAP—to clear roadways and get traffic moving—all of it helps keep our buses running.
TranStar is also unique. All four partners—Texas DOT, the city of Houston, Harris County, and METRO—work together with the federal government to fund and operate the emergency management center because we know that transportation and evacuation go hand in hand.
And last is our special event management. During the March 2014 Livestock Show and Rodeo, we carried 1.2 million people on our rail system for the week-long event. We’re excited about that.