When Sean Smith, general manager with Durham Area Transit Authority (DATA), got out of the military he decided he needed something different to do and transportation was where he was looking, particularly the airline field.
“When I got out, the airlines were doing a lot of downsizing so I heard about Greyhound Bus Lines hiring some dispatchers,” he says. “So I ended up getting in with Greyhound and once transportation got in my blood, I couldn’t get it out and I’ve been in the industry now, going on 17 years.”
At Greyhound for 13 years, Smith worked in various capacities after starting as a dispatcher. After being a safety manager and then a department compliance manager, he was asked to run the national dispatch office. After that time, he felt it was time to learn about the other side, to go to the public side.
“The word green was going around and the congestion of cities; I needed to know more about it,” he says. After looking around at different cities, Durham, N.C., popped up and he thought he would take a chance.
“I worked my way,” he says of coming to DATA. He started as the operations manager, eventually as assistant general manager and then the general manager position that he currently holds.
When asked if there were sides of the private side that he missed at all, it was an emphatic, “No.
“Greyhound is facilitated on providing travel when people are off, so I worked a lot — every weekend, not a lot — every weekend.” He adds, “And every holiday. So being on that side of it was very stressful during those times of the year.
“Going on the public side is not as stressful as those times because it’s individuals using it on a daily basis, being transported back and forth to work and other things.”
The main experience he felt really helped him in his transition to the public side was his ability to handle a diverse group of people and being able to deal with the unions. “The state of North Carolina has a state law that they can’t negotiate with their unions,” Smith explains. “Being able to come in and negotiate new contracts and new opportunities for this location has been my strong point here in this location.”
DATA serves the city of Durham, and he explains he handles the fixed-route side of transit in the city. The paratransit is handled by Tara Caldwell, general manager for paratransit.
Caldwell has been with the agency for 16 years. “They were looking for van operators, so I was a van operator,” she says. “And that opened the door for paratransit.”
As positions became available, she applied for them from dispatcher to administrative assistant to safety manager, then operations manager and finally general manager, which she has been at for six years.
It’s no surprise that when talking to Smith and Caldwell, money is the biggest challenge they each face.
“It’s hard, but there are several programs available now and we’re working with the county and state as they write grants to come up with money,” Caldwell says. “The biggest challenge is making sure we use it efficiently.”
“Like most of the agencies out there, it’s just about funding with the communities and the cities having difficult times raising funds through taxes,” Smith says of his biggest challenge. “The funding is really a concern for everyone.”
A way they’re looking to meet that challenge is through creative partnerships. One partnership is with the regional transit company in the area, Triangle Transit Authority (TTA). “The city of Durham has decided to partner with them to allow them to have the oversight of the Durham Area Transit Authority with the hopes of bringing in the regional service for all the communities in this area under one umbrella to help defer some of the cost,” Smith explains.
“I’m really excited about that because with Triangle Transit’s knowledge of the region, we can align our schedules and share some of the responsibilities and duties of moving passengers around in this region and to defer costs on both sides.”