There is a story in Fort Worth, Texas, about a Depression-era Dallas attorney (and former Fort Worth resident) who said things were so quiet in town that he’d seen “a panther asleep on Main Street, undisturbed by the rush of men or the hum of trade.” The intended slur was taken to heart by Fort Worth residents and became an enduring symbol.
The same could be said for its sleepy little transit system, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, or The T, which is poised to pounce on a variety of new transit plans, including commuter rail and streetcar lines.
Its executive director, Dick Ruddell, is a perfect fit for Fort Worth with such a natural, down-home attitude and slow drawl that you wouldn’t know he was from Kansas. Growing up in Wichita, he returned from serving in Vietnam to find he had few employment options. Taking advantage of a government program, Ruddell was hired by the local transit authority as a transit analyst, which as he describes revolved around riding buses and interviewing passengers.
“I asked the guy who hired me. I asked him I have a degree in psychology, if I was doing this I would have been looking for business majors. Why did you hire me?
“He said we were, but I just saw your resume and I thought with a psychology degree I thought you could analyze what the passengers were saying,” Ruddell laughs.
Ruddell said his first real permanent job in transit came when he was asked to do a run cut — a job he had no idea how to do whatsoever.
“My first task of doing the permanent job was to do a run cut. They didn’t have anybody at the time to do scheduling and run cutting. This was before Trapeze, there was no computers. It was all manual.
“And the superintendent of transportation gave me this task and he said, ‘We’re trying to do a new run assignment for all the drivers, and it hadn’t been done for a while because our scheduler quit like two years ago and nobody knows how to do this, so take a shot at this and see if you can do it,’” Ruddell says.
Ruddell says he was literally on his own and just looked at what they had done before and designed a new run assignment based on those parameters.
Walking into his supervisor’s office, he handed him the assignment and said, “Well there’s my best shot at it.
“And he said, ‘Wow that’s the first new run assignment we’ve had in two years.’”
After talking with the general manager he hired Ruddell and put him in charge of scheduling.
“Before very long I’m reading in the newspaper about stuff I’m working on. And I thought this is really cool. You know, I felt like I was having an impact on my community.
“And that more than anything is what convinced me or attracted me to the business,” Ruddell says.
“This is really cool. I don’t know nothing. I just started here, and here I am working on something that the community is interested in. They’re writing about it in the paper. I’m having an impact on my community,” Ruddell laughs.
And he’s been in transit ever since. After a dozen years in Wichita, Ruddell left for the state capital where he would lead the Topeka transit system for several years before taking the reins in Toledo, Ohio.
“About the time I moved up there my kids were getting to school age. They were four and six,” Ruddell says.
“They were just starting elementary school. So once you move into a community and your kids start school, it gets harder to move. So basically I stayed there until my kids got through high school.”
It was after his kids had left for college that Ruddell got the call about a position in Fort Worth. And seven years later, he’s made this former cowtown his home.
Ruddell says Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is located, is the most conservative county in Texas. “These people, their first choice has always been for their whole life, I want my pickup and I want be able to go where and when I want to go in my own pickup, and if you want to have public transit OK for my neighbor or for somebody else to take just to clear the road so I can drive my pickup where I want to go.
“And that’s been their view of transit.”
In the seven years he has been with The T, Ruddell has seen the Fort Worth population grow by nearly 50 percent — one of the fastest rates in the nation. And with that population explosion came a marked increase in congestion.
“For most of that time there has been tons of jobs and people have moved here for the jobs,” Ruddell says.
“And that’s created its problems which is congestion. And so people see public transit. They’ve seen how other cities have dealt with it. And a lot of the people moving in are coming from cities where they’ve seen public transit so they’re wanting it here.
“Which I think has provided the biggest impetus to do something with some kind of rail project.
“And they see the great success that DART has had right next door. You have a very successful transit authority that has built light rail and is building light rail. And people are using it all over the place so they see that and they go, ‘Hey, why can’t we have some of that?’
“It’s just all added up to a more positive view of public transportation in a very pickup-oriented community.”
The T’s next expansion is a southwest to northeast rail line connecting Fort Worth via its downtown Intermodal Transit Center (ITC) with Dallas-Fort Worth International airport (DFW). The first major concern for the project was, as always, funding. Ruddell explains that Texas has a statewide sales tax cap of 8.25 percent, but the proposed rail line actually ran through one of only two municipalities that still had room — Grapevine was a full penny under the cap.
“I figured out we could do it with 3/8 of a cent instead of a full ½ cent which is what the T is, a half cent. But I told them, I said you don’t get any bus service for this, you just get commuter rail.
“If you want everything then it’s going to be 1/2 cent like Fort Worth, but if you just want the commuter rail I can do it for 3/8 of a cent. So the Grapevine mayor put it on the ballot and it passed. And that passed. Seventy-five percent of his voters voted to increase their sales tax.
“This wasn’t a poll. This was pull the lever to increase my sales tax 3/8 of a cent to build this commuter rail line, and 75 percent of his citizens voted to do that,” Ruddell says.
Ruddell says the new line will be a boon for many businesses in Tarrant County, especially in Grapevine. “There is a big employment base in Grapevine. I think they have more employees than they have citizens because all of the businesses.
“They have a lot of hotels, a big mall. They just need a lot of service workers. But the service workers can’t afford to live in Grapevine. So that’s why they really need this transit to bring workers in. And then it goes on to the airport, which is a big employment base itself.
“The majority of the riders — and it’s hard to get elected officials to understand this — if you talk to an elected official their thought of transit to the airport is going there to fly. That’s what they all think. That’s how they use it. But to convince them, yeah that’s nice but it won’t support public transit into the airport.
“What supports it are the employees. There are 17,000 employees at the airport. That’s what will support the transit, those people going to work. And then you get to ride it to fly out as a sort of side benefit.”
Ruddell explains that when you talk about putting a rail line into an airport you have to split into two different things — the airport and the FAA. DFW was very supportive of the rail line early on and even offered to build the station on their property at their expense if The T built the rail line to it, but then the airport wasn’t the FAA.
“We were told how onerous, how bureaucratic the FAA can be — even worse than the FTA,” Ruddell laughs.
He admits that it didn’t turn out to be quite as bad as they were originally led to believe.
“One of the things that helped that was that our commuter line going up there goes right by the regional FAA headquarters,” Ruddell smiles.
Putting in a station near the FAA headquarters was an easy decision to make, which helped make the local FAA staff very receptive to helping The T get their project underway.
“Yes, we’re going to put in a station. Now we can’t put it right at their headquarters, but its within a half a mile or so,” Ruddell says.
“But that’s going pretty well. And I think we got good support from FAA to make this happen.”
When I asked about their bus fleet, Ruddell was quick to point out that it is 100 percent compressed natural gas-powered (CNG). He says the agency is very proud of that fact.
“These are the first CNG buses I’ve ever operated. Before this it was all diesel,” Ruddell says.
“In Kansas in Topeka, in Ohio in Toledo, that was all I ever knew — diesel. And all I ever knew was dealing with complaints about smoking buses, and pushing maintenance to change the injectors and get them cleaned up and what kind of fuel, cleaner lower sulfur diesel.
“So I get here and there’s no smoke. These buses don’t smoke. They are the cleanest things you can just … it’s unbelievable. There are no smoking buses here. There’s no smoke.
“And if you are familiar with fully diesel-powered bus fleets you can’t imagine the difference. You just can’t. You don’t smell any diesel. You don’t see any smoke.”
Ruddell says within Fort Worth the image of the smoking transit bus has vanished in a puff of CNG. In fact, city and businesses have quickly gotten onboard to help promote the idea of The T’s CNG buses. Of course, there are other alternative fuel options, but Ruddell says it comes down to price.
“Here’s my problem with the hybrids. I think the hybrids are great. And they do a lot for air pollution and they do a lot, not the CNG hybrid, just the diesel hybrid of helping transit systems find some alternatives besides just a straight diesel — but they’re expensive,” Ruddell says.
“They are expensive. And you can talk about it all you want, but when you get down to ordering buses, you still are trying to find the most number of buses for the amount of money you got. Whatever it is, it’s still a limit.
“You only got so much money to put into them. You got some kind of a limit whether it’s from the state or the feds or your local money or whatever, you got a limit.”
Setting a Standard
To help drop the costs of buses, Ruddell says he is very supportive of a standard bus for the United States. Ruddell says after operating buses in four different cities in three different states despite the differences the industry could live with a standard design.
“I am very convinced that we could have a standard bus in this country aside from some basic things like you do have to decide whether you’re going to have diesel or CNG or hybrid or what kind of power you’re going to have,” Ruddell says.
“But other than a few big things like that, it would be the same bus, made up the same way, the same kind of head signs for everybody, the same kind of stop announcements for everybody, the same number of cameras in the bus for everybody. You could easily do that and everybody would learn to live with it like that,” he says with a snap of his fingers.
“They would be over that in a year. Everybody would forget about the kind we used to ride on our own specs. We just use the basic spec. And it would make the vehicles a lot cheaper,” Ruddell says.
“But we got to get there. But I’m a big proponent of that because I believe that could be done very easily. And I don’t care whether you’re a bus passenger in NY or LA or FW or Topeka they’d all learn to live with the same vehicle and it would work very well.
With my publisher being a triathlete he was very pleased to see Dick Ruddell holding a bike on our cover this month. And I was told that Ruddell was adamant about being pictured with one. An avid cyclist, he is determined to make it another mode in The T’s transit system.
“I like to bicycle and I like to promote bicycle riding both for the health aspects of it as well as the transportation aspects,” Ruddell says.
“Every bus has bicycle racks on it. We allow and promote bicycles on the Trinity Railway Express [the commuter rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth The T co-operates with DART]. So you can use your bike there.
“We are the main sponsor of the two biggest bicycle events in Fort Worth. One is the Bicycle to Work Day, we picked up on that and we’re the main sponsor for that and get that organized every year,” Ruddel says.
“And we do a Clean Air Bike Rally. The city used to do that. They did it to promote the idea that Fort Worth is a bicycle-friendly community and you can ride your bicycle in Fort Worth. Not just to work, you can ride your bicycle in Fort Worth. They have a lot of bicycle trails in Fort Worth and they are very heavily used.
“We always talk about, hey if you get tired just take your bike to the nearest bus stop, hop on the bus and it will take you back.
“If you just go around the city you will start seeing bikes on the front of buses. You can’t go very far without seeing a bike on the front of a bus. So people are using them.”
In all my interviews with transit directors, the last question I like to ask is if they have any advice for other transit execs. Ruddell smiled and simply said in that drawl, “Yep.” His first bit of advice — good communication.
“Managers need to have good communications,” he says. “Managers need to learn to communicate more both with their employees and with their board.”
And then he gave me these three keys to success: a small ego, thick skin and short toes.
“What I mean by small ego is, never let your ego get in the way of a good decision. That’s the best way to put it. A lot of managers have big egos and sometimes it gets them in trouble, so the key is don’t let your ego get in the way of a good decision,” Ruddell says.
“Thick skin, well everybody knows what that is. Believe me you’ve got to have a thick skin in this business. At this level you just do.”
“Short toes,” Ruddell smiles as he ticks off the third key on his fingers.
“You’ve probably heard the expression you step on somebody’s toes, and so what that means is if you have short toes you don’t have to worry about people stepping on your toes. Let people do what they are good at doing and if somebody has a good idea let them take it forward.
“Give your staff and your people the idea that if they have a good idea or if they believe something needs to be done, they can do it and they don’t have to worry about stepping on your toes. And everybody will be better off.”