State-of-the-art technology and a familiar staff makes the award-winning St. Cloud Metropolitan Transportation Commission (Metro Bus) an agency worth visiting and a place I didn't want to leave. Although that could have had more to do with the impending bombardment of snow heading through the area as I left. The middle of winter may not be the best time to head to the north, but the trek provided insight into how this agency stays at the leading edge of transit in its operations.
Metro Bus was named the best transit system of its size in North America by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in 2007. It also won this prestigious award back in 1990 and David Tripp, Metro Bus' executive director, is proud to quickly point out that it is the only agency in Minnesota to have won that award twice.
Numerous reasons account for the 2007 win and the tour allowed me to see first hand what some of those qualities are.
Not only is it the extensive use of technology throughout the operations, the familiar staff makes you want to feel a part of the team. Before even arriving at the agency, the hospitality had shown through. Marketing Director and Planner Tom Cruikshank orchestrated a day of activity that involved various members of the staff and also a tour at New Flyer's manufacturing facility in town with New Flyer Program Leader Paul Hatton.
Part of a community
I ask Tripp what he attributes the agency's success to. "We're autonomous," he answers without skipping a beat. "I think that's the big reason.
"We're not part of a city operation or a county operation; we're completely, totally autonomous." He adds, "Our five members on the board, they're not pulling things because of their community. It's really a community program and they're community-minded.
"You know, we've all been here forever," Tripp reflects of the staff. "I'm 29 years, Tony and Patty, my part-time accounting clerk, have been here 22 years, Kim 20 years, Tom 18 years; we're kind of the nucleus."
He talks of not only the team and his staff's dedication, but also that of the partners they work with, including St. Cloud State, member cities and transit partners. "This is a very strong community," he emphasizes.
Part of the energy comes from Tripp's own enthusiasm toward transit. As he says, it's contagious and there is always something around the corner that's different, exciting and worthwhile. "I think there are a lot of public transit professionals and managers who got into the industry because of not just a job, but the philosophy of what public transit does," he says. "Not just to the environment, not just wise land use, but to the individuals, to the populace that we do serve." He says, "Some light bulb goes off in your head that I think guides why you choose a profession."
Through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), Tripp started as an administrative intern at Winona State University 33 years ago. "They just had a dilapidated system,? he explains. ?I latched on to it and thought, this could be better, because I had been in Japan for a full year so I saw what modern mass transit can offer."
For the past 29 years, Tripp has been at Metro Bus and explains it?s the interesting projects that pop up that have kept him here as long as he has been.
Cruikshank interjects, "Here I thought it was just because of the staff."
As Tripp laughs, he says, "I would miss them so much.
"Right, about a day," Cruikshank adds.
As to why he's remained at one place for so long, "Dennis Jensen from Duluth and I, we thought we would join the Bill Volk 'Lifetime Agency Club,'" he laughs. "For awhile there we were trying to beat Bill's tenure and Volk's just never going to leave. He could write his ticket anywhere in the nation; he's an industry magnate."
Running at capacity
Like the other agencies I talk to, the $4-a-gallon gas hit the area hard. Tripp says, "I would hope it?s an awakening process for our nation to know that as far as the automobile specifically, that we just can't do business as usual, and that efficiency is absolutely necessary as well as alternatives — good alternatives."