“Someone with laser-like focus on the future;” that is one of the phrases American Public Transportation Association President Bill Millar used to describe Michael Townes, 2007-2008 APTA chair and president/CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, at APTA’s Annual Meeting and Expo in San Diego. His term as chair came to an end as he danced with Dr. Beverly Scott, 2008-2009 APTA chair and CEO of MARTA. Of his tenure as chair, Townes spoke of the extraordinary year, the honor of serving and the incredible opportunity he had to make a difference in an industry he loves.
When I talked to Townes prior to the Annual Meeting, he knew this passing of the gavel would be a bittersweet time. He had said, “There will be a sense of relief that it has come to an end, but there will be a bit of disappointment that it’s come to an end as well.”
It has been a tremendous honor Townes said, of being chair. He also said, “It’s an opportunity for me to give back to an industry which I care deeply about, which I’ve spent my life trying to advance.”
But it’s also demanding and time-consuming to serve as chair. He clarified, it’s not time consuming in that he needed to do everything. “We’ve got all these great people that are doing the work, but it’s demanding in terms of you ask people to do things, then you should be there to support them.” He added, “You should live your responsibilities in terms of presiding over the meetings that are expected for you to preside over and being the cheerleader for things like the American Public Transportation Foundation.
“It’s honorific. You feel good about yourself, it makes you feel like you’ve achieved something in your career field and you have,” he said. “You’re right there at the point which significant activities and decisions are being made.”
Transit Around the World
Townes’ father had been involved in the charter coach business and that served as one induction to transit. The other would be an internship. “I had become interested in planning while in undergraduate school,” Townes says. “What led to the focus on transportation was an internship at a local MPO, before they were even called MPOs.”
It’s the intensity of the operations and the aspect of working in a field that provides a service to the community. “You can do things that are valuable to the community you live in and have a direct impact — a positive impact — on people’s lives in terms of providing connections for them to have access to improve their lives through education and access to jobs.”
While at his internship at the Planning District Commission in Virginia, those thoughts stuck with him as that is how he would like to spend his professional career.
For the past 23 years Townes has been in Hampton Roads and in January 2002, he was selected as the first president and chief executive officer of the renamed Hampton Roads Transit. It wasn’t intentional to come back to his hometown, but he did joke that it is to the liking of his parents.
While in graduate school and as a result of those experiences at the Planning District Commission, he was recruited by ATE Management and Service Company Inc., the predecessor company of First Transit. During his interview in Cincinnati he realized that there was this big world of public transportation out there and that there were a variety of opportunities that could come his way with the firm. “One of the things that I found out in the set of interviews was that they had at the time, a major turnkey contract to plan and build and train Saudis to plan and build a transit system,” says Townes. “There’s the opportunity to be involved in that contract and go over to help Saudis set up transit operations in their country.
“That was very exciting for a young man my age coming out of school, post-Vietnam-era-graduate who wanted to see the world but didn’t necessarily want to join the military.” He continues, “And within two years of my tenure at Greater Richmond’s Transit I was able to access that opportunity through ATE and I went over to Saudi Arabia.”