“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.”
Townes was the director of planning, marketing and scheduling for the El Tiaf division of the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company. He says about the challenging job and environment, “You either didn’t do well and didn’t stay around long or you challenged yourself and you found out that you could meet the challenges of this environment and you gained confidence and experience by that.”
Townes was one of those that did well in that environment. Not only did he gain experience and confidence, as he says, he came back with a “lucky strike extra.”
“I had no inkling that I would meet my future wife in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but I did.” His wife is from the Philippines and was in the Kingdom as a nurse. When Townes’ contract came to an end, he left and went to Stockton, Calif., still with ATE, to be the assistant general manager, where his future wife’s sister lived. Townes says that provided an opportunity for them to get together and they got married.
Or at least that’s the short version. He tells the story with amazing detail, as if it had all happened yesterday. A story of suspect illegal immigration, miscommunication, flying to Manilla and INS interviews unravels to explain how he and his wife got together some 25 years ago.
He also shares that his two daughters, having spent more time at the doctor’s office than at the transit company, have gone into nursing. “I was just joking with my daughters the other day. I mentioned transportation and I got the old, the turned-up-nose look.”
Changing Times in Hampton Roads
Townes explains that when he first moved to Hampton Roads back in 1986, it was a long distance call from Hampton to downtown Norfolk. Now, he says, it is a very typical travel pattern for someone to live in Hampton and work in Norfolk. There were two transit systems back in 1986; Pentran, servicing the peninsula and TRT, servicing South Hampton Roads.
Two agencies created a natural sense of competition for funding, principally at the state level. Also, with the expanding travel patterns, the region needed to be approached as one region, which would be impossible to do with two agencies.
The association with APTA, Townes says, helped this region in uniting to one transit agency. Back when ISTEA became law, officials at Pentran and TRT knew about the provisions of STP and CMAQ that were coming into law with ISTEA, as well as the new regional decision-making funding distribution processes that were embedded in the MPOs as a result of ISTEA. “We got together and we determined that we wanted to fund these project needs from these new regional and flexible sources of funds,” Townes says. “But it required our fledgling, newly reformed MPO to distribute these funds to us so we developed a strategy where I would go talk to my mayor who was associated with the project and they would do the same with their mayor and we would come to the MPO and through the strength and influence of these mayors, we would get these projects funded.
“We had gone on our side of the water, we had talked to our mayor, Mayor Frank, and he understood the need for the project and he understood the process because we explained it to him. “ He continues, “He recognized that there was going to be, for the foreseeable future, opportunities when a city like his wanted something and needed the support of the other cities in the region, to get it and that vice versa would happen in the future. So there would be more or less, trade-offs, and he was willing to trade off for these projects.”
He adds with a laugh, “The mayor of Norfolk, however, wasn’t as well persuaded as the mayor of Newport.” He says, “When we came to the MPO meeting, we expected the two of them to work together to move these projects forward but the mayor of Norfolk expressed some objection but the mayor of Newport News, who we had briefed very, very well, stood up and basically, very eloquently said, ‘These are important projects for the two transit agencies. Newport News is very much in favor of the project, we consider this a top priority project. We expect it to be funded and if it is not funded when the time comes for one of your communities to want our support on projects, it may not be forthcoming.’
“The mayor of Norfolk understood that very, very well,” says Townes. “He sat down and the end of the story is that the projects were funded. And we built two transportation centers as a result of it.”
Townes stresses, “But the bottom line is, because of our APTA association, we came in with knowledge, we came in prepared, we were able to advocate for projects, we were able to communicate to the decision makers the need for the projects, the process for getting them funded.” He continues, “My mayor from Newport News particularly became very knowledgeable about what he needed to do and he used that knowledge to get the favor of the transit project.”
Formation of HRT
Hampton Roads Transit is in a region of seven independent cities, but it’s really one big urban area. When the area wasn’t built up to one urban area, it worked with two separate agencies. But as Townes explains, the visionary people understood that the region was growing and that, in terms of public transportation, the region needed to be looked at as one; it was going to be impossible to do with two transit agencies.
“Two agencies also created a natural sense of competition for funding, principally at the state level,” Townes says. “They came together on the basis that it’s good for the region to look at one agency that can advance major transit goals and obviously, the vision was to start a light rail system and grow it into a regional rail transportation network.”
Not only was there the natural competition between two agencies, the governmental structure of Virginia sets up natural competition between jurisdictions. In Virginia, every community is separate from every other community, Townes explains. And, being a Dillon’s Rule state, no community can raise any fee or assess any tax without the express permission of the Virginia General Assembly. Townes adds, “Virginia is a state where our governor serves one term and is a lame duck the day he or she is elected.
“Despite all those conflicts, we looked in Northern Virginia and we saw that in terms of transportation, and specifically public transit, they had a way of getting together before each Virginia General Assembly session and arguing among themselves and developing a consensus and coming to Richmond and advocating for that consensus to be very successful in attracting state resources to support public transportation needs.” He adds, “Far more successful than Hampton Roads.”
By eliminating the additional layer of competition between two agencies in the region, they could overcome that and achieve some of the success that they saw happening in Northern Virginia. “I think both of those visions have turned out to be reality,” Townes states. “We are in construction for light rail and we now have a much greater, robust, full voice in the Virginia General Assembly and we are achieving significant support from the Virginia General Assembly, including enhanced financial support.”
In Townes’ candid way he does say of the two agencies merging, “We needed to improve and advance public transportation. A goal we still have to achieve. We haven’t gotten there by any stretch yet; we’re working on it.”
Hampton Roads Transit was formed in October 1999, after the merger between Pentran and TRT. It serves the cities of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, servicing an area population of 1.3 million.
“The seven cities came together under state law to form HRT,” says Townes. “The state law requires that the transportation district has a method for allocating the cost of revenues among its members. “ As Townes describes it, the cities come to the “transit store” and buy services from HRT. “It’s HRT’s job to put it together and make it operate in a regional fashion.
“The bad news is, because we don’t have a dedicated source of funds and because we’re looking for general fund money to fund transit operations for seven municipalities, it’s almost impossible to grow transit service,” he states. “It’s difficult because the cities are under a lot of strains for municipal services. It’s not that they don’t want to run transit, it’s just the way it works out.”
Talking to Townes, it is clear HRT is headed in the right direction and still has a lot of hard work ahead. It was hard work and strong belief that got it as far as it is today. “The conventional belief was that HRT would never make it through the New Starts process and that the project would never receive federal approval,” he says. “We believed in the project, we believed in our region, we know that the statement of purpose and need is real and it was, in a matter of working, very hard to give complete, honest information to the FTA and to advocate to the FTA and Congress to understand the tremendous growth in this region.”
The challenge that the region has is with the fact that it’s a coastal region. Transportation infrastructure development is complicated by many water crossings. This also, however, contributes to the strategic value to the nation of the region. Not only a major harbor on the East Coast, it is home to the world’s largest naval base.
Townes says, “It took a serious belief in ourselves and in our project and in our region. It took a never-say-die attitude. It took a partnership between Norfolk and HRT and within our commission; it took the other six cities to be supportive of Norfolk’s effort to move ahead.”
The Tide is something HRT takes an awful lot of pride in, Townes says. “How it came about is a result of a lot of hard work and a result of a never-say-die attitude on the part of Jane Whitney, who’s the senior vice president of development here at HRT.” He also refers to her as the mother of light rail in Hampton Roads. “She lived with that project literally for almost two decades,” he says.
He also commends the leadership of the city of Norfolk and Hampton Roads. “Willing to step out a single entity, to put in light rail as a starter line and anticipate that other communities would join. I think it was quite a significant risk on the part of the city and quite a show of leadership in this region.”
The construction started in December 2007 and, despite the construction marketplace prices rising, it is going well. HRT has been working closely with local institutions to make sure everyone remains in alignment and that they remain stakeholders and partners with HRT. One of the partnerships he mentions is with Norfolk State University.
The university is adjacent to the line, about midway through the run, and has two state sites, one on either end of campus. There were legitimate needs of the university to ensure that the station sites were compatible with what occurs on campus and that the learning environment wasn’t in any way jeopardized. In exchange, Townes says the project was able to provide Norfolk State with substantial land to advance some of its interest in terms of a research capability near the campus. It’s also been agreed to that going forward there may be some joint development opportunities.
“I think that that very complicated partnership is working out very well but there was a point and time that we didn’t have full agreement of the parties and that caused some minor complications for early construction,” Townes explains. “Right now I would say that because we have a couple more for bid packages to open and to award, we don’t have complete certainty of the impact on the total budget for the final budget for the project. We don’t know exactly whether we’re going to be within the timeframe of the FTA or whether we will have to ask the FTA to recognize a slight delay.
“I think overall, given what I know about the construction environment, given what I know about the capacity of the transportation industry and support groups to support the development of rail projects, there is kind of a deficit of capacity out there.” He stresses, “I think we’re doing pretty darn good.”
A project as large as The Tide is hard on an agency’s staff. It presents many challenges, but, as Townes says, it provides an opportunity to look at all of the internal practices and capabilities. “Sometimes it’s not pretty,” Townes laughs. “To look inside the agency and discover that some capabilities might be lacking, but actually, when you step back from it, it’s an opportunity for us to improve in almost every aspect of what we do.” He emphasizes, “It has kind of revealed to us our strengths and some of our weaknesses and we see that as something that is good because it allows us to maximize our strengths and allows us to work toward improving our weaknesses, and we’re doing just that.”
HRT Looking Forward
Another area HRT is focusing on is sustainability. “We have a big commitment of moving toward becoming one of the most sustainable transit organizations in the industry,” Townes says. As signatories to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) accord, the agency has a defined goal it is working toward. “I feel that the UITP construct presented a framework that offered a positive challenge to a staff that already had a great deal on its plate.” He continues, “I thought it would help me articulate to this staff that was already under challenge, why accepting an additional challenge such as moving toward sustainability was not only important, but necessary and in their interest.
“And it has done that,” he confirms. “We have moved to low sulfur diesel, we have instituted a no-idling policy, we have gone to hybrid vehicles in a large way and we will continue moving in that direction,” he says. HRT has also implemented high-speed, point-to-point express bus services and a host of green practices in the offices.
“I think one of the main things we’ve done is we’ve instituted a position inside of HRT which is responsible for being the heart and soul of our sustainability effort,” Townes says. “We hired a great man, Scott Demarker, who is going to help bring all of this together in to a more cohesive program.”
I ask Townes why sustainability is so important to the agency when they have so many other projects to be focused on. “The vehicles are a major focus of what we do in terms of sustainability in transit,”
Townes explains. “But the vehicles are supported by our support infrastructure and if we forget about our support infrastructure, then a major part of our responsibility is being ignored.
“Maintaining the vehicles at a high level is important but if your support infrastructure isn’t situated in a way where you are practicing high sustainability practices with those, you lose the value both financially and conceptually from having focused on the vehicles themselves to the exclusion of the support infrastructure.”
Also on Townes’ mind — and everyone else’s in the industry— is the nearing end of SAFETEA-LU. Townes and I spoke about the upcoming authorization process. “I think it’s a major change,” he says. “The nation has to recognize that the day of $2 or less gas is gone. I think that the debate over whether greenhouse gases are having a real effect on the planet’s atmosphere’s chemistry is substantially over.
“Recognizing these things, we need to have a major change in the way that we run and fund transportation infrastructure in this nation.” He stresses, “One thing for sure that I want to say straight right up front is that there needs to be a strong federal role. The belief that you can devolve the cost and the responsibility for a national transportation infrastructure is an erroneous belief, so let’s start from the standpoint that there needs to be a strong federal role.”
He also points out that we haven’t invested in our infrastructure here in America at the rates that our global competitors are investing in infrastructure. “If we want this nation to maintain its leadership in the world, we have to invest for that leadership.
“I am looking for radically more money. I am looking for new, flexible program structures. I am looking for something that has some performance basis in terms of the funding. And I want the program to be focused on increasing and improving the transportation infrastructure that exists now.”
Repeating his concern, he says, “There needs to be an undeniable federal role.”
As chair of APTA, he tells me about the group of people leading APTA’s process to develop the indusstry’s positions for the next authorization. He mentions the chair and vice chair for APTA’s legislative committee, Bill Volk, managing director, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, and Barry J. Barker, executive director of the Transit Authority of River City. “They’ve done a wonderful job,” he says. “And Barry Barker has also chaired a subcommittee on program structure where a great deal of the detailed work is being done.”
Townes also talks of the task force that is specifically working on the reauthorization issues themselves. He says it is being chaired by John Catoe, general manager of Washington Metro, and also included on the task force is Stephanie Negriff, executive director of the The Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica and Alan Wolkin, senior vice president of APTA business member Infoconsul. “They have done tremendous work.” He changes direction a bit, stating, “That’s the thing that gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, is to see the high-level involvement and hard work of not only these leaders, but all the members of the association who pitched in to do this work.”
With a laugh he adds, “The chair gets to take the credit for this but really, the only credit that chair can take is picking good people to do important work and I did make some good choices there.”
Working with APTA
Reflecting on his tenure as chair, he continually goes back to the work everyone in the industry has done in this past year. When I ask what he’s most proud of, he replies, “There are a number of things that I’m proud of, but the thing that I’m most proud of is nothing that I have done specifically by myself. It’s rather that people have stepped up and have accepted the leadership roles that I have asked them to accept.”
He adds, “And they have performed at a very, very high level.”
Chief among those he mentioned was Lee Sander, executive director and CEO of the New York MTA and chair of TransitVision 2050. “When I was first vice chair and I was thinking what I would like to accomplish, not just “I,” but the association to be challenged to accomplish during my term, it occurred to me that it was time once again for APTA to think about, in very global ways, the future.”
He points to two forces that really made this the time where it needed to be done. One was the looming expiration for the authorization of SAFETEA-LU and the need to reauthorize the surface transportation program. The other was the strains within the association that needed to be addressed so the coalition could continue to perform at a high level. “Those strains,” he clarifies, “having to do with the natural tension that arises between large and small properties, between operators and board members and business members.
“I encouraged Howard Silver, who was chair at the time, to institute a visioning process,” Townes says. “It was logical and necessary for us to sit down and do some visionary thinking about what we saw in the future so that we could articulate that future to other people and we could position our legislative process in such a way that was in alignment with our vision.
“When I became chair, it occurred to me and Bill Millar that the duties of APTA chair are somewhat time-consuming and that this visioning process needed someone that was going to lead it with a great deal of focus and that we needed to have a very credible and experienced senior leader to do that.” Townes states, “And Lee Sander accepted that task and has far exceeded my expectations.”
TransitVision 2050 was adopted by the association’s board of director’s executive committee at APTA’s Annual Meeting. “That’s the culmination of my term so I see that as a major accomplishment I wanted to have done while I was in office and all of the credit goes to the task force and the credit for leading the task force through the difficult and productive part of the process goes to Lee Sander,” Townes stresses.
There were also several others Townes specifically mentioned. A subset of the TransitVision 2050 process was how the association addresses its structure, how it manages the natural tensions between the segments of the association. A task force was set up to work through those issues, the Framework for the Future task force. “There are three co-chairs of that task force,” Townes says. “They’re all past chairs of APTA. They are George Dixon, who’s a board member at Cleveland’s RTA and Les White, he is the general manager of the system in Santa Barbara, a small system in California, and also John Bartosiewicz, who is a senior vice president of McDonald Transit Associates, and is also the former general manager of The T in Fort Worth, Texas.
“These three people have taken on — these are very difficult issues to talk about,” Townes stresses, “possibly changing the bylaws, reforming the governance, the structure of an association.
“They and their task force have taken these issues on with a great deal of urgency, a very collaborative fashion and in a way that has raised a sense of calm, I think, among some of the factions in the association.” Townes explains that their output is due in November and at that time, will go to the executive committee at the executive committee’s retreat. He adds, “The draft work has been stellar and I expect that their outcomes will help us address some of these difficult issues in a very positive way.”
Stay Connected, Be Involved
Townes had shared how the association with APTA helped with the resources available to them when they were working at combining Pentran and TRT to become Hampton Roads Transit, but there are other benefits to the involvement that he believes in.
“You build the relationships with the FTA, the relationships in Congress, with Congressional staffers, Congress people, themselves,” he says. “It’s the interaction with your colleagues and the sharing of information and the networking.
“We all have shared interests. We do compete with one another in terms of there is national competition for New Starts funding, but we have different interests because of the different natures of our authorities. But, substantially we are a collegial, cooperative industry and that takes place through APTA.”
HRT has a board that also thinks association involvement is important. Jim O’Sullivan, who preceded Townes as the executive director of Pentran, had proven the value to the board. “He was on APTA’s executive committee at the time and involved with other things outside the agency that benefited the agency,” Townes says. “So the board already understood that and as time went by during the period of time that we had two agencies in Hampton Roads, I think it was pretty obvious that Pentran was obtaining relative success.
“I think that relative success was obvious to board members at TRT and they were wise enough to attribute some of that to involvements that we had that they didn’t have at that higher level,” Townes explains. Once the merger was complete, Townes says it has always been seen as a benefit and it was a natural progression to follow that philosophy.
Being involved, working together and the research and development of young people is something Townes says has always been important to him. “It is just something that I think is natural if you care about what you do...” He adds, “If you care about its future and the future of anything ... it has to do with the capabilities of those coming behind us to deal with the challenges that are coming before us.”
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