John Inglish is an interesting dichotomy of a man. On one hand he is an understated and humble Everyman who deflects praise as deftly as Utah Jazz star Andrei Kirilenko deflects basketballs. Inglish is quick to point to his team, claiming to just be the “guy with the vision” and saying that they are the ones that really make things happen at the Utah Transit Authority (UTA).
On the other hand Inglish is as impassioned and enthralling as the Southern revivalist spouting sermon in a roadside tent when he discusses transit. It’s hard not to want to just sit back and listen to him explain to you why transit is good for not only his city and state, but for the rest of the country as well.
I’ve been on a few interviews where I didn’t have to ask many questions as the interview subject just starts talking and pretty much covers the bases after being asked to talk about his or her transit system. With Inglish, I didn’t even have a chance to get my notes out until halfway through the interview.
“You need to know my history a little bit, why I have such a zeal for this,” Inglish says with a smile. Zeal is an understatement for this man who has represented transit at its highest levels as a member of both the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) executive board and the International Association of Public Transport’s (UITP) policy board.
“Many years ago my ardor for this was honed by a Carnegie Mellon fellowship I had way back in ’77,” Inglish explains. With a Carnegie Mellon fellowship the student spends a few weeks in the United States before touring Europe’s transit systems. It was in Europe that Inglish saw the light when it came to transit.
“It was clear that we had missed something in the evolution of transportation in the United States,” Inglish says. “We had sort of left our transit behind and put everything in highways, and as a planner I could see that. I could see that with our traffic projections we were never going to be able to accommodate them with highways alone.
“That’s when I got excited about transit.”
That excitement has turned into a 30-year career with the UTA, almost an aberration in today’s day and age, especially for someone in such a high-ranking position as Inglish’s.
“In 1970 I was a young, just graduated civil engineer and went to work for the highway department. I’d worked Sundays for them and decided to become a real highway engineer,” Inglish says. “I spent a couple of years going through their training programs and things like that.
“I ended up in the transportation planning department right at the time when the federal government decided that highway departments couldn’t be trusted to plan highways anymore. It was sort of the environmental movement finally getting heard.”
With the trend of planning moving away from highway departments toward the newly created metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), Inglish went where the work took him. Inglish admits the MPO started with a very, very small staff that was just trying to decide what it needed to do first.
“One of the first jobs, and remember this was the 70s and transit was all of the sudden being recognized as the piece of the pie we had let go and now we were realizing that there was a significant part of our American public that was disenfranchised because it couldn’t drive a car, old people, young people, disabled people. And so what are we going to do about it?
“Well we’re going to have to resurrect transit.”
In Utah this meant deciding what could be done with a quarter-cent sales tax. Inglish set to work with a couple other people and they just gave it their best shot, “We said, we’d do this, we’d do that, it generates this much money, we’d run lines here, there and everywhere. We’d consolidate the old lines, buy them out and get rid of them.”