So far 2007 hasn’t been a good year for Metro Transit general manager, Brian Lamb. On top of the normal issues that cause a transit agency director to pull out his hair — you know funding, planning, making sure the buses and trains run on time — Lamb has had to face a dramatic upswing in crime on his system at the beginning of the year and then the I-35 bridge collapsing, a tragedy that will change the area’s transportation flow for months.
Yet, he’s upbeat and energetic about Metro Transit, the Twin Cities region and the transportation industry in general. And this way of facing adversity head-on with determination and a smile has rubbed off on his staff. There wasn’t one person there who I spoke to who didn’t look at whatever obstacle put before them with anything but a “we-can-do-it” attitude.
Lamb’s excitement could be felt as he jumped into the interview, not even letting me ask a question before starting to talk about his agency. Lamb has a history of more than two decades with Metro Transit, starting with the agency as a college intern as the ’80s dawned.
Leaving the agency in 1999, he moved into a job with the state as head of the Driver and Vehicle Services Division, which was near collapse. Lamb reengineered that department before being appointed the commissioner of administration, putting him in charge of all internal state businesses. While successful, Lamb was moving away from transit, so when he was offered the chance to come back to Metro Transit as its general manager, he jumped at the chance.
“My heart has always been in transit,” says Lamb with a smile, noting that he is about to celebrate his third anniversary at the new position.
“I view my time at the state as almost a graduate school experience because what it really allowed me to do is to see how morale is such a key component to success. And when I walked into Driver and Vehicle Services after years of being kind of being beaten down and being viewed as the hopeless bureaucrats or whatever it is, the first thing you have to offer them is hope.
“And then only once that hope starts to get a little traction can they gain a little confidence. And then when that confidence gains some traction then you really start to see some amazing progress,” Lamb says.
Hope was something Metro Transit was in need of when Lamb returned to it. The agency had just come off a 45-day strike from earlier in the year, was staring a $60-million budget deficit square in the face and was about to go back into labor negotiations.
As Lamb admits, “There were a lot of reasons to be demoralized.
“But there were some reasons to actually be optimistic, as well,” he adds pointing to Hiawatha’s opening at the time and his history with the agency giving him a sense of familiarity he could build upon.
Lamb says the energy he has comes from the people he works with at Metro Transit. Their commitment keeps him going, “It’s not a job for most people that work at Metro Transit, there is a passion about what they do. And you don’t have to look very far before you see people with that.
And when you are in that kind of environment I think everyone strives to do things beyond what they’re required to do.”
Light Rail Success
Brian Lamb is the first to admit that Metro Transit’s Hiawatha light rail line has done better than anyone could have hoped. By 2006, its second year in operation, it had exceeded ridership projections for 2025!
With 30,000 riders on weekdays and Saturdays closing in on that fast, the Hiawatha light rail corridor can be called a success, but that wasn’t always the case. Lamb says there were concerns about its location and whether it was the best choice to start light rail in the Twin Cities.
“In certain projections there were better corridors,” says Lamb. “But the thing about Hiawatha that adds some vitality to it is that it not only has that commuter market associated with it … but also because it is anchored with the Mall of America and the airport and it has a U of M location that is right near there as well, as well as downtown.”