When talking to Rebecca Martin, transit director at Blacksburg Transit (BT), it’s hard not to get lost in hearing about her agency’s role in responding to the deadliest shooting in the United States. But being in the town of a large university has shaped the agency in other ways, as well.
With an English degree from the University of Virginia, Martin got her first job writing a newsletter for the local transit system in Charlottesville. After that, as she says, “I was just really lucky.” Having the opportunity to see transit from the federal, state and local levels provided a strong background and an encouraging boss got her going.
“I happened to have this wonderful boss that saw that I had a passion for it and enjoyed transportation,” she explains. “I found opportunities where there were some rural areas that wanted some transportation and she was like, ‘go do it.’”
Being fresh out of school, Martin hesitated at the thought, as she knew there was a lot she didn’t know. She says with a laugh, “She said, ‘well, you’ll figure it out.’”
So, she did it. “I started talking to people and helped start up some of the employment routes that came from the county into Charlottesville. That was Jaunt Transportation.”
She explains she went to the federal side working for the CTAA. “I worked on their hotline and I loved it. I learned so much because I was there when ADA came out.
“Then I went and worked for the state as a transit grants manager providing state oversight to local systems,” she says. “I had a really unique opportunity to see transit from the federal and state level before starting Fredricksburg Regional Transit.
“I had a great opportunity there,” she emphasizes. “I actually started a system from scratch; there was nothing.” She adds, “That was kind of the hard way of learning about local transit, but it was wonderful.”
It was after Fredricksburg that she came to BT. “I couldn’t have done this job if I hadn’t gone through the process of starting a new system,” she says. “I learned so much from that experience.”
As transit director, Martin is a department head within the town of Blacksburg. “That means I have a weekly meeting with the other department heads,” she explains. The departments don’t share any of the facilities with transit, but the close relationships and shared knowledge have been a good resource.
Small Town Growing Up
BT is a small system in a small town but it has grown. About the time Martin was coming to the agency, the last census pushed BT to Small Urban. Martin mentions, “I knew that Small Urban was happening. I came right at that crux moment.” Coming at a time when the funding was going to change provided new challenges. Thinking progressively and pulling from past experience has made the transition easier.
”We’ve never had to sell advertisements on buses before. In fact, we were very proud of ourselves becuase we didn’t,” says Martin. “Things now are completely different. We’ve been advertising with results.
“The transition wasn’t quite as painful as we thought it would be,” she mentions. “With fewer state and federal funds coming in, we had to look at new ways to raise fevenues.” She adds that the town council stepped up to the plate and was willing to makes changes to 20-year-old transit policies. “The community was ready for a change.”
Martin is focusing on developing partnerships to increase revenues. “Part of the reason I think I was hired here was that in Fredricksburg we started a partnership program. We had retail and grocery stores and different places; developers providing annual funds into the system and I was able to get between $400,000 and $500,000 a year of nontraditional funds coming in,” Martin explains.
Being brand new made it easier, she says. “You’re starting out, everyone doesn’t know what to expect, they don’t know how you’re funded. You have this great opportunity of telling people, things are not the same as they used to be 20 years ago, things have changed.