Change is a way of life in the transportation industry. Things change — there are new bus and rail innovations every year.
And places change — the Nashville Metropolitan Transportation Authority's headquarters was once used by the Aviation Co. to build bombers. And most importantly, people change — three of our cover stories are no longer with the agencies they were the heads of just last year. Just ask MTA's CEO, Paul Ballard, he started off in the transit industry working as a mechanic in a college garage.
Ballard was attending Indiana University during the day, studying urban mass transportation management. He would soon become a bus driver and later on a supervisor. But in his senior year he got an interesting opportunity.
"What was really neat was the city of Bloomington, Ind., decided to start its own transit system while I was a senior actually, and they hired me as their first general manager.
"So I was an undergraduate, 23 years old, and I became a general manager of Bloomington transit. I started it up. We only started with 11 buses. And this was 1973. So that's how I got started," Ballard says.
Growing up in Boston, he fell in love with the public transportation he rode as he grew up. This love served him well as he returned to his hometown after a year as general manager in Bloomington to become the general manager of the Plymouth and Brockton Street Railway Company, which had by that time switched over entirely to bus and offered service into Boston from the surrounding suburban region.
Ballard would go on to join American Transit Corp. where he would work his way up to president of that company for several years before stepping out to start his own business.
"I started my own little consulting company and I did that for three years," Ballard says.
"What we specialized in was providing temporary management personnel for the transit systems. And so I was temporary manager in Birmingham, Ala.
"And then I actually contacted Nashville, and I've been here five years now. On a temporary assignment I came in and met with them and they made me a wonderful offer and I just said OK, I will come to work for you full time," Ballard says.
When Ballard arrived in Nashville, he found an anemic system well past its prime. Change was needed, but how to make it happen?
"[The system] had been really starved financially for a long time. And unfortunately the service and the equipment looked that way," Ballard says.
The first order of business according to Ballard was fixing the fleet. And that meant a major overhaul.
"We were running 25-year-old buses. In my very first presentation before the city council to ask for funds to replace [the buses], I told them that I was getting ready to order antique plates for the buses because they were 25 years old, and under Tennessee state law 25-year-old vehicles can have antique plates. And they remembered that."
Ballard's words didn't fall on deaf ears as the mayor and city council opened the coffers and provided MTA with $28 million to purchase 100 new buses over a four-year period. Let's put that in a little perspective. MTA had a fleet of 138 transit buses. It replaced 100 of them.
And that money came from local funding provided by the city of Nashville's general fund.
"The money actually came from a bond issuance. Four separate bond issuances from the city which are then repaid through the city's general fund. They made a huge commitment to upgrade the fleet," Ballard says.
"100 out of 138 were replaced over that four-year period. So our average fleet age now is 2.6 years."
It was so huge MTA had a "funeral" for its retired fleet. No, seriously.
"We did a New Orleans funeral when we retired the 25-year-old buses," Ballard says.
"It was kind of neat. It was picked up by the local media. We had a New Orleans style band playing a funeral dirge. It really caught people's attention. It was one of those things that never would have occurred to me. And it was really unique. And stuff like that people are interested in."