It was a cold, snowy day in January that I was standing at a bus stop in downtown Rochester, N.Y., waiting to catch a bus to the other side of town. At 11 in the morning, standing there in the snow, in a city of its size, I was surprised to be standing there with so many other people.
The Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) is growing, seeing the highest ridership in nearly 20 years with a 20 percent increase in ridership since 2004 and a growth rate at two times the national average. In 2004 it faced a $27.7 million operating deficit on a $70 million budget. It was a crisis situation looking at service cuts and layoffs when the authority was looking for a new CEO.
Politics in Transit
Growing up on a farm in upstate New York, RGRTA CEO Mark Aesch never expected he would have accomplished all he has. After going to college in Rochester, he went to work for a local town as an assistant to a town supervisor and then it was off to work for a member of Congress.
After about six years, Aesch came to RGRTA looking for a new challenge. He worked in a staff role then left the authority to work on a major quarter-of-a-billion-dollar construction project. Following that he came back to the authority in the spring of 2004 as the CEO.
He says one of the things he’s often asked is if he misses working in politics. He responds, “If you’re going to run a public institution, there’s every bit as much in politics as I do today as when I worked for a member of Congress.
“If you think you’re divorced from that because you’re not working for an elected official, you’re missing the whole point.
“The job is very political by its very definition. And it should be; that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. It should be very political.”
When it comes to facing the challenge of management, Aesch thinks there’s a “woe-is-me” mentality to manage in this industry when the reality is that it’s difficult to manage in any industry.
“If you’re going to get breakthrough results and be successful in what ever industry it is, it isn’t easy,” he says. “I think I’ve learned there tends to be an Eeyore-ish approach to how hard it is to be us.
“It’s hard to be every day, so suck it up, lift our chins up and get on with it.”
At the End of Its Rope
When Aesch came to RGRTA in 2004, there were 750 employees, about 100 vehicles and it was looking at a $27.7 million operating deficit on its $70 million budget. “Turn out the lights,” Aesch now laughs.
RGRTA had a six-zone, complicated system and the fares were between $1.25 and $3.10. The cost recovery at the time was 28 percent and the on-time performance was 76 percent.
Today it is paying employees more, healthcare costs have gone up and fuel costs more, but despite that, it has become less reliant on taxpayer dollars than it was before.
It’s also grown to 840 employees, more than 400 vehicles, an on-time performance up to 90 percent, it’s eliminated the six-zone system and went to one fare for all rides. In 2008 the fares went from $1.25 to just $1.00 for a ride. And the cost recovery is up to 41 percent.
This strategic shift is something the team has been really focused on, Aesch says. RGRTA has increased ridership six consecutive years, up to just shy of 18 million folks a year and it has had five straight years of surpluses and will have made $33 million over the last five years.
Aesch says they have made a lot of changes over the years, but those changes weren’t designed to save money; they were designed to achieve a strategy.
Aesch recently authored the book, “Driving Excellence,” which highlights his management style and what has evolved at RGRTA.
He said he wanted to make a point about management in “Driving Excellence,” about survivors vs. succeeders, about sad decisions vs. tough decisions, about “I think” vs. “I know,” those kind of fundamental points and to tell stories to illustrate the point. The stories come from the evolution of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority.