From an electrician in the Navy to CEO of Valley Metro in Phoenix, Ariz., Stephen Banta has had a wide range of experiences. After getting out of the Navy in 1986, he went to work at San Diego Trolley as an electrician fixing rail cars. He and his wife later wanted to head back East to be closer to family and after applying and testing, got a job at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in D.C. “The story just leap frogs from there,” Banta said.
He worked at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the Port Authority of Allegheny County and in 2007 to TriMet as the executive director as part of a 4-year contract. He was on month 30 when the opportunity presented itself at Valley Metro as the CEO and he’s been in the position since January, 2010.
“Working from the shop floor to a position of management allows me a little bit of credibility with the operating ranks on the front line to be able to engage with them to put them maybe a little more at ease in conversation,” he said. “I recognize the terminology they use and where they’ve been and it allows also an opportunity to bring that focus to the executive conference room with the executive team as we make decisions each and every day.”
He added, “I can remember a time when I worked on the shop floor saying, ‘Boy, if I was the GM or if I was the CEO, it sure wouldn’t be run like this.” He laughed, “Well now I am and that haunts me.”
Growing as a Region
Valley Metro has been growing into a regional system. When Banta first came to the Valley there were four service providers: the Regional Public Transportation Authority, Valley Metro Rail and then there was the city of Tempe and the city of Phoenix.
In 2012, Banta took the role of CEO of the RPTA and Valley Metro Rail and reports to both boards.
RPTA adopted the name Valley Metro in 1993 and the local governments fund the Valley-wide system. In 2002, the not-for-profit Valley Metro Rail Inc. formed to design, construct and operate the light rail system which first opened in December, 2008. As of July 2013, Valley Metro will start providing the service for the city of Tempe, so the four service providers are down to two: Valley Metro and the city of Phoenix.
With the regionalization comes being able to better integrate services. Banta pointed to a transit map that is a significant indication of where they’ve come. When he first came to the Valley, the system map was really demarked by city boundaries but now, has eliminated those boundaries. “We’re calling it transit without borders,” he said. “We’re able to look at that map now and clearly see from a transit perspective how you can get from one point of the Valley to the other.”
It’s also been a fiscally sustainable thing to do. Banta said, “We’re actually saving money in salaries and wages. We were able with a combination of the two systems to eliminate duplicity; we’re looking at roughly about $1.4 million in reduced salaries and we’re also in a growth mode.
“We were able to take some of the additional savings and put them toward growth positions to offset some of the external costs of added positions.”
Valley Metro Operations Director Jim Wright talked about the combining of the two operations: the Mesa and Tempe operations. “We’ve spent the last year merging it,” he said.
When they moved into the Mesa facility they had about 49 vehicles. The shop was built for 100 and today, they have about 177 fixed-route vehicles there. At the Tempe facility, the shop was built for 250 vehicles and they have about 112 vehicles. “Part of unifying the properties is that we can now right-size the properties without making any more capital investment,” Wright explained.
Due to separate contracts and that each operation did things a little different, they weren’t really able to achieve some of the efficiencies that they needed to be more cost-effective. “This process gives us the opportunity to, what I could call right-size — not only the physical infrastructure but also the efficiency of it.”