Top 40 Under 40 2013: Robert Schneider

As executive director, Dr. Robert Schneider is responsible for all Central Midlands Transit (The Comet) functions, including board relations, budget and finance, grants, intergovernmental relations and external partnerships. This is in addition to all transit services to include operations, maintenance, safety, human resources and labor relations.

Brought to Columbia to steer Central Midlands Transit through a critical period and funding crisis, he was the first combined executive director and general manager in the organization’s history. Working to add an extra $1.4M in emergency revenues to mitigate revenue shortfalls, he led the organization through an emergency service reduction and balanced budget.

Throughout 2012, Schneider worked closely with partner organizations to develop a successful $1.07B transportation sales tax referendum question, with more than $300M dedicated to The Comet. Passed by voters in November, this referendum will generate approximately $15M in local dollars per year for transit, in addition to other local, state and federal resources.

Schneider has also developed a strategic visioning process, established new system name and logo — The Comet — and restored 30 percent of service months in advance of the penny revenues without borrowing or bonding. He is also the secretary of the Transportation Association of South Carolina (TASC) and was a recent graduate of Leadership Columbia.

In 2013/2014 he is looking forward to exciting changes at The Comet, including showing off its awesome new name and brand by replacing 2,000 bus stops, adding dozens of benches and shelters and rehabbing the interior and exterior of our more outdated fleet; hiring a first wave of seven new staff members to the team to fulfill the Vision: 2020 strategic plan funded by the transportation sales tax — all focused on implementation and results; launching its brand new website: catchTheCOMET.org, with real-time AVL bus tracking info; buying brand new small, propane-fueled buses for fixed-route service while working on a long-term compressed natural gas fuel station and fleet; introducing brand new event and tourism shuttles near the University of South Carolina campus for gameday and nightlife events; re-developing the route network to create a downtown “orbit” to connect Columbia’s long and narrow financial, government and university corridors; launching a new rural and community transportation initiative for start in January 2014 to better connect rural citizens with their nearby communities and the metro center ; and developing a whole new pass program for employers, universities and the social service network to make riding transit easier than ever.

“I love that our industry is always interesting. Changes in technologies, regulations and our own city streets make this a very dynamic profession that forces you to become an expert on fareboxes on Monday, new MAP-21 reporting requirements on Wednesday and bus advertising on Friday.

“I’d like to see us inject more of an emphasis on sharing. We do an OK job of it on a peer-to-peer level, but I think the real opportunity to be great is when a small system in the Southeastern U.S. can talk about its close, effective relationship with Chicago’s CTA or Seattle’s King County Metro. It’s not just about mentoring the person, but mentoring the entire system and giving resources and ideas to each other.

“I teach political science at colleges and universities. My doctorate is in political science so teaching forces me to stay on top of research trends and theory, but it is an amazingly fun and rewarding experience inside the classroom. First the students keep you young, which is the fun part. The rewarding side of it is that students are blank slates and I am given the opportunity to build a better citizen. Those first two years of college is when the lights come on and they realize they have to make a choice — get in the game and play or climb into the stands and watch. When you decide to climb into the stands, you can cheer and you can boo, but until you are ‘in the game’ as a voter and active citizen it’s all just talk.”

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