When Joyce Wilson took over as El Paso city manager in 2004, she found herself facing a massive crisis with the city’s archaic and neglected public transit system, Sun Metro.
By 2005, she said there were indicators of “major stress” on the system, which prompted city leaders to do a radicalintervention before Sun Metro ceased to exist at all.
Wilson said a big issue the system faced was projects were cobbled together using federal grants, with no game plan. It was difficult to get federal monies as well because she said federally elected representatives said plans presented to them didn’t highlight a game plan.
“When the crisis hit, it became really apparent that we had to really do something dramatic or we were not going to have a transit system,” Wilson said about the issues.
El Paso began a dramatic change in how Sun Metro was ran and how it focused on serving its community. And within six years, the changes were dramatic enough to take Sun Metro from the edge of extinction to being recognized by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) as the best midsized transit system in the country.
Overhauling the management
First Transit took over the system in 2007 and found Sun Metro in need of some care. Tim Omick was the initial First Transit manager of Sun Metro and began to lay the ground work to overhaul it and “shock the system,” before Jay Banasiak took over in 2009.
First Transit needed to revamp the entire transit system in El Paso, which Banasiak said meant getting down to changing the basic outlook and attitudes of employees who had worked in a system with a history of trying to just hang onto what it had.
“Before 2007, the system was really stressed out and struggling and the employees got used to that, so basically they were city employees and that’s how they ran it,” he said about the culture at Sun Metro when changes began. “When we were first hired at First Transit, we were told ‘I want it to be one of the best transit systems around,’ so we had to get the employees to buy into the fact they’re not really city employees per say, but transit professionals.
“They think like that now. They bought into the system and we really take care of them for all the new things coming and we try to do as many incentives as we can.”
While First Transit was the one implementing the changes at Sun Metro, transit officials said the pro-public transit attitude adopted by city leaders made the changes possible.
“We had a good core of employees and knowledgeable people, but there was no direction or support,” said Lloyd Williams, assistant director of operations for Sun Metro. “It was about changing the culture a little bit and believing in it, so when they saw the new buildings going up it helped change the mentality of the people who really wanted to help in what we were doing.”
Williams said there were lots of employee grievances filed with the agency when First Transit took over, so leaders took steps to tackle them by listening to employees and addressing issues.
Although Sun Metro employees aren’t unionized, a quasi-union leader filed lots of grievances, so Williams said the employee was named to a supervisory position to give him a chance to make a positive change.
“We’re not in the bus business, we’re in the people business,” Williams said.
The takeover meant First Transit also hired new people with a new focus on customer service as opposed to existing driving skills.
“People are more apt to use transit here,” Banasiak said. “People from Jaurez, Mexico need transit to get to work, so the biggest expectation here is to provide really good service.”
When First Transit first took over Sun Metro, employee attitudes and outlooks weren’t the only things that needed to be fixed as an archaic bus fleet sat in wait for some care after many years of neglect and use.