COMTO: Resetting the Nation's Transportation Agenda

The late American politician Shirley Chisholm said, “You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines. . . . You make progress by implementing ideas.”

For nearly 50 years, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) has been implementing effective ideas by leveling the playing field and maximizing participation in the transportation industry for minorities, businesses, and communities of color. And they have accomplished this through advocacy, networking, training, education, and professional development.

“COMTO is many things to many people, but ultimately, it’s about the power of the network,” explains COMTO president and CEO Julie Cunningham. Leading COMTO since 2001, Cunningham draws on a vast array of professional experience — which includes serving on President Obama’s transition team at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “If you’re an individual, our network facilitates opportunities for professionals of every level. If you’re a small business, COMTO connects you with transportation projects across the country. Whether you’re a person of color or not — COMTO members are not all people of color — COMTO uses the power of our network to bring unparalleled benefits to individuals, major corporations, public agencies, and small businesses.”

Founded in 1971 on the campus of Howard University, COMTO was created “to address the inequities of a rapidly expanding industry within which its minority workers, upon whose shoulders the industry was built, were not allowed the same access to employment, promotion, and contract opportunities.” True to its founding vision, COMTO has since expanded its mandate.

Boasting 39 chapters across the country, COMTO includes individuals, organizations, transportation agencies, nonprofits, and historically underutilized businesses (HUBs) as members. In addition, COMTO represents the entire transportation industry, providing multimodal reach into virtually every transportation sector. But COMTO functions effectively on a number of critical levels. Cunningham explains.

“On a local level, chapters are our grassroots connection to our members, businesses, and agencies. Chapters are also critical in our considerable outreach to the next generation of transportation professionals in terms of education. Collectively, we award approximately $300,000 each year in scholarships to students pursuing transportation studies. And we’re actively reaching out to more senior professionals to have them mentor our young people. But we also function on a national level.

“We are routinely invited to engage in the national discourse on transportation. We have a seat at the transportation table, no matter who else is sitting at the table, from DOTs (departments of transportation) to the White House. We don’t have to ask for the agenda; we help set it. We are a 501(c)3 organization, so we do not lobby. However, we advocate strongly on behalf of our membership, and especially small businesses.”

Robert Prince agrees. And he would know. A vice president with AECOM, Prince serves as COMTO's national chair. Raising awareness about COMTO and the issues it represents, Prince holds a deep connection to COMTO and its principles.

“For me, COMTO broadened my perspective. I started working for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in 1976, driving a bus. [Prince rose through the ranks to become the first African American general manager of the MBTA.] There weren’t very many minorities at the MBTA back then, so we used to get together and call it the 'Am I Crazy' meeting. But we would swap information. COMTO was just coming of age at the time, and it reached the MBTA. So we joined.

“When you’re in the middle of something, you can’t see the forest for the trees. I had no clue what was going on nationally in transportation. Also, when you’re in a microcosm, you don’t know that your situation isn’t unique, that there are others out there like you. And that they’re facing the same issues and problems you are. COMTO gave me an understanding of national transportation legislation and politics. COMTO gave us a voice that we didn’t have before. And COMTO gave me a network I’d never had before. You have to remember what things were like back then. When I looked for a role model, the only one I could find was in a mirror. COMTO showed me there were more of me — above and below my level.”

Prince’s story is not unique. It reflects COMTO’s ability to transform individual careers and lives. COMTO’s "Missouri Model" serves as another great example of COMTO’s efficacy.

“I met Julie when we had a $500 million construction project in the St. Louis area,” explains Lester Woods, COMTO board member and external civil rights director for the Missouri DOT (MoDOT). Woods ensures minority and female participation in businesses and in the work force engaged on MoDOT projects. MoDOT is also a COMTO member. “We had some community advocates who were interested in ensuring MoDOT would be aggressive in terms of diversity and inclusion. Due to past problems with these issues, MoDOT senior management wanted to make sure the community knew we were going to be open, honest, fair, and equitable in our contracting practices. So we brought Julie in to mediate community discussions.

“She came in and mediated roundtable discussions on the I-64 project. And it worked. We exceeded all disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) goals. We met training goals. We exceeded federal labor goals. And the project came in ahead of schedule and under budget. Julie’s effort later became known as COMTO’s Missouri Model. And we’ve used the Missouri Model on subsequent projects.

“COMTO provides a unique sounding board to discuss different vital issues, and to meet many other transportation agencies and glean best practices from them. It’s a two-way benefit. We gain information and best practices and share them as well from a DOT perspective. Because COMTO is multimodal, it also gives everyone access to information across transportation disciplines.”

Ann August sees COMTO’s multimodal focus as a game changer. “At one point I was an internal auditor in the shipping industry. I needed advice, but there was no one for me to call. In transportation, COMTO provides that. COMTO expands your vision and it’s the primary voice for people who have traditionally been denied a voice. COMTO also reaches into communities that broader organizations might never reach.”

A COMTO member since 1985 and a former board member, August was recently named executive director of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority — the first female director in the authority’s history. Crediting COMTO with helping her advancement, August offers membership advice.

“Join COMTO and get active. Don’t sit on the sidelines. It’s like a debit card. If you don’t put anything in the bank, you can’t pull anything out. This organization is the same way. If you’re not willing to provide your skills and talents to others, it will be hard for you to benefit from theirs.”

Ten-year COMTO member Calvin Davenger sees a COMTO “triumvirate” as a compelling aspect of COMTO’s appeal. As the deputy director of aviation for planning and environmental stewardship at Philadelphia International Airport, Davenger is an award-winning environmental compliance manager.

“One of the most valuable aspects for me has to do with information flow. COMTO provides access to invaluable information across every transportation mode. And folks make themselves very accessible, both locally and on a national level. That’s a big advantage to being a COMTO member. But for me it comes down to this. I’m a transportation veteran, so now it’s about giving back to the next generation. And I see three reasons why every young transportation professional should join COMTO: training, exposure, and participation.

“Because there’s such a phenomenal national resource pool to draw from, the training and mentoring available is without equal. As an active member you are exposed to national figures, congressional representatives, consulting firms, state agencies—the list goes on. Finally, COMTO provides many different activities for people to participate in, at every level of the transportation spectrum. It also offers support at the local level combined with exposure on the national level for groups that have been traditionally excluded. This is a very powerful combination.”

Stephen Kingsberry is general manager for the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey’s Port Authority Trans Hudson Corporation (PATH). He also believes strongly in COMTO’s value to young transportation professionals — and in giving back as well.

“COMTO has been a great contributor to my career. I joined in 1985 to network and learn more about transit. I met many transportation professionals from around the country who helped guide my career. And when I was a part of the Philadelphia chapter, I established the $2,000 Kingsberry Scholarship because I wanted to help young people learn about transportation and get funding for their education. I wanted to give back. It’s important to reach out to that next generation. Let me them know they’re not an island.”

The scholarships COMTO provides make a difference in the lives of young professionals. And there is no better example than Mariah Stanley, educational services coordinator for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Recently hired by APTA, Stanley provides key program management coordination and support to APTA’s educational services.

“I got involved with COMTO in high school, in a program called "Transportation Technology Academy." I became an intern at COMTO in 2007. And I was a participant in an internship program with the Federal Transit Administration through COMTO, which landed me an internship at APTA. When I graduated college, I went to work at APTA.

“COMTO did wonders for me. It gave me my first real job experience. It enabled me to get my feet wet in the industry. And it helped me land my job at APTA. COMTO put me on my career path. COMTO also helped me pay for school through scholarships. Now I’m a COMTO member and committee member, on the Women Move the Nation Committee. COMTO is really like a family. And it’s made a real difference in my career and in my life.”

But the business of COMTO is also business. Reversing the historical disparity on behalf of HUBs is no small endeavor. And COMTO takes it quite seriously. Helen Callier does as well. She is the founder of Bradlink, LLC, and a longtime COMTO member.

“We’re a technical services firm and we provide services to the transit and aviation industries. Bradlink gets straight talk and straight connections through COMTO. It provides us with industry intelligence: Who’s meeting where? What policy changes are taking place? What funding issues will affect our business? We’re a small business, so that’s all very important. COMTO also gives you a global perspective on how changes affect agencies you’ll be working with. And that’s vital from a business development standpoint.”

Callier credits Shirley DeLibero — former chairwoman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas — with welcoming her to COMTO. “You can’t tell the COMTO story without mentioning Shirley DeLibero,” adds Callier. “She laid the groundwork. But I credit Julie and the COMTO leadership with advancing on that over the past ten years or so. Julie's ability to make collaborative agreements with other organizations has helped optimize the synergies and expand COMTO’s advocacy. My business has definitely grown because of COMTO. For HUBs, COMTO is a key differentiator.”

Looking to expand COMTO’s reach and mandate, CEO Cunningham takes an approach that is both strategic and poetic. “I am not a transportation professional. I am an association management professional. But I have deep roots in transportation. My grandparents lived by railroad tracks, and my grandfather laid rail. He’d come home dirty and dusty, but he was instrumental in this country’s infrastructure. So I understand the need for COMTO firsthand.

“The ultimate goal is to not need COMTO any longer. If things were equal and everyone were playing fair, women and people of color wouldn’t need COMTO. But I don’t see that happening in the near future. So we need to press on with doing what we do. We need to be aggressive in identifying, attracting, and recruiting the next generation of transportation professionals so they can contribute to our nation’s infrastructure. We have to make sure we have folks that are part of that.”

Shirley Chisholm said, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines. . . You make progress by implementing ideas.” Julie Cunningham and the Conference of Minority Transportation Professionals are doing just that.