ID: Pullman Transit in Transition

May 29--After more than 30 years heading Pullman Transit, Rod Thornton is ready to hang up his hat.

Or, in his case, take down his cars.

An avid fan of racing, the walls of his office were strewn with his collection of some 208 NASCAR box cars for many years. He now has only two left, and plans on removing one each of his last two days.

Despite being a fan of the speedy sport, when he began working for the city as a driver 35 years ago, Thornton proceeded with caution and responsibility -- and it was only a few short years before he was elevated to the management position and had to start worrying more about federal funding and budgets than making wide turns.

Now, looking forward to his retirement, he said he plans to worry more about making his tee-times and spending as much time with his grandchildren as possible. He'll also probably be out on the road more -- but on his motorcycle, and not in any public transit capacity.

The stress and responsibility of being in charge, he said when asked what he will miss the least about the job, second only to handling the department's $3.8 million annual budget.

"Managing 45 people, budgets, buying big expensive equipment, those kinds of things. The stress of that gets to you after a while," he said.

As for what he'll miss the most, the answer was simple -- the people.

"It's going to be a shock not to see them all the time," he said of his co-workers. "It's a great group of people we've got here, and for the most part I won't see them very much. I'm going to miss that."

While he said he still wishes he could have replaced the five remaining older Phantom buses the city has, Thornton said he's proud of where the fleet now stands.

When he started thinking about retirement about a decade ago, he said he was determined to replace about 15 of the older buses in operation at the time. Since 2005, 14 new buses, each with a pricetag in the $600,000 range, have been added, primarily funded through federal grants. There are currently 19 buses in the fleet, and six Dial-a-Ride vans.

While Thornton jokingly said he believes his greatest accomplishment as transit supervisor was simply that the city "put up with him" as long as it did, even he cannot deny how much Pullman's Transit System has grown under his leadership, though he refuses to take any of the credit for it.

Co-workers and longtime city officials, however, tell a different story.

His dedication to city's transit system has been undeniable, and has his fingerprints all over it, said City Supervisor Mark Workman.

"The system has really grown into his vision -- a well operated system and one of the most efficient in the country," said Workman, who worked alongside Thornton for nearly 30 years. "He's been great to work with and a valuable asset to the city. He's one of our stars, and we're going to miss him."

Thornton's replacement, Michael Wagner, worked for Pullman Transit previously for eight years. Most recently he served as operations supervisor for RiverCities Transit in Longview, and spent two years as a supervisor for a transit operation in Moses Lake.

Wagner said he sought out those positions, each with systems comparable in size to Pullman's, in order to gain a better understanding of how smaller transit operations work.

"I have a pretty thorough understanding of how a transit operation has to work in order to be smooth," Wagner said, when asked what he'll bring with him from his experience with those other systems.

He is set to take over the reins beginning in June during the slow summer period.

And while no change of office comes without the occasional hiccup, Thornton said he's certain Wagner's transition will be smooth, if for no other reason than the great support staff he'll have under him.

"Michael used to work here, so he knows the operation pretty well already," Thornton said. "And he's got gifted staff, people who know what they're doing."

Bill McKee can be reached at (208) 883-4627, or by email to

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