2021 40 Under 40: Paul Nelson

Nov. 23, 2021
Paul Nelson, Transportation Director, Clarksville Transit System
  • One word to describe yourself: Creative
  • Alma Mater: Middle Tennessee State University
  • Fun fact about yourself: I’m a pretty good graphite pencil artist. I enjoy drawing in the genre of photorealism.
  • Favorite station or stop that you have ever visited or frequent (and why): The Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof. While in Germany, I was able to visit this station. Not only is it architecturally beautiful, but it's absolutely enormous and the scope of service there is extremely impressive.

Paul Nelson has been rising through the city of Clarksville, Tenn., government ranks since beginning in the Finance and Revenue Department as an accounting intern in 2012. Since then, he progressed to full time accountant with the Clarksville Transit System (CTS) on to business and grants analyst then to transportation manager and transportation director in July of 2019.

Since becoming transportation director, Nelson has made several impactful changes to the department. He has created new positions to segregate the duties of procurement, planning and grants. This change has allowed CTS to become more flexible to service needs and to complete projects in half the time. This responsiveness and flexibility, coupled with CTS' new ETA software system and real-time information website and phone application, increases customer satisfaction, provides never before realized service data and brings CTS into the 21st century with passenger counters, LED displays, voice announcements, online paratransit scheduling and the introduction of digital driver manifests. Continuing the agency’s technological momentum, CTS will also launch a new transit planning software and cashless fare collection option very soon.

In the past two years CTS has increased the number of passenger shelters by more than 30 percent. In 2019, the department completed a needed major renovation to its downtown transit center and is in the planning stages for a new transit facility that will house the department’s growth for years to come, as well as an expansion hub on the north side of the city.

Nelson’s focus is always on gaining knowledge and being accurate and precise. He has budgeted to send all of his accounting staff through Certified Municipal Financial Officer courses and has only one of four left to complete the designation. Early this year, the transit system’s operations supervisor received his Certified Safety and Security Officer certification; the paratransit supervisor received her PASS certificate; work has begun to allow mechanics to seek ASE certificates; and Nelson himself received his Certified Community Transportation Manager certification. All this training and education paid off handsomely in April when CTS received its first ever zero finding triennial review.

Nelson also sits on the board of directors for the Tennessee Public Transportation Association and is a graduate of Leadership Clarksville and the Transit Citizen Leadership Academy.

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

After working as an accountant for some time, I got the opportunity to assist with some route design. After getting a small taste of everything that goes into moving people efficiently and effectively, I was hooked. I continue to feel that way as the industry evolves and new trends emerge.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Being the head of a small agency allows me to touch every aspect of our operation daily. I really get to know everyone that works here over time and love helping them grow and learn.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Delivering as much service as possible in the most efficient manner possible in an area with limited resources and substantial urban sprawl.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

Advancing Clarksville Transit’s use of technology in service delivery. As late as 2019, the agency was still using paper manifests for paratransit, paper surveys to capture stop level ridership information and had no reliable way to communicate service information to passengers. In early 2020, that all changed when we launched a complete fixed route and paratransit ITS system.

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?

Connect with your people. Spend time with them and around them, get to know them personally and celebrate their victories. Build a team that champions engaged team members.