One word to describe yourself: Empowering
Alma Mater: University of Maryland
Fun fact about yourself: I love anything with wheels – bikes, buses, broken cars, baby strollers (I have three kids!)
Favorite station or stop that you have ever visited or frequent (and why): The Frederick Transit Center brings together the local and regional services in our community. It serves as a hub for our city, our county and our region.
Favorite route you have ever ridden or frequent (and why): The buses or light rail that go to South Hills Junction in Pittsburgh. That tunnel is so cool!
As the director of transit services of Frederick County, Md., Roman Steichen has been responsible for the delivery of professional, clean, capable transit service countywide. Staff have relied on Steichen's steady hand to guide them through the pandemic with constantly changing guidance from public health officials, uncertainty with funding, and, in the early stages of the pandemic, almost daily service changes. His skilled and clear communications ensured that the disruption to thousands of transit trips was minimal.
Steichen’s transit career began in 2004 as a driver for Shuttle-UM, where he advanced his skills and rose through dispatch and daily operations supervision, spending six years as senior transit operations supervisor. From 2011 to 2012, Steichen served as a part-time driver for Frederick TransIT. In fall 2012, he joined Johns Hopkins University as transportation manager, where he was directly responsible for all Hopkins-sponsored passenger transportation, overseeing implementation of an innovative partnership with Lyft to supplement the on-demand Night Ride service and doubling ridership in two years.
Steichen returned to Frederick Transit in spring 2018 to serve as the deputy director. Moving into the director role in February 2020, the week that the pandemic began impacting operations, Steichen has used this pivotal moment in transportation history to build his team, strengthen his agency’s resilience and re-envision what public transit could do for the community. Steichen has worked diligently to banish “that’s how it’s always been done” from the team’s vocabulary and has challenged staff to not only identify issues but to propose solutions. Having worked his way up through the ranks from part-time driver to director, Steichen empathizes with the challenges of frontline staff and mentors operations staff on things that are relevant to their jobs, as well as agency performance.
Thanks to Steichen, TransIT began an internal program that not only solicited feedback from staff in an open and accessible manner, but also circled back and described how the feedback would be implemented (or if it couldn’t be, the reason why not). To make this a success, Steichen had to prove that the old way of doing things could – and would – change. He implemented an open-door policy for staff to discuss issues and opportunities, and posted route-specific questions, soliciting insight from drivers weekly. Staff became more open and willing to share and, through a long period of trust building and engagement, became a critical part of evaluation and decision-making processes. The organizational culture changed dramatically due to Steichen’s willingness to engage directly with staff, empowering them to identify and address issues.
During the pandemic, Steichen implemented a hazard pay differential for drivers, as well as recruitment and referral bonuses. He also changed the way that TransIT works alongside other organizations. TransIT drivers identified food insecurity in riders, primarily in the county’s more rural communities. Working collaboratively with the local Meals on Wheels and the Senior Services Division, TransIT reassigned a team of drivers and activated transit vehicles to assist with food distribution. To support the county’s vaccination efforts, especially in underserved areas, TransIT partnered with the health department to create a mobile vaccination clinic. One of TransIT’s electric buses was transformed into a fully equipped mobile clinic capable of traveling into areas in the county where transportation access may be minimal, and several hundred people were vaccinated on the “vax bus.”
Steichen’s steadfast leadership during the pandemic and creative approaches to addressing TransIT’s needs has earned him a place among Frederick’s finest, having been recognized as one of Frederick County Office of Economic Development’s Top 50 Under 40 in 2021. In addition to his duties, he convenes the county's Transportation Services Advisory Council (TSAC), which is comprised of advocacy, business and military professionals alongside state agency partners. Steichen and his team received the COVID-19 Above and Beyond Award from the Transportation Association of Maryland in mid-2021, where he was later elected to the organization’s board of directors. His work was also recognized through the Federal Transit Administration’s Connecting Rural Communities Award in 2021.
Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?
While I was a student at UMD, a friend of mine was working as a bus driver and told me that this was the most fun job he’d ever had. I didn’t have a job at the time and figured, heck, I could use some spending money. Little did I know that comment would launch my career! I applied, trained up and got my CDL, and was a driver for a year before I became a dispatcher. There was a significant staff change while I was there, and I became the operations manager. I was tasked with rebuilding the team and helping make us successful.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The beauty of a small agency is that you have relationships with everyone. Instead of departments of people, you have people. You get to know your team and their aspirations, their goals, their styles. Everyone is very committed to the mission and is willing to go the extra mile to make this place work and better serve our riders. We’ve grown together as a team throughout the years and have seen so many changes. We’ve overcome so many challenges.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
When you have the energy and excitement and passion and drive to change the future of transportation, the mundane, procedural stuff can be challenging. I want to install a thousand bus shelters! But, first, I have to submit invoices. Through experience and repetition, you can learn how to do just about anything, but focusing on the day-to-day tasks is important.
Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?
Seeing this agency through the many challenges associated with COVID-19 and it not only surviving but thriving. I started as director the week that the COVID-19 closures began in Maryland. My predecessor built this agency up to what it was: successful, productive, forward-thinking. When I stepped into the role, I was able to reimagine where we could go next.
Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?
Don’t be afraid to lean on your team for assistance! You don’t need to do everything yourself. There are plenty of people with plenty of experience who can help you surmount these challenges. Especially in a leadership role (regardless of pandemic or not!), you’re going to have to rely on your team to support you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or insight or another point of view. A lot of the knowledge will come with experience. You aren’t going to know everything right off the bat.