2023 40 Under 40: Tony Henderson

Aug. 22, 2023
Tony Henderson, Engineer, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

One word to describe yourself: Detailed 

Alma Mater: Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Fast fact about yourself: I have an adorable Bernedoodle dog named Wilbur. 

What’s your best experience on transit and what made it memorable?: Riding the Washington, D.C. WMATA during college while attending a conference. Having grown up in a car-centric suburb, it was my first time primarily relying on transit to get around and it sparked my initial interest in people-centric forms of transportation.

Tony Henderson is an engineer working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)’s Transit Engineering Group. Throughout the eight years that Henderson has been with the SFMTA, he has quickly grown from having little background in transit to becoming a key leader in the agency’s safety framework. Henderson is responsible for integrating transit safety into street design projects, as well as addressing transit safety concerns in the mixed-flow transit operating environment. As a traffic engineer with extensive transit and safety knowledge, he is uniquely situated to serve as an interface between the Streets Division, the Safety Division and the Transit Division. His role personifies Safety Management Systems (SMS) within the SFMTA and is a major contributor to the development and implementation of the federally required Public Transit Agency Safety Plan.

Henderson’s major accomplishments include:

  •  Leading multiple collaborative approaches within SFMTA to ensure necessary policies, procedures and organizational structures work together to assist the agency to reach its SMS goals.
  • Building relationships across the multimodal agency to make sure all aspects of SFMTA’s operations are considered when making changes to the street system. Through these relationships, Henderson has become the “go-to” person when something needs to be solved in the street network.
  • During the COVID pandemic and recovery, Henderson pivoted his work to serve in a senior role in a multidisciplinary team tasked to implement employee protective measures while maintaining critical 24/7 transit service. Henderson’s impact on supporting SFMTA’s nearly 6,000 employees during the challenging times cannot be overstated. This was especially critical in the early days of the pandemic when guidance was rapidly evolving and sometimes conflicted with prior guidance.

 Henderson has taken on multiple safety leadership roles within the industry. He coordinates a key part of the agency’s management of change process by revamping and leading SFMTA’s Change Control Board, which coordinates changes to the street and transit system among multiple work groups for San Francisco. Furthermore, he serves on the Joint Labor-Management Safety Committee, where he is a key interface with frontline staff addressing safety needs.

Colleagues say Henderson has proven himself to be highly skilled in working in a rapidly changing environment and has demonstrated the ability to make quick decisions and pivot as needed. He is able to bring structure to chaos while being empathetic, creative and solutions oriented. His comprehensive technical skills coupled with his strong interpersonal skills have solidified him as a key liaison with both the agency’s executive and frontline staff regarding traffic and transit safety issues. He is a leader of SMS within the SFMTA.

Henderson holds a degree in Civil Engineering from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He is a licensed Professional Engineer in the branches of Civil and Traffic Engineering in the state of California and holds Professional Traffic Operations Engineer certification from the Transportation Professional Certification Board. He is the past president of the San Francisco Bay Area Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. To further support these SMS goals, Henderson has completed and earned both the Transit Safety and Security Program and Public Transportation Safety Certification Training Program certifications for rail and bus transit from the Transportation Safety Institute and the Federal Transit Administration.

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

I began my career as a traffic engineer working for a consultant. While I knew that I was interested in eventually making my way to the public sector, I did not realize yet I would become interested in transit. In 2015, I began my first public sector role with SFMTA building my transit experience. A pivotal change happened in early 2020 when I was asked to join the agency’s emergency COVID response team, later being appointed the operations section chief. Although initially reluctant, I was ultimately grateful for the opportunity. While I had already been working in transit at this point, being on the COVID response team afforded me the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of our broad agency’s operations.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I really enjoy the variety of working on transit safety and operations support. Every day is different and it constantly feels like working on an intriguing puzzle to develop solutions. While my expertise is focused on the interface between traffic with transit safety and operations, my role has given me the opportunity to appreciate everything it takes to keep a large transit system running efficiently and safely.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The size and complexity of the transit system always poses the greatest challenges, but also provides great opportunities to find context sensitive solutions. 

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of having supported SFMTA’s emergency COVID response team as operations action chief. It goes without saying this was a challenging time for everyone and the transit industry faced (and still faces) its own unique challenges from COVID. My work during this time definitely had its challenges, but it was rewarding to be able to support my colleagues.

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

The best advice I can give someone starting their career is to be flexible and willing to learn something new. I started my career down a very different path that was transportation-focused but didn’t include transit. Over the years, I was presented opportunities to learn about transit and grow my expertise. I always encourage people to remain flexible and see where it takes them in their career. 

About the Author

Eman Abu-Khaled | Associate Editor

Eman Abu-Khaled is a recent graduate of Kent State University with a bachelors in journalism. She works through Endeavor Business Media with Mass Transit as an associate editor. Abu-Khaled brings a fresh perspective to the visual side of journalism with an interest in video and photography work.