2023 40 Under 40: Michael Pimentel

Aug. 22, 2023
Michael Pimentel, Executive Director, California Transit Association; Legislative & Regulatory Advocate, Shaw Yoder Antwih Schmelzer & Lange

One word to describe yourself: Collaborative

Alma Mater: University of California, Berkeley (for BA and MPP)

Fast fact about yourself: While completing his Master of Public Policy, I successfully led negotiations for California’s transit industry on a first-of-its-kind and nation-leading regulation to transition all transit buses in California to zero-emission technologies.

What’s your best experience on transit and what made it memorable?

My first BART ride into San Francisco as a freshman at Cal. I rode to go to a concert in the Mission District and met a handful of friends on the train that night that remain my friends today.

Michael Pimentel serves as executive director of the California Transit Association, a leading advocate for public transit in the state. With more than 220 member organizations, including transit operators and commuter and intercity rail agencies, the association champions sustainable transportation solutions and funding for public transit projects. Under Pimentel's leadership, the association has achieved notable successes and navigated complex industry challenges.

Pimentel has played a pivotal role in promoting sustainable transportation and improving the quality of public transit systems across California. His commitment has led to tangible improvements benefiting communities throughout the state. Pimentel's efforts have secured billions of dollars in funding for transit capital investments, highlighting the critical importance of public transit and its role in reducing vehicle emissions and enhancing transportation options.

Pimentel's accomplishments include his involvement in helping to secure nearly $8 billion in capital funding through the Budget Act of 2022-23 and his leadership and sustained advocacy to protect this funding from partial recission in the Budget Act of 2023-2024 against the backdrop of a $30 billion state budget deficit. His actions to protect this funding also secured flexibility to use this funding to address immediate and pressing operations funding shortfalls that threatened transit service throughout California.

Pimentel's advocacy extended to legislative initiatives as well. He was instrumental in the passage of several bills, including SB 922 (2022), which expanded exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act for transportation projects, SB 942 (2022), which supported the creation of fare free programs in California and Senate Bill 1 (2017) that increased various taxes to generate approximately $1 billion in new, dedicated funding for California’s transit agencies annually.

Pimentel helped to navigate the complexities of increased regulations and milestones related to zero-emission vehicles and operations. He collaborated with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) on the development of regulations like the Innovative Clean Transit Regulation and the In-Use Locomotive Regulation, ensuring transit agencies' unique challenges were considered. Following the adoption of these regulations, he has worked with CARB, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission to accelerate compliance with the regulations.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic's unprecedented impact on the transit industry, Pimentel's ability to unify key issues into a cohesive message for change proved critical. He actively engaged with lawmakers and committees, advocating for the needs of transit systems statewide and securing vaccine access for frontline transit workers. Additionally, he led a statewide advocacy campaign directed at the United States Congress to secure three rounds of emergency relief funding, worth a combined $9.8 billion, for the state’s transit agencies.

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

Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in economics (with a focus on depression-era economic history) at the height of the Great Recession and the federal government’s response to it was formative. The experience and the many applied economics seminars I attended in that period demonstrated to me firsthand how government could be harnessed effectively to enact policies that better the lives of everyday people and build the infrastructure that drives our economy and dignifies life.

I knew then that, upon graduation, I wanted to enter public service and lend my hand to the efforts to rebuild our economy from the recession. That interest became reality when I joined Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor in 2010 and was later appointed to various transportation policy positions and the early efforts to get California’s high-speed rail project underway. While I’m no longer in public service per se, the members and clients I represent mean that I still actively support the government in delivering transformative projects to the public.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The opportunity to learn and problem solve. Representing more than 220 member organizations in the California Transit Association (as well as a series of other transportation clients) in the fast-paced policy arena of the California State Capitol means there’s always a new opportunity or challenge that requires my engagement.

In my career, I’ve worked on policy related to transportation funding and finance, climate change, zero-emission vehicle technologies, active transportation, transportation access and equity, public health, criminal justice and workplace safety, to name a few. Becoming knowledgeable and an effective advocate on these topics has required deep engagement with federal and state lawmakers and regulators, academics, community groups and grassroots advocacy organizations, as well as independent research and consultation with practitioners. Taking this knowledge to the next level and applying it to problem solving that delivers win-win outcomes has further required that I learn and actively practice new skills in facilitation, work every day to cultivate and maintain relationships and mutual respect with others in the policy arena and develop my own eye for parties’ true interests.

I am lucky to work in a field that affords me the opportunity to dive deep into policy challenges impacting our nation and the state of California.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

As an organization, the California Transit Association strives for consensus in all its decisions – whether they be legislative, budgetary or organizational. As you can imagine, with 220 member organizations in the association operating in a state as diverse as California, finding consensus can be a challenge at times.

That said, the challenge of finding consensus among differing opinions and interests has made me a more effective leader and my organization a more powerful voice in the state capitol. It has made me a more effective leader because it’s required me to become a more attentive listener, more respectful and accepting of opinions that are not my own and a more creative and thoughtful problem solver. It has made my organization a more powerful voice because external parties know that if we have weighed in on an issue, we have done so deliberately and only after navigating differing opinions to arrive at consensus. In my view, and based on my experience, I believe these consensus positions and outcomes, which typically require some degree of compromise from the parties involved, are more enduring.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

Throughout my career, I’ve led or been involved in numerous advocacy campaigns to secure new transit funding, as well as new statutory authorities to support public transit in California. While I’m proud of this work, which has carried our industry forward, I’m most proud of my leadership to secure early vaccine access for frontline transit workers in California.

When the COVID-19 vaccine was first brought to market, early access to it was limited to vulnerable populations – the elderly, the immunocompromised and workers in “critical industries.” In California, the state’s initial definition of “critical industries” didn’t include public transit and hence precluded transit workers from accessing the vaccine alongside other vulnerable populations. When California’s transit industry first raised concerns about the omission, they were largely ignored.

In response, and as then-deputy executive director for the association, I developed our advocacy strategy to compel change, which included activation and mobilization of California’s transit agencies and labor organizations and near-constant engagement with press outlets across California. After months of sustained advocacy, we drove the state to change course and include transit workers in their rollout of early access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

In our industry, we often face challenges that compromise agencies’ fiscal health or that threaten progress on infrastructure buildout or service delivery. Moving the state on this matter was a challenge that, by contrast, was a matter of literal life and death for our frontline transit workers. I was honored, and remain proud to have, used my power and voice to show respect and appreciation for the workers who supported our society during one of the most challenging times in modern history.

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

In the world of advocacy, your reputation – and others’ respect for you – is everything, so stay honest and consistent in your interactions no matter the audience.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.