2023 40 Under 40: J. Levi McCollum

Aug. 22, 2023
J. Levi McCollum, Lead Product Owner, ETA Transit Systems

One word to describe yourself: Fastidious

Alma Mater: University of North Texas

Fast fact about yourself: I am a PADI-certified scuba diver with Advanced Open Water Diver certification and have dived 100 feet deep off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.

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

Earlier this year, my four-year-old son and I bonded over trains and dinosaurs when we took Brightline and Miami Dade Transit to watch Jurassic World Live at the Watsco Center in Miami. As a transit wonk, I'm always looking for ways to take public transit to events and my son and I have a love of dinosaurs. Enjoying these two interests with my young son was a unique experience and a memory I will hold dear.

J. Levi McCollum, CPM, ENV-SP, is the lead product owner at ETA Transit Systems and has made a name for himself as dedicated and innovative in his work in the transit industry. He is described to be someone who consistently demonstrates an unwavering commitment to advancing mass transit and playing a leadership role in innovating new solutions for the industry. In his current role, McCollum is responsible for managing the company's product roadmap and has made significant strides in shaping the future of mass transit through the development of cutting-edge solutions. Under his leadership, ETA has developed numerous advanced products that have substantially improved the efficiency, reliability and accessibility of public transit systems across the country.

McCollum’s extensive experience in the transit industry includes his previous role as the director of planning for Palm Tran, where he was instrumental in devising and implementing visionary transit plans that led to considerable improvements in ridership and customer satisfaction. Specific achievements at Pam Tran include:

  • Orchestration of route optimization plan to increase frequency, resulting in 23 percent and 57 percent ridership increases on two routes, without modifying coverage area.
  • Led design effort of relocated transit hub that will reshape downtown West Palm Beach to accommodate Transit Village residential tower and University of Florida – West Palm Beach campus.
  • Shepherded achievable and cost-effective Transit Development Plan during height of COVID-19.

Clinton B. Forbes, Palm Tran’s executive director, contributed the following statement to underscore McCollum’s ability to find creative solutions to difficult problems: “J. Levi McCollum's dedication and creativity were instrumental in driving the success of our organization at Palm Tran. His ability to generate higher ridership by reallocating resources demonstrated exceptional ingenuity and leadership skills. Levi's aptitude for anticipating challenges, executing solutions, and following up with results further highlighted the invaluable contributions he made to our team.”

As the transit planning manager at LeeTran, Levi's astute understanding of the industry's needs and challenges enabled him to bring about meaningful change within the communities he served.

There are a couple achievements that put McCollum in with the best of the best:

  • He oversaw the planning for $17 million in capital projects.
  • McCollum planned a new beach service that increased ridership by 43 percent.
  • Reduced planning expenses by 20 percent by streamlining duplicative software.
  • He wrote grant applications that earned the agency more than $4 million in Florida Department of Transportation Service Development grants.
  • He spearheaded the static and real-time of the GTFS project.

Robert L. Codie, III, LeeTran’s former director and current Lee County assistant county manager, added his praises to McCollum’s outstanding career and hardwork: “Levi McCollum is an inspiration to many. Everything he touches turns to gold. His innovative strategies transformed LeeTran’s approach to transit in Southwest Florida because he was always at the forefront of innovation, technology, and policy. Mr. McCollum leads with compassion, positivity, and gratitude which makes him a high performing leader. People follow him because he puts the needs of others first.”

McCollum's dedication to the transit industry extends beyond his professional roles. He is an active participant in the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and contributes his expertise to working groups such as the Open Data Standards (ODS) and California Integrated Travel Project (CAL-ITP). His involvement in these groups highlights his commitment to advancing the industry by fostering collaboration, advocating for open data, and promoting integrated mobility solutions.

During his eight-year transit career, McCollum has been awarded several industry certifications and awards including awards for:

  • The Envision Sustainability Transit Professional Scholarship in 2022 from the National Transit Institute
  • The Anticipate, Execute and Follow-up Award in 2021 from Palm Tran

 And certifications for:

  • The Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV-SP) in 2022 from The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure
  • The Florida Transit Leadership Program in 2022 from the Florida Public Transit Association
  • Emerging Leaders Program in 2020 from the American Public Transportation Association
  • Leadership Academy in 2020 from Lee County
  • Certified Public Manager (CPM) in 2020 from the Florida Society of Certified Public Managers

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

While an undergraduate in 2009, I decided to visit Costa Rica for three weeks during winter vacation. I experienced several "firsts" on that trip: Traveling internationally, flying on a plane, riding a bus and speaking a foreign language outside of a classroom, to name a few. There is a clear delineation in my life after that trip. I subsequently studied Spanish, lived in Spain, tutored Spanish and met my wife who was also a Spanish tutor. Moreover, I studied geography as a result of my budding interest in people and cultures and then interned in an urban planning office. When I started my graduate program in geography, I studied transportation and energy transition in Bolivia. Those experiences catapulted me into urban planning and then into transit planning in South Florida. Undoubtedly, my life would look differently had I not taken that trip to Costa Rica.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love using software to help transit professionals solve complex problems. As a product manager, I am able to decompose our transit customers' problems and develop a solution with our engineering team. Almost miraculously, ETA Transit Systems' engineers are able to program new features and functionality in our CAD/AVL software. The most satisfying aspect is when the customer shares how much time that new feature will save them. Software is magic.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I'm the intermediary between the product team, stakeholders, and users. The majority of time is spent understanding the problem and determining the scope of the work with engineering and customer input, rather than building the software. Product managers have to intimately understand their customers' challenges. Otherwise, we will not be able to communicate the customers' needs to the development team. A poor understanding could cause us to build the wrong feature or functionality. Fortunately, we work in two-week cycles, so if we are misaligned, then we can course correct.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

More than any plan, project or grant, I'm most proud of the people I've hired and promoted. I've been fortunate to work with some intelligent and dedicated individuals from whom I've learned and with whom I've grown as a leader. These professionals now have an impact on transit systems and the communities they serve across the country. I am grateful to call them colleagues.

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

Take calculated risks. Transit planning needs individuals who are willing to experiment and improve service through iterative feedback. If a plan needs revision, or worse, doesn't work, don't withdraw from the commu`nity you're aiming to serve. Embrace their feedback and continue to refine the plan. Your communities are changing and so must your service. Stagnation is your enemy. 

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.