Debra Johnson begins history-making tenure as Denver’s first female transit chief

Nov. 10, 2020
Johnson pledged to use her more than 25 years of her transit leadership experience to make RTD “the best that it possibly can be.”

Debra A. Johnson officially began her tenure as CEO and general manager at the Regional Transportation District (RTD) of Denver on Nov. 9, marking the first time in the agency’s 51-year history a woman has held the position.  

RTD granted reporters access to Johnson during a virtual press conference where she reported that it “feels good” to achieve this milestone in light of the historic election results, but noted it also felt as though it should have been reached long ago. She recognized the importance of being first, explaining she intends to make sure she will not be the last.

During a virtual press conference, Johnson referenced a finding from a Pew Research Center study that 54 percent of transit ridership across the country constitutes single mothers of color. As a black woman, Johnson said, she is mindful that transportation helps to unleash people from limitations they may have in their lives.

She added: “Recognizing that oftentimes in this country, decisions are made by others that aren’t in that demographic, it’s extremely important to me, and I recognize that I have the responsibility to move us forward.”

She shared her responsibility will be to work with transit stakeholders “to make this organization the best that it possibly can be.”

Johnson ascends to the top job at RTD as the agency, like the entire transit industry, is in tumult as it grapples with fallout from the pandemic that has decreased ridership and produced financial constraints.

“COVID-19 has brought things that we wouldn’t think we would see in our lifetime. Recognizing that I’m a person in the people business and I enjoy being a servant leader, it’s important to me that we are moving essential people to get them where they need to go,” Johnson said. “But I would be remiss not to recognize that we have essential employees that are making that reality day to day.”

Alluding to these challenges, RTD Board of Directors Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede said, “We really needed to get a leader who would be innovative, creative, think outside of the box, partner and have lots and lots of transit experience - and we found that in Ms. Johnson.”

Johnson’s first day included early-morning visits to RTD’s operating divisions and a virtual meeting with the agency’s employees in which she told employees that they should expect to see her across RTD’s system as she embarks on a learning phase that includes assessment, evaluation and research and that she will be listening carefully to what employees have to say.

She describes her leadership style as participatory and said that she believes RTD is on the cusp of making great strides.

“Collectively, we can ensure that we come out stronger than we are now, in the sense that we have been faced with some unprecedented challenges, some untraveled terrain,” Johnson said, speaking to the agency’s current realities. “But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, in the sense that we can leverage the experiences that we have garnered thus far and move forward and present RTD 2.0.”

Johnson was selected by the RTD Board in August following a nationwide search. She joins RTD from Long Beach Transit, where she served as Deputy CEO of the Southern California agency from May 2014 to October 2020.

Johnson succeeds CEO and General Manager Paul Ballard, who led RTD on an interim basis since February. He oversaw the agency throughout the pandemic to this point and during the opening of RTD’s newest commuter rail line, the N Line, in September.

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.