Employee Initiative Drives Growth and Success at C-TRAN

Sept. 20, 2022
Establishing a work environment that celebrates communication and authenticity empowers employees to spark change and forge new paths for continued growth and success.

When C-TRAN CEO Shawn Donaghy got the call C-TRAN had been named the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) 2022 Outstanding System of the Year, he was feeling a mix of emotions, but surprised was not one of them.  

“I was shocked, I was blown away, but I wasn't surprised. If you knew our employees, if you knew [our leadership team], if you knew our board and if you knew our community, you would know that this is just a premier place to live and work,” Donaghy said.  

C-TRAN, which serves riders in Clark County, Wash., has made great progress over the past three years from the first time it was awarded APTA’s Outstanding System of the Year on things like new infrastructure, sustainability, technology investments and workforce development initiatives. This progress is in large part due to employees of all levels having the drive to make the agency better and to provide more than a bus ride to the community because they feel empowered to suggest and make changes. Donaghy and the executive team concur that honest communication and open-door policies contribute to this positive work environment. 

“We have the best damn employees in the world and it's pretty easy to be a world class organization when you have such an amazing workforce,” Donaghy said. 

New Infrastructure Welcomes Added Service, Planned Expansion 

C-TRAN is working on more projects consecutively now than it has in totality over the life of the agency, Donaghy explains, requiring cross-departmental collaboration and frequent communication. One of the biggest projects currently underway is the construction of a second bus rapid transit (BRT) line, The Vine on Mill Plain. Despite the current business climate, construction is moving rapidly, and the project hasn’t experienced any schedule issues. It was one of the projects that didn’t stop during the pandemic, so it is still on track to open in the third quarter of 2023.  

“We’ve seen strong community support for the project since we first began planning and outreach on the corridor back in 2018, and that continues today. I believe that’s in large part due to the success of our first BRT corridor [The Vine] on Fourth Plain Boulevard,” said C-TRAN Chief Capital Projects and Planning Officer Scott Patterson. “Since 2017, the year The Vine began operating, Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor has seen roughly 2,000 housing units added within a half-mile of the route and roughly $250 million in development value. We’re hoping to build on that success with Mill Plain.” 

In addition to the second BRT line, C-TRAN began early planning and outreach this year for The Vine on Highway 99, the third BRT corridor. In the future, the agency intends to extend its first BRT line to travel farther east on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain Boulevard.  

“The growth that we're seeing on those BRT lines forces us to address our campus and right fit it for even more growth,” said C-TRAN Deputy CEO Monica Tellez-Fowler 

C-TRAN is addressing this growth by redeveloping its campus while also making overdue changes to a facility it had outgrown years ago. For example, C-TRAN is preparing to break ground on a maintenance facility expansion and a new operations building to expand its campus and prepare for fleet electrification or other alternative fuels. In 2019, C-TRAN's administrative staff moved into a new administration building that had been purchased as part of the overall facilities plan. Some operations and additional staff moved to the new admin building in subsequent years, and in 2022, the old administration and operations modular buildings at the main campus were demolished.  

“[The projects] are moving at pace that can some days be challenging, but I think going back to what we do for employees, we have that open door policy, and we have that open communication,” Tellez-Fowler said. 

Sustainability Integral to Decision Making 

As C-TRAN makes progress on its new facilities and bus infrastructure, sustainability is top of mind when making decisions. 

“It's really about finding contractors that are willing to be invested the same way that we are in wanting to solve climate inequity because that's a huge deal,” Donaghy said.  

C-TRAN's sustainability efforts have been and continue to be employee led, shares Eric Florip, manager of communications, marketing and customer experience, adding that the Green Team was compromised of employee volunteers that continues to see organic growth. The team has worked to emphasize what the agency and employees can do behind the scenes to reduce their carbon footprint with the idea that every little bit counts. To this extent, C-TRAN is recycling Keurig pods collected around the office and utilizing recycling receptacles for cigarette butts at BRT stations.  

On a bigger scale, C-TRAN has been phasing in renewable diesel thanks to a proposal from the maintenance director, who saw it as an opportunity to contribute to a cleaner environment. Tellez-Fowler explains the board was supportive of this phased approach while C-TRAN conducts an alternative fuel study to examine the potential use of hydrogen fuel cell, electric or a mix of alternative fuels for its fixed-route vehicles.  

As part of these ongoing green efforts, C-TRAN's board adopted the agency’s first sustainability policy. It was drafted by the Green Team with Florip leading the efforts, and then reviewed by each department before ultimately being board approved. The policy captures and preserves efforts already taken while also serving as a framework for decision making.  

“What the policy does is that it ensures that it's not dependent on any one person or any group of people who happens to be here now but may not be here in 20 years or 30 years,” Florip said.  

C-TRAN's commitment to sustainability resulted in it becoming a certified green business through Vancouver’s green business program, as well as being awarded the Clark County Green Business of the Year in 2021.  

"When we're thinking about [sustainability], [it’s] not just on an employee-led scale or just on a social scale; we're incorporating those things into every single decision that gets made throughout the organization,” Donaghy said. 

Technology Improvements Bring C-TRAN into the 21st Century 

The agency has also completed nearly 10 years’ worth of technology upgrades in under half that time, with one of the bigger investments being a direct result of a suggestion from Donaghy. While picking up Taco Bell one day, he noticed kids sitting outside the restaurant doing homework. The manager shared that they come to the restaurant every day for the Wi-Fi.  

“That resonated with me, so we immediately went back to our board and said we need money to put Wi-Fi at all of our stations, so that [people] can either park near the station or park near one of our BRT stops and utilize that Wi-Fi as a public service,” Donaghy said.  

Patterson used the Wi-Fi project as a springboard to install almost 11 miles of fiber along the entire BRT corridor that’s currently under construction so that it’s available throughout multiple neighborhoods. In addition to Wi-Fi and fiber installation, C-TRAN upgraded its radio network, relocated its IT team to the new administration building in 2019, created new IT infrastructure and upgraded the operations system, which has allowed the agency to improve how it does its scheduling, run-cutting, yard management and data for service delivery.  

C-TRAN's security chief and head of operations has also been upgrading the security cameras throughout the system.  

“One of the best things about our security cameras aren't necessarily that their security cameras at all, it's that our staff's able to use them to evaluate weather at the transit center...or if we have a challenge going on with a bus, we're able to pull that up and look at it quickly,” said C-TRAN Chief Operations Officer Inessa M. Vitko. 

And that’s not all. Earlier this year, the agency launched its on-demand rideshare service, The Current. Passengers can schedule their ride online, by calling or through the mobile app for point-to-point service. This service, along with the rest of C-TRAN's service offerings, has also been connected to the Transit app that provides riders with real-time information and trip planning. While this was one of the easier technology implementations, the executive team believes it was one of the most impactful to customers.  

“The Transit App was a pretty simple partnership to enter into with the company, but it’s been really impactful for our riders. And that’s something we’ve heard for a number of years—that our riders were interested in having that real-time information available to them,” Vitko said.  

Workforce Investments 

Many of these employee-led initiatives are possible because the workforce not only feels empowered to voice their opinions, but they also bring their full authentic selves to the office. Promoting open, diverse and free thinking allows the agency to be at its best, Donaghy says.  

"We tell people all the time that there are a few non-negotiables that you have to bring to work with you and that’s you have to be your authentic self at all times, and you have to be able to speak your mind. We want people to be very unapologetically themselves,” Donaghy said.  

While authenticity and open-door policies have been the norm, C-TRAN Chief Human Resources and Safety Officer Laura Merry explains C-TRAN has recently made great strides in adding diversity to its workforce thanks to new hiring practices put in place. For instance, C-TRAN Manager of Human Resources Jenapher Dues began catering the recruiting process to the individual hiring managers and departments. She became more involved in community hiring events, expanding the places where C-TRAN advertises open positions. The HR department also reworked job descriptions to be intentional and specific about the qualities required in order to expand the applicant pool. Donaghy explains the idea is that the agency can teach aspects of the business, but they can't necessarily teach leadership qualities.  

“Instead of looking strictly at things like years of college, years of education, types of certifications, we take a deeper dive into experiential opportunities, and we were able to bring people on board into positions that we probably wouldn't have looked at historically,” Merry said.  

Thanks to these practices, within a few years, coupled with changes in the executive team, C-TRAN is seeing “dramatic changes” of its organizational make up.  

“We started getting a much more dynamic group of people,” Merry added.  

As C-TRAN's organizational makeup has evolved over the years, so has its conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). As conversations about DEI have naturally grown, a group of managers created a DEI team made up of employee volunteers. Like the Green Team, this group has grown organically to become the PEACE Team, which stands for promoting equity, acceptance, compassion and education. Members include those from all levels, management and non-management, and those who’ve stepped up and taken on leadership roles may not necessarily have director or manager in their title, but they’re seen as leaders throughout the agency.  

“[The DEI Team] is very honest and open and very forward about the things that they want to see as not only members of the agency but [as] members of the community,” Donaghy said.  

Part of this is being intentional with community engagement. C-TRAN is involved in Pride celebrations, Juneteenth events and many members of the executive team are members of other community organizations like the Portland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the NAACP.  

"It’s really exciting because [DEI] is something that for many years wasn’t a piece of who we are, and I think now it is a very defining piece of who C-TRAN is as an agency,” Merry said.   

Generating Success 

Much of C-TRAN's success has been made possible by employees of all levels feeling empowered to not only make the agency a better place, but the community a better place. As the agency marks its 40th anniversary this year, it’s been less about celebrating 40 years than it is about celebrating the employees and the investments they’ve made in the community.  

“We give people the opportunity to lead...They take it and they run with it and it makes things so amazing when you get to come to work in the morning. And we are who we are because of our employees and our community and that's really the baseline for us,” Donaghy concluded.  

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.