Transit District General Manager Announces Retirement

Aug. 28, 2014
After nearly 50 years in public transportation, including 15 years leading the San Mateo County Transit District, Michael J. Scanlon on Wednesday informed the District Board of Directors he is retiring.

After nearly 50 years in public transportation, including 15 years leading the San Mateo County Transit District, Michael J. Scanlon on Wednesday informed the District Board of Directors he is retiring.

In 1999, following a nationwide recruitment, Scanlon, 67, was named general manager/chief executive officer of SamTrans, executive director of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority and executive director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

“SamTrans and its sister agencies still have many important and exciting challenges in front of them.  We had urged Mike to stay on as we navigate these next few years of continued growth and change,” said SamTrans Board Chair Jeff Gee. “We are sad to see him go. But after 47 years in the industry and a workload second to none, our sorrow at losing his talent, expertise and leadership is tempered by our appreciation at all he has done and the fact that his retirement is well and entirely earned.”

During his 15 years and at the direction of the District’s three boards, Scanlon has transformed SamTrans into a modern mobility manager, led the dynamic growth of Caltrain into a regional and record-setting rail system, presided over the reauthorization of the Transportation Authority sales tax by 75 percent of the voters and undertook the Caltrain Modernization program to electrify and modernize Caltrain.

Scanlon shepherded SamTrans and Caltrain through two economic downturns and played a central role in achieving the financial stability both agencies currently enjoy.  During his time with the District, Caltrain’s ridership and farebox revenue have nearly tripled, SamTrans has added innovative new bus services like the FLX Pacifica and San Carlos and the agency has implemented important efficiency measures that stabilized the District during the recession.

Much of his tenure has been focused on the changing needs and expectations of the public toward transit and transportation and responded with forward-looking programs to address increasing congestion, the transportation-land use nexus, and the challenges of skyrocketing demand for fresh and innovative solutions to public transit. 

“Mike saw all of the possibilities and challenges facing SamTrans as it made the leap from a smaller operator to an important component of the Peninsula commute,” said State Senator Jerry Hill.

Sen. Hill, a former member of the SamTrans and Caltrain boards, participated in the hiring committee that selected Mr. Scanlon from a field of more than 70 candidates.  “In the 15 years, he has led the Transit District he has made his vision a reality.  He was instrumental in the creation of Caltrain’s Baby Bullet express service and the reauthorization of Measure A, to fund roads, highways and public transportation projects throughout the county.”

When Scanlon started with SamTrans the “dot com” bubble was just exploding in the Bay Area, carrying job growth and traffic congestion to new heights.  As demand for public transit soared, plans got underway to develop an express service that would transform Caltrain into a competitive alternative to commuting on the region’s highways.  The service would eventually be named the “Baby Bullet” by U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, then a State Senator.  Mrs. Speier was instrumental in securing $127 million for the new express service.

“Caltrain needed a reinvention to remain a relevant component of the Bay Area’s transportation network, Mike displayed vital leadership and resolute commitment in making the Baby Bullet service a reality,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier. “That transformative project helped set the framework for the ridership growth Caltrain continues to enjoy today. The most notable thing about Mike is that the word impossible is not in his vocabulary, and that’s why we’ve enjoyed such a tremendous amount of innovation and success over the last 15 years.”

Since the introduction of the Baby Bullet, ridership demand on Caltrain has continued to grow, rising to record-setting levels over the last four years.

As Caltrain has experienced such growth – and the challenges that have come with it – Scanlon began leading the effort to make a reality the next generation of Caltrain through the Caltrain Modernization (CalMod) program.  CalMod includes the introduction of new electric trains that will be quieter, cleaner and will allow for more frequent train service to help meet growing ridership demand, reduce regional traffic congestion and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by the rail system’s current diesel equipment. The program also helps reduce the taxpayer subsidy required to operate the system and creates over $2 billion in economic value. “A 21st Century Caltrain is now a reality because of the extraordinary leadership and commitment of Mike Scanlon,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who helped secure funding for the CalMod program.  “His ability to navigate the diverse terrain of local, state and federal transportation policies has produced a result that will benefit the people of our region for decades to come, enhancing our communities, our businesses and our environment.”

In 2008, the Transit District, like the rest of the country, began to feel the effects of the deepest recession since the Great Depression. With declining ridership on both systems and a lack of dedicated funding source for Caltrain, the Transit District was faced with some difficult decisions in order to preserve as much service as possible in the midst of major financial cutbacks.

“On behalf of SamTrans Board of Directors, I want to thank Mike for building a stable, prosperous, bus system for San Mateo County’s commuters,” said Redwood City Mayor and SamTrans Board Chair Jeff Gee.  “Following the recession, the SamTrans system was losing ridership at the same time the District grappled with a burdensome structural budget deficit.  Mike led the effort to implement new efficiencies and to rethink the way bus service is provided in San Mateo County.  Thanks to those efforts he is leaving a District in stable financial condition with the first ridership increases in several years. Today the systems under Mike’s stewardship serve nearly 50 million annual trips. SamTrans is better for having Mike at its helm.”

“Caltrain is a public transit success story.  It’s more than doubled its ridership in the 10 years since the Baby Bullet service was first introduced,” said Caltrain Board Chair Tom Nolan, one of the key figures who helped to save Caltrain and turn it over to a local partnership to own and operate.  “Mike understood the intrinsic possibilities of this 150 year-old rail corridor and he has led the effort to secure funding for its reinvention and long term future.  With planning for Caltrain Modernization underway, electric vehicles will be providing more service to more riders at more stations in 2019.”

Ensuring the County continued to have a robust public transportation network extends to the health and vitality of its highways, streets and roads, bicycle, pedestrian and shuttle systems too.  Those transportation needs and many others are funded through San Mateo County’s Measure A half-cent sales tax, originally passed in 1988.  Under Scanlon’s watchful eye, the original measure leveraged more than $1.2 billion in federal, state and local funding for San Mateo County improvements.  He also oversaw the reauthorization of that important funding measure in 2004.

“The program’s supported by Measure A, help to provide paratransit service for our community’s disabled, safety improvements for cars, bikes and pedestrians, transportation alternatives like bike share and car share and major highway infrastructure improvements like the Highway 101 auxiliary lanes and the upcoming 101 Broadway Interchange Improvement,” said South San Francisco Mayor and San Mateo County Transportation Authority Board Chair Karyl Matsumoto.  “Mike’s commitment to looking for innovative projects and programs has helped to reshape the infrastructure and the transit choices our county enjoys today.  Kudos to Mike, his contributions helped to make San Mateo County a better place to live, work and play.”

Scanlon’s vision for mobility on the Peninsula extended well beyond transportation.  He helped to lay the framework for what would eventually become a “coalition of the willing” known as the Grand Boulevard Initiative.  This coalition brought together more than 40 different cities, civic, business, regional and state groups around the shared vision of El Camino Real as a safe, pedestrian-friendly, walkable street, that includes mixed use developments, open public spaces and good access to public transit services.

While Scanlon has had tremendous influence over public transportation policy and direction here in San Mateo County, many aren’t aware of the important national role he played during his time with the Transit District. Scanlon has been deeply involved with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) since 1974, and before that with APTA’s earlier iterations. APTA is a nonprofit organization that serves as an advocate for the advancement of public transportation programs and initiatives in the United States. 

“Mike has not only helped modernize transit in the Bay Area with his innovative approaches at Caltrain and SamTrans, but he’s also been an outspoken advocate for public this country’s transportation programs,” said Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association. “As the former chair of APTA’s executive committee and past member of numerous other boards, Mike has demonstrated a passionate commitment to the future of public transit by helping to shape policies that have driven growth in public transportation usage nationwide.  His big smile and treasured sense of humor will be missed dearly at APTA.”

Indeed, SamTrans halls will seem a bit quieter without Scanlon’s big presence but the Transit District wishes him and his wife much happiness as they embark on their next adventure.