Lessons learned in one year at the helm

By Curtis Stitt

I took the reins as president and CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) in February of 2012 following 13 years in various positions that included general counsel and chief operating officer. We were in the midst of a service expansion plan, a capital program to renovate all our facilities and build a new state-of- the-art paratransit facility, as well as strategy to expand and transition our fixed-route transit bus fleet to compressed natural gas.

While this was going on, COTA experienced its greatest year-over-year ridership increase in our recent history. Our 10.2 percent increase in ridership was the highest among large and medium-sized bus agencies in 2011.

Along with this, our focus on continuously demonstrating the value public transportation provides to every resident and visitor in our community was among our general initiatives for 2012.

Curtis Stitt, COTA president and CEO

During 2012, however, we experienced several potentially devastating and unexpected events. Upon reflection, these crises revealed the strength of our people and the importance of our service to our community.

In July, our represented workforce went on a three-day strike while one of our community’s largest events, a downtown fireworks celebration, took place.  One week after the strike ended, a freight train derailed and burned on the property of one of our two fixed-route bus facilities.

COTA typically provides 65,000 fixed-route passenger trips each weekday. During the strike, our community had no public transit except for paratransit service.  Downtown streets were noticeably absent of the usual bustle of buses and people. Most significantly, however, was how so many people could not get to work, school and other destinations important in their daily lives.

Joe Blundo, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, described how as a regular bus rider he had the option of simply driving downtown during the strike, while a man he offered a ride to had no such option.

He wrote: “The unemployed West Side resident was standing in vain at a COTA bus stop in front of a Family Dollar on Sullivant Avenue. All he wanted to do was get to the Arena District, 6 miles away, to apply for a job as a dishwasher at Ted’s Montana Grill.”

One of our customer call center representatives paused between calls to tell me personally about a call she had received during this crisis. A woman phoned to thank COTA for helping her husband lose his job. These and many other stories immediately drove home the importance of public transit to our community.

Exactly one week after our employees returned to work and service was fully restored, a freight train carrying flammable liquids derailed a few hours before the morning rush adjacent to COTA’s Fields Avenue Operations facility. Due to the ensuing fire and risk posed by the volatile situation, officials ordered the facility closed. This left COTA unable to operate its full weekday rush hour service. Nearly half of our morning service was unavailable.

Once again, the consequences of our service suddenly becoming unavailable reverberated throughout the community. This isolated yet significant event forced thousands of customers to find other ways to get to their destinations.

For my staff and me, these events validated the need for a robust and responsive public transit system in our region.

I have been meeting continuously with community leaders and our conversations often turn to drafting a comprehensive economic development strategy for our region. Much of the strategy focuses on the following:  business development, job creation and retention, workforce development and making the region attractive to younger people who have the mobility, not to mention proclivity, to choose where they will sell their skills and invest in their futures.

Logistics — moving goods — is a key component of the regional economic development strategy. However, we also need to plan how we will move people. A robust and efficient public transportation system is an essential component of a vibrant community, especially one with a vision and plan for significant job and population growth.

COTA will be working closely with community leaders to plan a comprehensive transportation system that must be in place to support and sustain the population, workforce and development projected for this community. The transportation system in place today simply will not support what we envision for this region in the future. I am encouraged by the positive reception we’ve received as we discuss these ideas.

While we are currently planning for 2013 and beyond, I reflect on my first year as president/CEO of COTA. It has been everything a transit leader might expect and included many things I did not anticipate. I am grateful for the support that our community leaders provided during our notable challenges this year. While it is unfortunate that it sometimes takes a crisis to sharpen our focus, it is truly gratifying when the entire community recognizes how important public transit is for every resident and visitor in Columbus and Central Ohio. BR

Curtis Stitt serves as president and CEO, Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), Columbus, OH.