The best view is through the windshield

Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta on board to create a single regional agency

By David Hubbard

Valley Metro CEO Stephen R. Banta currently oversees the bus and light rail systems in the plan for one regional transit agency for the greater-Phoenix area.

Valley Metro has served the cities, towns and communities throughout greater-metropolitan Phoenix, AZ, as the regional transit system since 1993. Under the Valley Metro brand, local governments joined to fund the system that passengers see on the streets today.

In September 2007, the Valley Metro board adopted its mission within a long-term strategic plan to develop and deliver an integrated regional transit system in collaboration with the member agencies and through public and private partnerships. The board adopted the strategic plan resolution in November of the same year with the intent to create a single regional agency for all modes of transit.

Today, Valley Metro partners with 15 cities and Maricopa County to operate 100 local and express bus routes, Dial-a-Ride paratransit and a 20-mile light rail system. The partnership manages regional marketing, customer service and rideshare programs. A recent consolidation of operations contracts gave the region two separate operators of transit services.

Valley Metro Chief Executive Officer Stephen R. Banta arrived in Phoenix in January 2010 charged with the execution of the light rail design, construction and operation. In 2012 the board unanimously agreed to consolidate to achieve efficiencies and enhance the customer experience with Banta as the single CEO for Valley Metro.

Banta currently oversees the bus light rail and light rail systems that transport more than 270,000 passengers daily while managing an annual budget of $350 million. He also has the responsibility for the planning, design and construction of 37 additional miles of future high capacity transit extensions.

Banta spoke to BUSRide on the benefits of merging the Valley Metro bus and rail agencies for passengers throughout the region, and his vision of a complete transit system.

Where were you before Valley Metro?

I began my transit career in San Diego, CA, as an electrician repairing rail cars. Since then I have always carried a vision of transit through the eyes of the passenger and front line staff as I have moved through the ranks. Before arriving in the Valley, I served at six different transit properties across the country concentrated in operations. My previous post was as executive director of operations for TriMet in Portland, OR.

What has driven your success in the transit industry?

I want to see what the drivers see and how people observe our service. I call this my “view through the windshield.” The single most important aspect of leading a transit agency is to understand and appreciate how the public responds to what the organization is doing.

What is in your plan for Valley Metro?

The consolidation of Valley Metro bus and light rail is the first major step in the transition to a singular regional system. We see this as a tremendous opportunity to make the important decisions that affect both systems. We improve the quality of life and the environment and we promote economic development.

What are the challenges and solutions in mixing bus and rail?

Our goal is to successfully integrate all the modes of service into a total transit network. Left to our own devices and without coordinating this effort, bus and light rail operating in the same transit corridors would typically compete for customers. Merging bus and light rail operations creates more opportunities for intermodal interactions involving connections and transfers.

We are relying on the flexibility of buses to coordinate our feeder services to the fixed light rail system through the central part of Phoenix and eastward into Tempe and Mesa. The local routes also feed our express bus service from the park-and-rides into central Phoenix.

Is this working?

Some would argue that rather than rely on a single mode, passengers are finding public transportation more comfortable with a two-seat ride, such as a bus to a train car. This may have to do with the fact that we are making a two-seat ride easier with improved connecting schedules and transfers.

We now have passengers who may not have tried the bus in the past, but do so now to connect with light rail. Raising the level of exposure has increased overall ridership significantly. In fact, with light rail, we have nearly met our projected ridership for the year 2020 at almost 50,000 daily riders.

The cities that comprise the greater-Phoenix metropolitan area are no longer as isolated and self-contained as they once were. How do their separate histories and development play into this transition?

While our customers already see Valley Metro as one large transit agency traveling seamlessly across the Valley, we would like to transition our delivery of service into a full regional approach. We are careful to recognize the finances and resources the 16 member communities have already dedicated to the system we currently operate. It’s a difficult prospect to potentially lose service their residents have come to rely on, but the customer will ultimately benefit.

What effect has Valley Metro experienced from the insane real estate boom and bust?

I am hoping we’ve learned from the early 2000s when development was taking place at such a rapid rate everywhere across the Valley. In the economic downturn that ensued, our customers in these far-reaching areas have clearly communicated their concerns about a lack of travel options. People are now transitioning to purchasing homes and accepting jobs in areas based on the availability of public transportation.

Express bus service, which does serve the areas surrounding central Phoenix, is undergoing renovations. Historically, this service hinged on bus runs through neighborhoods with drivers making numerous stops, instead of heading to the HOV lanes. This takes up a lot of time and adds to the commute. We recognize it would be unfair to customers to come in and immediately change their routine. With proper communication, outreach programs and education, however, we are going to be able to make a more efficient express service system in the not too distant future. We are looking at a couple of service cycle changes to transition to a park-and-ride-based model to the core employment center in downtown Phoenix.

Does Bus Rapid Transit figure into the mix?

BRT is a mode all to its own. While we are exploring opportunities for BRT as a part of both bus and light rail operations, we are first working to improve upon our express bus service.

How about the paratransit component?

A total Valley Metro transit network most definitely includes robust paratransit service overlaying the entire transit system. With Dial-a-Ride service in the East Valley unified, we are looking to continue the effort throughout the Valley, such as our expansion with a unified Northwest Valley Dial-a-Ride. This step further removes the borders of paratransit service, allowing passengers to ride from one community to the next on the same trip.

From your view through the windshield, what does the future hold?

We are evolving into a lifestyle that makes public transit integral with urban living. The incorporation of transit-oriented neighborhoods along popular routes makes transit an easy choice in people’s daily lives.

From an economic standpoint, we are working to establish transit infrastructure that invites commerce.

The 20 miles of light rail at a cost of $1.4 billion to build has yielded nearly $7 billion in economic activity. With the light rail system extending eastward an additional three miles, four major colleges are relocating campuses to the downtown area in anticipation of light rail. The opportunity to connect with public transit sealed the deal. We look for similar positive economic impacts as we add 3.2 miles of service with the Northwest light rail extension now under construction. BR