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Tuesday, January 9, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Capital Metro CEO finalists face the public

The auditions are over and now it’s time for the judges to determine who gets to be Austin’s next top transit executive.

The final four candidates in the running for the open president/CEO job at the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority faced three separate rounds of interviews on Monday in front of the board of directors, the media and members of the public.

All four are vying to replace former President and CEO Linda Watson, who announced her retirement last summer and officially stepped down at the end of 2017.

Watson’s successor will inherit an agency looking to boost its stagnating ridership with a controversial network alignment set to take effect in June. He or she will also be in charge of Project Connect as it is on the cusp of selecting specific high-capacity transit investment proposals and then determining how to come up with an ambitious funding plan to make them happen. Furthermore, the future of transit’s very definition is clouded by the introduction of new disruptive technologies such as ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles.

On Monday morning, the board members grilled the finalists for the position in closed-door sessions, marking the prelude to the public town hall scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Austin Independent School District’s Performing Arts Center at Mueller.

Approximately 100 people filled the seats at the event moderated by former television news anchor Ron Oliveira. Spotted in the crowd were Capital Metro staffers, transit advocates, four board members (Chair Wade Cooper, City Council Member Ann Kitchen, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion and Terry Mitchell), Council Member Ora Houston and Urban Transportation Commissioner Cynthia Weatherby.

All of the finalists were given the opportunity to make two-minute opening and closing statements before fielding a set of five identical questions.

Raymond Suarez, chief operating officer of the Denton County Transportation Authority, touted the 10 years he spent working for tech firms in Silicon Valley. He offered that transit agencies should find ways to work with companies such as Uber and Lyft to expand transit options to low-density areas where conventional bus service is too costly. Capital Metro is already working in that direction with the so-called Mobility Innovation Zones identified during the drafting of the Connections 2025 service plan.

“While it may be geographically diverse between the jobs and where people live, I do believe there is a very good way of working with community leaders and transportation planners to provide some very well-thought-out approaches to delivering the service throughout the region,” said Suarez.

Randy Clarke, the vice president of operations and member services with the American Public Transportation Association, professed to the crowd his passion for public transit, noting that he rides it every day in Washington, D.C. He also said that if hired he would ensure that top Capital Metro executives were regular riders.

Addressing the difficulty of catering to both “choice riders” as well as those who depend on transit as their only means of transportation, Clarke said, “To me it’s not picking one versus the other. It’s not a binary choice. Transit is the lifeblood of a city. It’s a mobility framework and you’ve got to be looking out for everyone. So I think what’s really important there is a community coming together and figuring out what its principles and values are and delivering that.”

Following Clarke was the general manager of Flagstaff-based Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, Erika Mazza, who highlighted her background planning affordable housing strategies for the city of Flagstaff, a background that she said could come in handy in the transit world.

“Innovation is really a huge part of how I look at financing mechanisms,” said Mazza. “So hopefully I can come to the table with a lot of ideas.”

Darrell Mobley, the director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation in Prince George’s County, Maryland, closed out the event by touting his experience at the top levels of giant bureaucracies, including a stint as the deputy transportation secretary for the state of Maryland. Mobley related his experience using Capital Metro’s services while he has been in town.

“One of the things that I noticed was that almost every single person that exited the bus said thank you to the operators,” he said. “That speaks volumes to me as to how people respond to the service that’s being provided.”

Before the public interviews, Capital Metro provided members of the media short, private chats with each of the candidates in the performance center’s dressing room. Those conversations revealed that Mobley wasn’t the only finalist to ride Capital Metro during the interviewing process.

Suarez admitted he has not been on any of the agency’s buses but that he has tried MetroRail, a system that he said he’s “very impressed with.”

On the other hand, Clarke, who said he had met his wife on a subway train, said he has tried a variety of the various services, including the bus, rail and MetroRapid. He added that he recently took a three-bus ride from the airport to the Arboretum in order to get a feel for how the transferring process is for riders.

Mazza said she has also sampled the various services and also took a spin on Austin B-cycle.

After the public town hall, two members in attendance spoke glowingly of Clarke. Jeb Boyt, founder of the local outfit Alliance for Public Transportation and speaking on behalf of his role as a board member of that group, said that Clarke “showed that he’s got a really good, flexible thinking and understanding. I was a little concerned about how well he might relate to Central Texas and the legislature and having to work to adjust, but he came off well tonight.”

Those sentiments were seconded by Mateo Barnstone, executive director of the central Texas chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Underscoring that he was speaking only for himself, Barnstone described Clarke as “the most thoughtful” of the finalists.

The Capital Metro board is scheduled to discuss the finalists at a special meeting on Tuesday morning. It could make a decision as early as Friday during another scheduled special meeting, though there remains the possibility that it may simply winnow the field further.

In any case, the board is set to vote to approve a contract for the winning candidate at its next regular meeting on Jan. 29.

The agency is still accepting public comments via email to feedback@capmetro.org through the end of Wednesday. It is also hosting a video of Monday night’s town hall on its Facebook page.

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Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

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