The incoming leader of the Regional Transportation District has overseen huge budgets and dug into daily operational details at other transit agencies. She has negotiated difficult labor contracts, including in a city notorious for union strife.
She’s also managed a board of directors rife with complexity and conflicting interests.
Debra Johnson will need all of those skills in Denver when she takes the reins as RTD’s new general manager and CEO, inside and outside observers say. She’s coming aboard at a time when the metro area’s transit provider faces not only tremendous fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but also budget imbalances, underfunded rail projects, and an outside review that kicked off this month.
That review could recommend drastic changes to the setup of the 51-year-old district, which has struggled to repair fraying public trust caused in part by service cuts and fare hikes.
The last time RTD hired a new boss from outside the agency was in 1995, when it tapped Cal Marsella in another time of turmoil. He would become the father of FasTracks, the massive transit expansion approved by voters in 2004.
With its vote Tuesday for Johnson, who’s spent six years at Long Beach Transit as deputy CEO, the elected board made history by installing a woman in the top job for the first time.
“I think it’s good they went for an outsider. It’s clear the agency really needs some new blood,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of TransitCenter, a New York City-based research and advocacy organization.
Johnson will confront problems here that have also plagued her most recent employers, which include agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Chief among them: years of falling or stagnating ridership, long before the pandemic shoved those numbers over a cliff earlier this year, along with tax revenue. As of earlier this month, RTD’s average weekday ridership had recovered slightly but still was at about 140,000, down 60% from normal.
Bragdon likes what he sees in Johnson’s background, suggesting her extensive experience with operations could help guide the agency to new long-term thinking. He’s long been critical of RTD’s focus on building suburban commuter rail lines at the expense of expanded urban bus service under the $5.6 billion-and-counting FasTracks initiative.
“RTD basically became a construction company for a number of years and basically overlooked the nuts and bolts of operating,” he said.
But the new CEO will have a bumpy political landscape to navigate, reporting to one of the few elected transit boards in the country — a body made up of members representing 15 districts across a sprawling service area covering 2,342 square miles. There’s also high outside interest in how RTD operates that goes all the way up to the Colorado governor’s office.
Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is among the state politicians behind a new “accountability committee” that began meeting this month to perform an independent top-to-bottom review of RTD over the next year. He talks about the need for new approaches — while remaining adamant that RTD also must finish the way-underfunded $1.5 billion northwest commuter rail line promised to voters in Longmont and Boulder, where he lives.
Relationship-driven leader who’s “politically astute”
Johnson, who’s still negotiating a contract and salary with RTD, was not available for an interview last week. But in her public video presentation for the job, it was clear she was seeking to fulfill a career ambition.
Though this will be her first time as CEO, aside from a brief interim stint at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, she said: “I have been preparing to lead at this level for more than 25 years.”
Those who have worked with her say that’s not an overstatement.
Former colleagues, a former agency board member and her current boss portrayed Johnson as a relationship-driven leader who works long hours, building trust within their agencies and in their communities that has outlasted her. Her rise accelerated in San Francisco, where she was director of administration, safety and training from 2007 to 2012.
She left to become deputy chief operations officer at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, where she says she developed a $1.1 billion annual operating budget.
In San Francisco, during a particularly acrimonious period, she didn’t hesitate to visit warring labor representatives on their own turf, inside their union halls, recalled Kenneth A. McDonald, SFMTA’s chief operating officer at the time.
That showed courage, said McDonald, now the CEO of Long Beach Transit, which serves more than a dozen cities in Southern California. In 2014, he recruited Johnson from Los Angeles to be his No. 2.
“She is very politically astute,” he said in an interview. “The ability to negotiate through competing agendas is something she does every day. To do that, you have to be flexible and agile.”
Shalonda Baldwin, who worked with Johnson in San Francisco and L.A., said she “knows the business of transportation, she understands public governance and she’s about consensus-building. I don’t doubt her ability to move RTD at this time.”
Whatever shakes out, RTD’s board and its new leader are largely in tune as they begin “this new adventure,” as Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede put it Tuesday.
Added Director Claudia Folska, who represents parts of the east and southeast metro area: “I think she’s going to do wonderful, wonderful things for the district. People — whether they use RTD or they don’t — will benefit from having a great public transit system that’s multimodal.”
Union President Lance Longenbohn says he is hopeful about the approach Johnson will bring after hearing favorable word from his counterparts elsewhere and speaking with her last week.
He sees potential for improvement in working conditions — which, before the pandemic, included significant overtime because of an operator shortage that forced frequent cancellations of bus and train runs.
“RTD used to be a job where people literally lined up the block to try to get the job,” Longenbohn said. “And you know, we’ve lost that. We’ve become a company that is no longer a shining example. It’s unfortunately (become) the company that is looked at as, ‘What’s the problem, what the heck is going on?’”
Rough waters to navigate at RTD
Johnson will start her new role with an early celebration when RTD opens the N-Line, a 13-mile commuter rail line from Denver to Thornton, on Sept. 21.
But much of the fall agenda will be heavy.
The same day, RTD is set to begin a monthlong trial in Denver District Court to settle disputes with Denver Transit Partners, the private consortium that built and operates three other FasTracks rail lines. They’re fighting over reimbursement claims for significant costs that resulted from finicky crossing-gate technology. DTP now seeks $111 million from RTD, which has lodged $27 million in counter-claims.
Meanwhile, RTD’s board is weighing options to close a pandemic-driven shortfall next year that’s projected at $166 million, or roughly 20% of the operating budget.
Amid all the uncertainty, some board members recently urged a pause in RTD’s underway Reimagine RTD initiative, which has sought community input to craft a long-term plan for its future, separate from the new state review committee.
Malcolm Heinicke, a San Francisco lawyer and longtime SFMTA board member who stepped down this year, has kept in touch with Johnson all these years. He isn’t surprised to see her reach her goal of leading an agency — especially one with deep issues.
He was among those who entrusted her to fill that agency’s interim CEO role for about two months in 2011, after the top two leaders stepped down during a time of labor strife. He credited Johnson with helping to repair some of the agency’s problems.
Heinicke suggested she’s clear-eyed about what awaits in Denver.
“Let me put it this way: I know for a fact that Debra had many options for where she could take her career,” he said. “And I think it speaks to her dedication and passion that she chose this opportunity and all the challenges that come with it.”
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