Baby Boomers, longtime rural transit leaders who have been quite active in the Illinois Public Transportation Association (IPTA), have begun retiring.
Anna Oestreich of Bond County, a rural transit fixture for nearly thirty years, retired at the end of January. Likewise, Rich Machala of Jo Daviess County recently retired, though he has stayed on part-time as PCOM for the county. We were deeply saddened when Tom Zucker of DeKalb County passed away suddenly in 2015. Anna, Rich, and Tom were all longtime members of the Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) Advisory Council, which provides guidance to RTAC. Each of them were mentors to me.
We need future leaders. We need advocacy voices in these times of funding threats. We need rural transit professionals who desire to go beyond the status quo, who are inquisitive, who focus on customer needs.
It takes time to learn the intricacies of our environment. This is especially true when the reality beneath the surface is different from what is on the surface. Be inquisitive, find out why things occur. Get all sides of the story.
When making a decision, first ask yourself how it will affect the customer. Am I making a decision for the comfort of the transit system or the comfort of the customer?
Get involved. If your grant or agency belongs to IPTA, attend meetings! Ask questions of speakers at conferences. If you are wondering about something, so is another attendee. Join your county’s interagency council, where you will find agency representatives whose clients or constituents need transit service.
Do you know your service area’s needs? Have you ever surveyed your service area’s citizens and human service agencies? RTAC can provide you with those surveys. As for your method of distribution, if you are going to deposit a pile of them on a table at a local event, or print them in a local newspaper with the expectation of citizens mailing them back, you might as well forget the surveys. If you want substantive return, you should distribute them in a setting where someone from your agency can explain the survey to citizens. You might ask staff persons at human service agencies to explain the survey to their clients.
Like anything else worth doing, it takes time and commitment. If you ever reach the point where you think you have learned everything you need to know about this business, be assured that you have not.
Transit means business. In communities across the country, the key to growth is development. Development in the form of new construction, increasing the occupancy of buildings and increasing property values all spur local growth; transit has a proven record of delivering all of these things. Additionally, employers find that being in close proximity to public transportation services effectively increases their operative labor market.
Businesses representing a multitude of industries nationwide view proximity transit as critical to their growth. State Farm selected Tempe, Arizona for its light rail system. Panasonic went with Newark, New Jersey for its robust transit system. Marriott International relocated its Maryland office park to a location with access to transit service. Likewise, engagement and support from the business community is vital for any transit system that is looking to grow its service, and the private income generated by the project could help pay for the expanded service. We have to think outside the box and seek out these public private partnerships.
Real estate professionals have long preached location, location, location when guiding buyers in their real estate investments. Shyam Kannan, managing director of the Office of Planning at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency (WMATA), said, that old adage “…is rapidly being transformed into a new adage, which should be access, access, access.” Kannan noted that 84 percent of current office construction in the region is within a quarter mile. He said, “Look at the real estate economy and you realize that the business community has already made a decision. Transit matters. It matters to them, and they are making their site-selection decisions about where they can be most competitive based upon access to the transit amenity.”
Millennials want to get around without a car and baby boomers are going to have to eventually get around without a car. So, not only do businesses want to locate in the proximity of transit, but people also want to reside where they have access to quality, reliable transit. Secretary of the Virginia Department of Transportation, Aubrey L. Layne, Jr. said, “The millennial generation, unlike any other generation, has decided that [public] transportation is key to their lifestyle.”
It is imperative that our lawmakers think about these things now, when determining how to invest taxpayer dollars. Robust investment in public transportation would represent a down payment on our country’s economic future. We need to remind elected officials at both the state and federal level that continued and increased investment in transit to maintain our systems in a state of good repair and to grow systems in communities across Illinois will have a positive return on investment. Our government should be focused on attracting businesses and development. And to do that, they need to focus on funding transit-oriented development. Helping to remind our lawmakers that transit means business growth, and business growth means a healthy economy should be the transit community’s top priority.
Nathan Cobb, transit director for McDonough County Public Transportation (MCPT)
- How did you get started in rural transportation?
The Western Illinois Regional Council (WIRC) has been a long time partner with the City of Macomb in providing the administration of the McDonough and Hancock County Public Transportation (MCPT) programs. In 2009, I started my career at WIRC when I was hired as a housing specialist for the Weatherization Program. I spent most of my days traveling a four-county region assessing homes of individuals and families in need of energy improvements. In 2011, I had the opportunity to move into the community development department as an assistant planner, where I worked with local communities to provide technical assistance to help meet needs such as obtaining funding for water and sewer infrastructure, and energy savings projects. This position helped me gain invaluable knowledge about the grant writing process, and state and federal rules and regulations. In late 2013, the previous transit director announced his upcoming retirement. I was encouraged to apply, and it sounded like a challenging yet rewarding opportunity. In January 2014, I accepted the position and started learning the ropes.
- If you didn’t have a transit background, how did you learn the ropes?
Growing up, I was always around transportation as my father was the manager of the Macomb Municipal Airport. In addition, he has been the owner of a private air charter business for 30 years. Working at the airport and helping with the family business provided me with a good understanding of how to move people to wherever they needed to go, as well as the teaching me the importance of customer service and maintaining facilities and equipment. I was able to use my past experience from the airport and what I had learned as assistant planner, and incorporate that into the duties of my new position. In addition, when I assumed the role of transit director I was fortunate to have a full month to train under the previous director.
- Did you have a mentor in transit?
Yes, my predecessor, Gary Ziegler. Gary worked at WIRC for many years as the community development director prior to assuming his role as the transit director, which he held for nine years. He encouraged me to apply for the position and took me under his wing. Gary stayed on for a month to help with the transition and teach me about the daily duties, as well as the processes of grant applications and reporting to IDOT. He left the transportation program in excellent standing, with a new state of the art transit facility to house all the systems operations.
- Toughest day-to-day operational problem
For the past two years, the toughest challenge faced has been concerns about the state budget impasse and the impact it has had on transit funding. We have had to determine how to make cuts to the system while minimizing effects on services and our staff. Thankfully, to date our system has continued operations with no layoffs, while making some operational efficiency improvements where needed. Excluding budget concerns, the toughest issues we face are driver shortages and keeping our aging bus fleet in service due to limited funding opportunities for heavy-duty buses.
- What’s a typical day like
Some days bring different challenges, but a typical day starts out by making sure operations are running smoothly, and ensuring the safety of staff and clients. On a typical day we service McDonough County with a dozen minivans and medium duty vehicles, as well as two minivans taking persons to out of county medical appointments. In Macomb, Go West Transit provides fixed route service to the campus of Western Illinois University and around the community, covering residential areas, shopping, and healthcare. On a busy day we may have up to fifteen buses on route in Macomb. The remainder of the day is typically filled with meetings, reporting and spreading the word about transit to our communities.
- What’s your proudest achievement?
My proudest achievement so far is our system’s ability to weather the state budget crisis. While several contingency plans were developed, careful planning and our team’s determination allowed us to avoid any major reductions to essential services or staff layoffs.
- What motivates you?
Many days all it takes is meeting a new challenge and coming up with a solution that previously seemed unobtainable. The most rewarding motivator, however, is having the opportunity to help people in our communities, while knowing that we provide essential services to transport people where they need to go. It always reinforces the impact we have in our communities when we receive cards and letters thanking staff for the wonderful job they do. We truly have a great team of hard working staff at MCPT.
- What do you do to motivate your staff?
I think that it is very important to be sure that we provide everyone with the necessary tools and training needed to successfully perform their job. In addition, I think it is important to make myself available to staff by listening to them, taking into consideration their ideas, and concerns. For a little extra motivation, everyone loves food, so occasionally we enjoy a chili cook-off or we get everyone together for a potluck to take a break from the busy day.
- What innovations have occurred since you began in transit?
Being somewhat of a rookie in the public transportation field, no major innovations come to mind. I would say that we are somewhat behind on some of the more recent technology improvements due to lack of funding. Incorporating onboard tablets for drivers to pull up manifests would be extremely beneficial to our demand response system and would also allow for passengers to pay fares with other means than cash. The same goes for the fixed route, as tablets would be helpful to communicate with drivers, as well as record ridership for specific stop locations. Last year our agency had the opportunity to test-drive an all-electric bus on a fixed route in Macomb. It seemed to fit our needs well, and hopefully someday funding will become available so we may be able to add electric buses to our fleet.
- How has your system grown, and why?
Our staff at MCPT is continuously looking for ways to improve its services by expanding routes to reach new areas, and by adjusting to the needs of the community as they arise. In 1999, when Go West first began, it was solely operated on student fees with one route and a fleet of three buses to serve the university. The first year ridership was approximately 1,200. By 2014, it reached over two million rides annually, and encompassed routes throughout the entire community. Much of the growth was made possible due to the addition of state and federal funding for operations, and for the purchase of additional buses, but it also could not have been achieved without a determined staff and leadership.
Julie Briner recently accepted the position of transportation manager for MSW Projects of Henry. Julie grew up in Henry and graduated from Henry-Senachwine High School.
Julie was hired in October 2007 as a driver and in 2010 she also accepted the position of outreach manager in addition to her driving responsibilities. She slowly moved up the ladder and now oversees transportation and operations.
In Julie’s spare time she enjoys counted cross stitching, working in the yard, and spending time with her grandson Dawson. Julie resides in Henry with her rescue dog Wilbur.
Traci Dowell recently accepted the position of executive director for MSW Projects of Henry, which provides transportation for Marshall and Stark Counties. Traci grew up in Henry and graduated from Henry-Senachwine High School. After high school, she attended Illinois Central College, graduating with an Associate’s Degree in Business Management.
In 2007, Traci started at MSW Projects as the Henry nutrition site manager. A few years later, Traci took on additional duties as the nutrition program assistant. Traci continues managing the Henry nutrition site, which she loves so much it doesn’t feel like a job.
In her spare time, Traci enjoys working in her many flower and hosta gardens, hiking, being outdoors, and spending time with her family. Traci resides in Henry with her husband Scott and dog, Charlie Girl.
Jill Jones recently was promoted to executive director of Bond County Senior Center in Greenville. Bond County Senior Center operates Bond County Transit. Jill has been with the senior center for six years as the financial officer. She is originally from the area, having been born and raised in Keyesport, which is less than 20 miles from Greenville.
After high school Jill began working as an accounting assistant at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Through her career she has worked with a credit union, an IT firm, and an electrical distributor before working for another ten years at Washington University. During that time she worked in the payroll and human resources department for the Business Services Organization in the Department of Surgery. Her job provided payroll and human resources services for ten divisions in surgery, the department of Ob/Gyn, and Siteman Cancer Center. After four years she transferred to the Eric P. Newman Education Center within Washington University as their financial assistant. She was responsible for all areas of finance in this position, which allowed her to learn about catering, hosting, audio visual, and general events planning. Eventually she transferred to the department of Internal Medicine, receiving a promotion to financial assistant II. She assisted seven financial analysts in the largest department in the School of Medicine. She learned indirect cost allocations, direct cost allocations, and many other skills in this position. After three years, she took a position with Siteman Cancer Center as financial analyst for their clinical trials division.
Eventually, having driven over an hour and a half to St. Louis each way every day for ten years, she decided to try to find something close to home. When she interviewed with Anna Oestreich for a part-time receptionist job at Bond County Senior Center, she didn’t know what to expect. It would turn out to be full-time and provide an extremely fulfilling and challenging career. Jill says, “I was very impressed by Anna and wanted to soak up as much knowledge as I could from her. Her heart knows no bounds and she is a wonder to be around. I appreciate having the opportunity to learn from her.”
Jill has a significant other of seven years, Brock, and 18 year old son Darren, who gives her the greatest joy of her life. She and Brock enjoy hunting and fishing together, as well as many other outdoor activities. She is an avid book reader and loves meeting people. She just purchased her first home last year in northern Bond County and looks forward to gardening, canning and landscaping.
Susan Love recently accepted the position of director for Central Illinois Public Transit Program (CIPT). Susan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and Organizational Leadership from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois and a Master of Science degree in Technology with a focus in Training and Development from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.
Previously, Susan was the executive director for Camp New Hope, Lake Mattoon, a year round recreational facility serving the Developmentally Disabled.
Susan resides in Mattoon, Illinois. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and is actively involved in dog rescue and fostering.