In January of 2012, Curtis Stitt was named the new CEO at the Central Ohio Transit Authority. After six months on the job, we had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the current state of public transit services in Columbus, and what Stitt has in mind for the future of the region.
Walker Evans: First things first, can you tell us a bit about your background at COTA?
Curtis Stitt: I started at COTA on January 11, 1999. My first day at COTA was also Governor Bob Taft’s first Monday in office… I think he had been sworn in over that weekend. I started as Legislative Counsel and I handled all of the governmental affairs related matters for COTA. I worked in the legal division for a number of years. In 2004 I was moved to the Business Development Division, which housed all of the external communications operations, so it made sense for a governmental affairs person to be in that position. Then when Bill Lhota came on, he thought the governmental affairs person should report directly to him. So I moved from one building to another, and then back.
On February 10, 2005, I began in a new role as General Counsel, on an interim basis. About four or five weeks after that, it became a permanent basis. I was General Counsel until March 4, 2011 at which time I became COO. And you know the rest of the story… on February 1st, I became CEO.
WE: I’ve heard people make references to Bill Lhota as the person brought in at a time COTA needed to be turned around. He ‘righted the ship’ so to speak. Do you see your vision for COTA as continuing with some of the policies that he put into place, or do you have a new direction in mind?
CS: Bill’s philosophy for COTA was that ‘we should pursue excellence in everything that we do.’ Some folks around here will laugh, but understand through some of the things he did. He would go out on the weekends, ride his motorcycle, or drive around in his car, and he’d stop and take pictures of COTA facilities and bus shelters. There is a famous, if not infamous, photograph that he took of a bus shelter. Not the whole shelter, just the bottom part of the leg of the shelter where there’s a flange parallel to the ground and the bolt that secured the shelter at that leg was not driven perpendicular to the ground. It was slanted. And he takes this picture, among others that weekend, and he brings it back on Monday morning to the leadership team and he says, ‘This reflects COTA’s image in our community.’
It was just a little thing. But, you’ve got to pay attention to the details if you want to achieve excellence. Certainly, that approach to things has got to continue. If we lose sight of that, we might find ourselves in a position where we spiral down and, worst case scenario, we’ll be back in 2006 when we hit rock bottom. But we’ve got to continue to pay attention to the details. In 2004, when Bill came in, we had two more years of decline. In trying to get the budget balanced, we had to cut more service and we had to lay off more employees. In 2005, we did an administrative reorganization and non-represented employees’ ranks were reorganized. We had incumbents that had to reapply for their current positions, and some of them didn’t get their current position. There were some very hard decisions that had to be made in 2004-2006 to get the budget balanced. And then there was a lot of hard work that took us from 2006 through 2011 and helped COTA to make a come-back, if you will.
We’ve got to continue that level of work. If we don’t, again, we’ll start slipping backwards. So, yes, some of the things have got to continue. They’re basic things, whether we were in a point of decline or not, those same principles, excellence, attention to detail, and focus on the hard work and hard decisions that need to be made to keep the organization moving in the right direction. That’s got to continue, and it will.
We’ve also got to keep our commitment to the community: to grow COTA’s service, and improve COTA’s service. We’ve been doing that, and that’s going to continue. Some people think that if you say you’re going to continue things, that just means business as usual and COTA isn’t going to get any better. But COTA has been getting better over the years, and we project that it will continue to get better.
We’re going to continue to add somewhere between 30,000-60,000 hours of service each year, through 2016, at which point we will have reached a level where we will have to level off our service, because in order to continue to increase the service levels, we’ll have to increase the base on our sales tax level. We now have a .5% sales tax comprised of two separate taxes. One is permanent for a .25%, one is for ten years at .25% and that expires in 2016. So in 2016, we’ll have maximized our capacity by adding service.
What we’ve got to do at that point, is to find ways we can operate more efficiently and convert those cost savings to more service on the street.
WE: Is that sales tax a city-wide or county-wide tax?
CS: COTA is a political subdivision of the state of Ohio and as such, our board has its own authority to levy a sales tax. Once the Board levies the tax, the next step is to put that tax on the ballot for approval. The county, I think, can levy a sales tax up to a .5%, without approval of the voters. Anything more than that, they have to get approval of the voters.
WE: But what is the boundary area of where that tax is collected?
CS: It is defined by all of Franklin County, and also parts of Union, Delaware, Licking, and Fairfield counties where the cities in Franklin County have extended their boundaries into those counties. For example, Westerville has extended into Delaware County. Columbus has extended into Delaware County, and I think a tiny bit into Fairfield County. Dublin is in Union County and Delaware County. Reynoldsburg has some area in Licking County. Our boundaries, even though they started within Franklin County, grow outside of Franklin County as the cities that are part of COTA’s Charter expand outside of Franklin County.
WE: Gotcha. One thing that Bill Lhota said a few times that stuck with me is that bus riders are divided into two categories: riders of necessity and riders of choice. Riders of necessity being people with limited mobility options. And riders of choice being the people who have cars or bikes, but they choose to ride the bus for other specific reasons. I got the impression that under his leadership, there was a higher emphasis placed on providing services for riders of necessity, and less focus on implementing new changes that would attract riders of choice. For example, many riders of choice would potentially like to swipe a debit card to ride the bus. Which would be a nice upgrade, but the riders of necessity who are already riding probably aren’t going to use that as much. The same applies to smart phone applications or other technological upgrades.
CS: I think that has some accuracy. I don’t agree completely, because we do have both those categories of riders right now, and the ones who like the technology updates will use them. Others that don’t like it -whichever group they’re in- might not like to use it. It may be a difficult transition for them if they’re just not technologically savvy, or just aren’t interested in it. We’ve got to serve both of those groups. I think you can’t neglect one or move to far or get too focused on one group, because then you lose your focus on the other.
Certainly, the riders who need COTA are there. That’s just a fact of life. They need COTA, so they use COTA, and we have got to provide excellent service for them. For the riders who need COTA, we need to make sure that there’s frequency, there are routes that span the day long enough to get people to where they need to go, at the times that they need to get there. Especially third shift workers. That’s a tough one for us because we don’t operate 24 hours a day. Even some second shift workers can get to work on COTA, but can’t get home on COTA. So we’ve got to do more in that regard.
But we’ve also got to recognize that if we’re going to continue to increase ridership, we’ve got to look where the new markets are. Who isn’t riding, and why aren’t they riding, and try to attract those folks as well.
WE: There’s a growing demand for new transit routes that reach out into to suburban neighborhoods and have destinations at suburban office parks and job centers. Is COTA’s role to respond to how suburban development patterns change over time, or to be more of a tool used enhance the livability of inner-city neighborhoods that are already dense and urban by design, and therefore easier to serve by transit?
CS: The way you asked that question – ‘responding to development’- that’s one of the issues that we grapple with. Oftentimes, developers, especially in the outlying suburban areas, don’t focus on the public transit needs of their development. They build something new and they configure in a way that isn’t conducive to public transit. We then often find that the developers come back to us and say, ‘we need employees to get to our new development and we can’t get them there.’ I think the big thing that we need to focus on as a community, is how do we look at our development regulations and incorporate some required public transit considerations so that when development is occurring, the accommodation of public transit has to be considered.
Often, we say, ‘you’ve got to have X number of parking spaces if you’re going to development of this type.’ Well, why don’t we allow fewer parking spaces if developers can provide certain transit amenities and make the development transit friendly? There is little of that in our local municipalities’ development regulations. Our planning department has reached out to, and continues to reach out to, the City of Columbus, Franklin County, and all of the suburban municipalities, trying to get them to incorporate and to work with them directly. They know what development is going to be occurring in their cities and we work with them, even though there aren’t regulations that require them to do so.
And how do we deal with it in the older communities? We continue to serve them. Sometimes the decline in population leaves behind the people who are more likely transit dependent. People who can afford to move elsewhere do, and oftentimes it’s people who are committed to the neighborhoods regardless of their means and the people who just don’t have a choice, just like the choice riders and the riders of necessity. We’ve got people who remain in neighborhoods by choice and by necessity. We still want to serve all of those people and continue to serve them.
WE: Another big trend right now is the changes emerging through several generational demographics. The aging baby boomers are wanting to downsize and are changing their needs, and also the Millennial generation are leaning toward living in smaller spaces, and using more public transportation. How do you see COTA serving both of those generations?
CS: On the younger end of the spectrum… in Columbus we talk about our greatest resource being our young people. We do find that young people are more likely to use transit. They want to use public transit because of the types of places that you’ve just described where they want to live, and because they don’t want to have to have a car. They want to be relatively close to the things they like to do, but sometimes you need transportation to get there because they’re not always in close walking distance. Public transit connects those neighborhoods and gets them to those venues around town. Those are the folks that I mentioned earlier — they are technologically savvy, and they want to be able to rely on public transit by using their smartphones. They want to be able to go to the bus stop and see bus information in real time — which we’re working on this year and hopefully there will be some things out on the streets later this year. Those are the riders of choice that are part of our target market.
The other demographic you described, the people who moved out to the suburbs for a more kid-friendly environment…
WE: …right. But that demographic is reaching a point in their lives where their kids are grown and moved out, and now they want similar amenities to what their younger counterparts want.
CS: If they’re moving into those neighborhoods, just as you alluded to with your question about development, then we’ve got to understand the demographics and the housing patterns and where people are migrating to and we’ve got to plan to serve those communities. In our long-range plan, we look at those kinds of things. How many more people will be moving Downtown and what should our operation look like Downtown? How do we connect these urban neighborhoods that have become very attractive to people in these demographic groups? Those are the kind of things that we have to be planning for. Not just in how we are going to change service in four months, but how are we going to change service forty months from now.