Interview: Curtis Stitt on his Tenure at COTA and the State of Public Transit in Columbus
Curtis Stitt’s last day at the helm of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) was September 29th. His five years as President and CEO capped nearly 19 in all at the agency. Columbus Underground sat down with Stitt for a wide-ranging interview just before he left, touching on everything from Smart Columbus, to the recent redesign of the bus network, to the planned downtown transit pass. He also offered up a general assessment of his tenure at COTA and some surprisingly candid thoughts about what he thinks has held Columbus back on the transportation front. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
CU: Do you think the business community in Columbus has been at the table for those conversations as much as they could be?
CS: I think, and this is just my personal opinion, a lot of the business community look at transportation just like many of the individuals do; “I can get around pretty easily today.” But we’ve got to show them, and get them to understand what could be coming, and to get them to understand, we’re thinking about what we’re contributing to the transportation system in the same way that you think about your business — proactively. You’re not waiting to figure out ways to get a better return for your shareholders, you’re working on that, not only based upon what you know today, but on what you project will be happening in your industry.
We need to be able to get the business community to understand that that’s the way we’re thinking as well, and the benefits that will come to their businesses because we have planned proactively to make sure that we have a strong transportation infrastructure, and by that I don’t just mean just roads and highways, I mean rail, bus, BRT, and whatever else the newest emerging technologies will yield as part of that infrastructure of transportation.
CU: How has the redesign of the network gone?
CS: We can tell you about how it’s going, but I don’t think we’ve got enough time with the new system to really know how effective it can be. There are some things that are going to occur for certain when doing this type of redesign. Resistance, simply because people resist change. You also see an initial decline in ridership, historically, in part because we hope we’ve designed a better, more efficient system, where people don’t have to transfer as much. Over a period of time, we’ll see an increase of 10 percent, and we haven’t reached that period of time yet.
But just about everything that we expected we saw. We saw the push back, we knew there were some things we’d have to tweak, and we’ve been tweaking. We adjust our schedules every four months, and we had to do more of that because we were changing so much in our system.
CU: So when you head off into your retirement, whatever you plan to do next, are you going to continue to be a COTA rider?
CS: I will rely on COTA as much as I possibly can. You know, I was a COTA rider long before I came to COTA. I worked Downtown most of the time that I’ve been in Columbus, and so it was easy to meet my needs on public transportation. Will I be coming Downtown as much? Probably not, and I’m not looking for another job.
But really, everywhere I’ve lived I’ve used public transit. As a kid growing up, in for the most part a two-car household, I rode public transit to school every day. When I went to undergrad, the school I happened to go to had a great bus system, and when I needed to, I’d jump on the bus. I went to law school, I found an apartment a block from the bus line that would get me to downtown Cincinnati. So, I relied on public transit and I don’t think that’s going to change — my view of public transit, my comfort level using it, certainly on lots of trips I make I will use it.
CU: Anything else you want to add?
CS: I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to serve this community. I look back over the almost 19 years that I’ve been here at COTA, and, there’s a song that talks about God ordering our steps, I think that’s what’s happened with me. God’s blessed me, and created a path for me to make a contribution.
I’ve had an opportunity to work with some great people here inside COTA, and to connect with people who serve in the C-suites of major businesses in town, and also to connect with the grassroots. And that has allowed me to connect those people at the grassroots end of the spectrum — who sometimes feel they don’t have a voice — with those C-suite folks, with the policy makers, with the elected officials. Sometimes the people who really depend upon COTA feel that their voices aren’t heard by those at the other end of the spectrum.
So I feel that I’ve been given an opportunity to make a small contribution and bring the message of those needs to the ones who are making the decisions. So that’s what it’s been about for me, and I look back now and think, this was not just an honor and a privilege, this was fun. I’ve had a great time and met some great people and had an opportunity to work with some great people.
And, you know they talk about the Columbus way and collaboration and I don’t know that I always bought into it, but as I look back I think, there’s nothing we could have accomplished at COTA but for that collaborative spirit. And I can’t talk about what I’ve done, especially in this last six years, without mentioning my predecessor, Bill Lhota, and giving him honor. Bill Lhota introduced me around to business leaders, in the sense of, this is the guy you need to know…he promoted me and COTA.
So, I really feel blessed to have been in that mix, and for folks who have listened to our message now more than they had before, people who’ve elevated their opinions of public transportation.
I look forward to watching COTA from a different perspective, and I’m praying for its success, because if it’s successful, then I think we will have started down that path of building that transportation system collaboratively, in order to ensure that the quality of life in this community is where it should be…that it’s maintained and improved.
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