Great profile of our new boss in Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman:
WATSON CLIMBS ABOARD
New chief taking the helm at area’s transit agency hopes to schedule an image U-turn
Watson: First of all, you have bus and rail competing against each other. Second, people don’t understand what it is or how to use it. I’ve had so many people in just the few days I’ve been here ask me, ‘What brings you to Austin?’ And when I tell what I’m going to do, their reaction is somewhere between being impressed and being horrified. ‘You’re going to do what?’ And the second thing they say is, ‘Are you going to run that monorail? Or, that light rail?’ (Light rail, unlike the MetroRail commuter line, generally runs on city streets and has more stops.) People don’t know what it is. So part of it is an educational process. Finally, I think that if light rail had been built first, it would have been a phenomenal success. Commuter rail service is basically just catering to work trips. And you really need both to be successful. It’s kind of like building a freeway with no feeder roads into it.
The agency has made noises about canceling or cutting back express bus service that competes with commuter rail at Leander and Lakeline. Those riders don’t like that because they see the express buses as more convenient. Where do you come down on the question of cutting back express buses?
That’s probably one of those where you have to look at the community values and then make a decision based on that. I would prefer to work with the board on that. There’s a lot of issues to work through.
You have this unique Capital Metro structure with, in theory, two organizations side-by-side (Capital Metro administrative workers and an agency-created entity called StarTran that employs union workers). That creates an odd situation where management and the board have to profess to be uninvolved with the pay and work conditions of two-thirds of the workforce. How important is it to somehow change that?
That’s probably the No. 1 issue that needs to be addressed. You can’t run an organization when you have the largest group of employees unhappy. And it seems to me that’s where we are right now. There’s a division in the organization, and you have to fix that to be effective. It’s got to start with trust and communication. I think that’s broken down, and we’ve got to work very hard to repair that. The service we provide to our customers is dependent on having employees who feel good about where they work, who like coming to work. And that can’t happen if there’s mistrust or unhappiness in the organization.
You know the history of enmity between the union and Capital Metro management. But union leaders, based on what they’ve heard about your Orlando tenure, seem optimistic. Should they be?
They should be. I had a very good relationship with the union in Orlando. We’ve worked very well together. We met frequently and developed good communication and a trust, so we were able to work through issues. I would not expect that to be any different here.
The key labor question is whether to use outside contractors for all of the agencys bus service; currently about half of the routes are handled by workers managed by private contractors, and the other half, those managed by StarTran, are essentially agency employees. A recent Texas Sunset Advisory Commission review of Capital Metro recommended doing that with all routes, which in effect would eliminate StarTran. What is your position on further or wholesale outsourcing of bus operations?
My recommendation would be to have a retreat with the board and with union representatives, and bring in experts from all over the county if necessary. Learn all the issues, the good, the bad. We need to know all the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing so that when we make decisions on this, we know a lot about what the consequences are.
One of the agencys proposed strategies to control costs on paratransit service door-to door service for people with qualifying disabilities is to offer rides only to people living within three-quarters of a mile of a regular bus route, the minimum required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Do you support doing this?
What we did in Orlando, something that I want to look at here, was small neighborhood circulators, buses that provide curb-to-curb service. What we were doing was eliminating regular bus service in many neighborhoods. Then somebody can call as early as two hours in advance and schedule a trip, and the vans would go pick them up and take them anywhere within that zone or to the bus routes (on major streets). Not only was this service much cheaper to operate, but our paratransit ridership went down fairly significantly because more people were taking this service.
Another lingering controversy is over the taxi voucher program used by some clients rather than Capital Metro paratransit vehicles and drivers. Do you support continuing this program?
Sometimes (cabs) can really save you money and do a better job. But that is not always the case. I would want to do an evaluation of that service and see if it’s effective, see if it’s really doing what it needs to be doing. We might want to do more of it. I don’t know at this point.
What is your take on the agency’s arrangement for University of Texas shuttles in which UT covers about 50 percent of the cost?
I’m glad the board ended up doing the two year contract (earlier this summer). That gives us time to look at it and see what else is happening around the country, see if there are other strategies. But I don’t want to get ahead of the board on that because they really looked into that issue.
Do you foresee bringing in anyone from your Orlando team? And do you expect to add anyone to the senior leadership of the agency in the coming months?
I don’t have a plan to bring anybody with me from Orlando. And I want to evaluate the staff we have in place before making any decisions about whether we have the right structure, the right people to move forward.
One persistent criticism of your predecessor, Fred Gilliam, was that he was a poor communicator and that that hurt the agencys stature. What do have in mind to make Capital Metro more of a player in local policymaking?
I enjoy getting out in the community, meeting people, getting to know all the different issues, and working with people to fix things. I’ve found that whether they’re individuals, or groups, or agencies, if you can partner on getting things done and leveraging resources, you can be incredibly successful. And that would be my goal here.
Among the agencys most persistent critics are fiscal conservatives here who believe the agencys priorities and spending are out of whack. Do you see any value in reaching out to people like Jim Skaggs and Gerald Daugherty?
Oh, absolutely. They may be right about some things. When I walked into Orlando, I said we’re going to run it like a business and make good decisions on expenditures. It’s not our money, it’s taxpayers’ money, and we’re going to spend it as efficiently as we can. So I want to hear what they have to say, what their issues and concerns are. I want to hear from everybody.
Its a cliché to refer to Capital Metro as embattled, but thats been true for much of its history. Is that endemic to transit agencies, or do you foresee a way of finally turning around the agencys image?
If I thought it wasn’t possible to turn the agency around, I wouldn’t be there. I saw it happen in Orlando. It’s my goal to do whatever it takes to remove “embattled” as an adjective in front of Capital Metro. I believe it can be done.