Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TriMet and the quest for a Transit Professional (updated)

Update:  The initial reports that Grace Crunican would be named to the TriMet GM post were incorrect--TriMet has in fact named Neil McFarlane, who presently serves as the agency's executive director of capital projects, to the post.   Portions of this post have been edited to reflect the fact.

TriMet, it is now being reported, will on Wednesday named a new General Manager, to replace the departing (and oft-criticized) Fred Hansen.  The selection was an inside hire, capital projects executive director Neil McFarlane.  Such business is on the published agenda for Wednesday's board meeting, and while nothing official has been announcedPreviously, sources had indicated that the new bus boss willwould be one Grace Crunican.  Crunican has lots of experience in transportation administration, having previous gigs as the head of the City of Seattle Transportation Department, and of ODOT prior to that. 

Some, in town, are not happy with the rumored choice--either with the process undertaken to recruit a new GM, nor with the particularrumored choice.  The TriMet board didn't apparently seek outside advice in the hiring process (they are not required to, but the failure to do so is questionable politics); many at Metro, in particular, are annoyed.  And many local transit activists don'tdidn't seem enthralled with the choice of Crunican--whose ouster from Seattle city government was part of the campaign platforms of not one but two mayoral candidates.

At this point in time, I will not take a position on the wisdom of the hire, though I certainly have my doubts about the process.  Some consultation of Metro or the City of Portland, even if courtesy, would have been politically wise.  Instead, I will consider the qualifications for the gig, and what sort of person makes the most sense.


The GM of TriMet--a regional transit agency with a strong operational focus (but some planning responsibilities) and a significant investment in physical infrastructure, requires someone who can do--or delegate--the following.
  • Budgeting and planning
  • Overseeing operations and logistics
  • Dealing with labor (particularly unions) and vendors
  • Represent transit and transit ops in long-range planning activities.
  • Serve as the public face of the agency--especially when the sh*t hits the fan.  (When things go well, the director of TriMet simply doesn't make the news).
  • Interface with Metro, with ODOT, with the city and county governments, with other local transit agencies (C-Tran, SMART, Portland Streetcar), and with the various federal bureaucracies which care about transit and urban planning.
  • Go begging for money from those levels of government--in particular, the feds, with large pots of it to throw around.
  • Defend the agencies tax revenue stream from other rival agencies who might want it, and from transit opponents and tax hawks who might prefer to de-fund TriMet altogether.
That's a lot of things, and only about one or two of the above bullet items fall under the rubric of "operations".  Most of them are political or administrative chores.  There's not really any prepatory position that prepares you for all these roles, which is why delegation is mentioned above.  Unless you hire a director of some other transit agency, or someone who has served in many different roles in their career, anyone you hire is likely to be deficient in one or more of those areas.
The candidate pool for a position such as TriMet GM will generally consist of the following skillsets:
  • Transit operations managers
  • Public administrators (persons with training and experience running government bureacracies, not necessarily transit)
  • Planning, engineering, or urban design professionals
  • Politicians.
  • Occasionally, private-sector managers or executives.
  • Also occasionally, union officials.
Crunican, McFarlane, (and Hansen) both come from the public administration side of things--though Crunican has significant prior experience in public transportation.  McFarlane, of course, is an insider--but one from the administrative and political side of the house.  And this is the source of a common line of criticism concerning both all individuals.  Many critics and observers of the agency believe that TriMet should hire someone whose primary expertise is not in political glad-handing and schmoozing, but someone skilled in the nuts and bolts of running a transit agency.

In other words, a Transit Professional™.

The legendary, mythical Transit Professional

Simply running a transit agency, needless to say, does not make you a "transit professional".  When folks speak of transit pros, they generally mean those who have spent significant time in actual transit operations or engineering.  People who used to work as dispatchers or shop supervisors or as route planners (or possibly even as mechanics or drivers).  Those who know the ins and outs of scheduling, or when to order a new batch of brakes, or who can calculate overtime on the back of their hands.  People who get their hands dirty in the garage, rather than in the backroom.

Many demands for a Transit Professional seem to come from transit workers--and it's no wonder.  It's a common phenomenon in enterprises of all sorts, public and private, that the rank-and-file generally prefer "one of their own" get promoted into leadership positions, rather than seeing outside management professionals (especially those with little practical experience in the activity being managed) being inserted at the top.  Likewise, many well-meaning transit advocates--who interact with the rank and file every morning when they ride the train to work, express the same preference.

The term Transit Professional also suggests a degree of political independence and focus on technical merit.  It seems to be an article of faith for some that while your average bureaucratic hack will readily compromise the agency's mission for political expedience, a true Transit Professional will steadfastly put the agency and its patrons first and foremost every time; will make all decisions based solely on operational merits--politics be damned--and will slay whatever dragons get in the way.  A lack of political or administrative experience among many such professionals, is often considered a plus rather than a minus.

But is hiring a Transit Professional of this sort (either promoting a director of ops from within, or hiring an individual with said experience) really a good idea?

The risks of neophytes.

Getting back to the list of duties above--the majority of the list are political duties.  Interacting with other agencies and their heads.  Schmoozing.  Seeking funding.  Defending turf.  In short, anyone who heads a public agency of any significant size is going to be swimming with sharks--and chances are, the people that a transit head will be interacting with are going to be highly politically astute.  And some of them will be hostile to the transit agency (or covetous of its budget); and a sizable fraction of those will go to great lengths to conceal this intent.  As a result--the job requires political skills.  Some prospects with primary technical experience will have the "street smarts" to navigate these shark-infested waters--but many do not.  The halls of government (and the boardrooms of business) are littered with the remains of failed administrators who were technically proficient but politically clueless.

Of course, there are equally many examples of skilled politicians failing as administrators as well--often due to a lack of knowledge of what they were supposed to be administering.

Does that mean that administration of large organizations is hopeless, unless you can find that rare individual with both technical and managerial chops?

Of course not.  The key--is delegation.

The importance of delegation

Probably one of the most important skills in a manager is knowing his or her limitations, finding subordinates who possess the missing skillsets, and empowering them to do their job.  Oh, and listening to them and taking their advice on their areas of expertise.  Managers who cannot do this, who cannot successfully manage down, are likely to fail--no matter how skilled they are at dealing with peers, customers, and stakeholders.  A transit agency needs a politically skilled representative to be the face of, and advocate for, the agency--and they need someone who knows the nuts and bolts.

However, and this is key:  They don't necessarily need to be the same person.

And therein lies the rub.  Assuming you don't find that rare individual who can do it all; who walks on water when she's not busy parting it; the different leadership functions will probably be vested in different people.  Which brings up another important question:  Which one gets to be the boss?

And here, the answer may disappoint many transit advocates.  It is far easier to delegate operations  than it is to delegate politics.  Many cities nowadays have professional managers to oversee city operations--but they still report to a mayor or council.  Many corporations delegate day-to-day business to a COO--but when this is done, the COO is still subordinate to the guy whose job it is to schmooze with investors, interface with the board, and go out and make big deals with customers.  In the context of a public transit agency--it is easiest if the "transit professional" works for the boss, rather than is the boss.

All this assumes, of course, that the director or GM is competent.  If you have a leader who is more interested in empire-building than in running his organization well, that's a recipe for disaster.  But that's true regardless of who gets put in charge--no organizational structure can compensate for incompetent management.

A good hire?

Is the hire of McFarlane, or the previously reported hire of Crunican, a good idea?  I don't know.  She drew a lot of criticism during her tenure in Seattle--but also had her fair share of defenders.  Much of the criticism concerned the City's poor response to the massive snowstorm that blanketed the northwest in 2008--however, Seattle's books appear to be in far better shape than the organization she is reportedly joining. 

McFarlane was instrumental in much of the capital expansion of the system.  According to TriMet, "he led the development, design and construction of TriMet’s capital facilities, including the Airport, Interstate, I-205 and Portland Mall MAX extensions. From 1991 to 1998, he was TriMet’s Project Control Director for the 18-mile, $963 million Westside light rail project. Before coming to TriMet, McFarlane worked for Metro from November 1986 to February 1991 and helped manage construction for the 500,000 square foot $90 million Oregon Convention Center with landmark twin towers, successful public art program, and cost-effective design" (  His role in these projects may not endear him to many critics of the agency, who would prefer a more back-to-basics, operational focus.

But what ultimately matters to any person in the role is her their competence and her willingness to work with the transit professionals she they will interact with, both within TriMet, and in other agencies such as Metro or ODOT--not her knowledge of bus scheduling.  It's worth noting while Fred Hansen was frequently criticized for not being a transit pro--his biggest failings as TriMet GM were strategic and not operational in nature.  Like many a starry-eyed corporate CEO whose expansion plans lead the firm into bankruptcy, Hansen's plans and vision didn't adequately consider the possibility of a once-in-a-generation recession, leading to the agency's present precarious financial position.  But the busses and trains generally ran on schedule under his tenure; TriMet remains in far better shape than other agencies I could name.  (Muni, anyone?)

At any rate, I wish Ms. CrunicanMr. McFarlane luck in herhis new post, if rumors are indeed correct.  (If The Oregonian is wrong in its reporting, then I wish the same to whoever else is named in her stead.)   SheHe will certainly need it.  (And I wish the Oregonian better luck in its reporting... :)

And so, fellow Portlanders, will we.


  1. Scotty, I think you misread the desire for a "transit professional." This doesn't mean some hack who goes to APTA conventions, schmoozes with the headhunters, works his/her way up from overhead line maintainer to Executive Director of Operations.

    This means someone with a serious understanding of travel behavior and network design. Every day we see stupid proposals that require an informed response. Demands for a flat fare with no transfers. Metro's High Capacity Transit Plan that claims a pure radial system is best for Portland. A City of Portland Streetcar Master Plan that has no basis in fiscal reality.

    Take the experience and knowledge of someone like Jarrett Walker, add some years as a top administrator, add some time in Canada, add a masters degree in urban planning or engineering, and you have close to what TriMet needs.

    Neil McFarlane may well be a smart, collaborative leader capable of working with other jurisdictions at all levels, and able to continue bringing in the federal dollars. He lacks the knowledge and experience of actual transit service planning. The TriMet Board didn't know what they needed, and Fred Hansen never did either, since he was the genius who never took advice from anyone with transit experience. Under the circumstances, TriMet is probably lucky to have gotten who they did, but I sure wish the circumstances were different.

    Incidentally, I know there are people out there who meet my description of the right candidate. Names were suggested to the Board. The suggestions were ignored.

  2. The term "transit professional" probably means a lot of different things to different people, which is why I capitalized it (and even applied a ™ to one instance of it).

    I agree--the proper use for the term is as you describe. And I certainly don't mean to denigrate those folks in any way--I'm a big fan of Jarrett Walker, for instance.

    However, the point of the article is that the job of GM is fundamentally a political job, and you need to have someone with political and administrative skills in the job. Too often you get people who are only good at schmoozing and not good at management--those with poor political skills won't even be considered; and skill at managing is often ignored in the hiring process. And when that happens, it's bad. You seem to be suggesting that Hansen is an example of this ("never took advice from anyone with transit experience")--if that's true, that's a red flag for bad management skill. A good administrator finds competent people s/he can trust and then trusts them; a bad one thinks he or she can do everything by themselves, assuming they care about the gig at all.

    But expert knowledge on transit design and ops is not a substitute for either political or management chops. And disdain for politics will limit a persons' influence. As a practicing SW engineer, I hold much of the office politics at my job in contempt--which probably limits my influence and my opportunities for advancement into the management ranks. However, I'm perfectly happy with that choice and that consequence.

    I'm curious--what names were suggested to the board? If you cannot say here publicly, I understand--but it would be interesting to compare notes.

  3. Scotty, perhaps when we run across each other in person I can fill you in on the rest of what I know about the GM selection process (or at least what some of the input was -- the process itself was totally "opaque" to quote Chris Smith).

    Meanwhile, keep up the thoughtful comments, whether on PortlandTransport or HumanTransit, two blogs that I try to follow.

    --the Anonymous above.

  4. That's OK. Bring Crunican back to ODOT where she respected her staff and was an Outstanding Director! Many of us would welcome her back with open arms. It hasn't been the same without her and many still remember her fondly...


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