(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 364: Creating a Better Transit Board

January 6, 2022

This week on the podcast, we’re back at last fall’s virtual Railvolution conference. Former BART GM Grace Crunican moderates a panel discussing the role of board members in transit agencies with Former MBTA board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt and former Houston Metro board member Christof Spieler. They talk about how to deal with board members with opposite ideas, how to help agency staff, and using the budget as a policy document.

To listen to the episode, find the audio on Streetsblog USA or our Libsyn archive.

Grace Crunican (1m 21s):
I’ll be your moderator today. And I’d like to introduce our two panelists Christof Spieler. He is the vice president and director of planning for Hewitt solar’s. He teaches at rice university and he has served on the board of Houston. Metro has done some interesting things there with the Houston Metro team. Also with us is Monica Tibbits Nutt, who is the executive director of the 1 28 business council. He works in transportation planning, urban design and equity, and she’s just stepping down as a member of the Massachusetts department of transportation, board of directors. So we have some very experienced people with us, and we’re going to start off just basically with some questions about the board board’s role and membership.

Grace Crunican (2m 2s):
And I want to just tip it to you, Monica, maybe just to talk about what you think the role is of a board in and give us some experience in making public policy decisions.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (2m 14s):
Well, serving on the MBTA board of directors and serving on the department of transportation for Massachusetts, both of those boards was very unusual. The MBTA board, there were only five of us. Each of us were appointed by the governor as subject matter experts. And since we are meeting three to four times a month to make it to where he, all five of us would actually be able to have input. We kind of had all of our separate areas and then each board member would go through work with those departments, work on those projects and share it with the other four members. Having that many board meetings made it very difficult for staff and made it very difficult for the general manager. And while I think we heard from the public, we heard from different constituent groups, different municipalities that they really enjoyed it because they were able to keep up with the very, I mean, quite honestly, down to very detailed daily minutiae, they were able to understand how the agency worked.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (3m 11s):
And I think the place at the MBTA was in, at the beginning of that particular board six years ago was a place where we were having a lot of delays. We were having incidents on the system and I think for the public that was needed after six years, there is a shift and there’s going to be a new board because I think that board was perfect for that time. But now that we’ve come through that, and now that we’ve have all these lessons learned, it’s not a time to transition to a different type of governance structure. And so I’m looking forward to that. I think it is much more sensitive to the staff and the general manager. And I think with them only meeting once a month, it actually gives staffing agency time to do the job before the board has to wait.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (3m 58s):
And so it is, it’s like you’re not as involved in the daily workings. And I think that that is incredibly important. Once you get through kind of whatever crises you’re doing, which is how our board, the six, the five number six year board was created was out of the crisis of being hit by two snow storms in 2015, where the system came to a standstill. So I think those are kind of the differences for us and how the boards were structured.

Grace Crunican (4m 25s):
So w I’m going to get to Christophe in just a minute, but if you think, if you hadn’t had that transparency problem, or you said people wanted to climb in and get to every level of detail, if you hadn’t had that problem, is that the level you think that you should be working at?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (4m 40s):
No. If we did not, if the agency wasn’t in the position that it was in 2015, the five of us wouldn’t have needed to exist in the way that we did. But like I said, it was a time period. And then we were to go away, go away. And so I think the way we weighed in, on policy worked at that time, but I don’t think that that is a durable way to govern any agency. No

Grace Crunican (5m 3s):
Kidding. It sounds horrible to me, but

Christof Spieler (5m 7s):
Yeah, no, and it’s funny because my own board experience also started with a different kind of it’s Houston. It wasn’t a snowstorm crisis, but we had a moment where the, the agency had lost a lot of trust with a pop like new mayor came in, knew they wanted to replace the general manager, put in board in place. And we have this immediate sort of, there was a perception of crisis around the agency. There was a perception of scandal around the agency. There was a perception that the agency had needed to rebuild relationships and needed to rebuild financially, including the fact that we were had started construction on a set of rail lines that were based on FTA funding without having a federal funding agreement in place.

Christof Spieler (5m 50s):
So we were effectively had a project that we couldn’t complete without federal dollars. And the feds had not actually to giving us those dollars. So there was this, and mind you a buy America investigation around the procurement of the some new rail cars. So there was this like true crisis moment that we came into. And then I think that ended up setting some of the tone of the board. And I think like you can really see how different boards have different tones. And part of the way it came to think about is I think there’s a couple of things. A board does. One is a sort of financial oversight and accountability function. This is why boards approve contracts. This is why boards approve annual budgets.

Christof Spieler (6m 33s):
And sometimes that ends up being the dominant function for awhile, depending on how well run the agency is perceived as being, I think the second function, which is, I think often not given nearly enough weight is a board as a place to really hammer out policy. I think a board is a place where a transit agency can have discussions that are better had in public and can take advantage of the fact that board members can say things that staff can to that, that if you leverage that dynamic well, you can have really meaningful policy discussions at a board level in a way that the staff by themselves could not do them.

Christof Spieler (7m 13s):
And finally, I think a board is a kind of conduit between an agency and the public. A board is somebody who stakeholders can tem to as a way of accessing the agency board members can be ambassadors of the agencies to the public, again, in a way that the staff is. And I think we often will, first of all, different boards are different in that balance. But I also think we often get the balance wrong. When I look at boards, I’ve worked with, when I look at board agendas, I dealt with feel like boards tend to often spend way too much time on routine issues and often fairly minuscule issues while not spending nearly enough time on the big questions that, that trains at agencies confronting.

Christof Spieler (7m 57s):
I’m really having those big picture policy discussions.

Grace Crunican (8m 1s):
So let’s, I think of the budget as a policy document in a lot of ways is, is the budget one of those things you think they spend too much time on

Christof Spieler (8m 11s):
It? Now it depends how you’re talking about a budget. And I think this is something that Houston Metro got a lot better out in my time on the board. But do you actually present a budget as a policy document or do you present a budget as a spreadsheet? And what kind of discussion are you going to have around that budget? You can spend hours talking about a budget without ever talking about the underlying policy things you just raised, which goes to the point of both the staff and the board have a responsibility in how they frame these discussions. If you start a staff’s budget presentation to the board, by simply running down the numbers, here’s our dollars of assets.

Christof Spieler (8m 53s):
And here’s how that changed the last year. And here’s our divided in capital operating. Then you, aren’t going to have a policy discussion. You’re going to have a discussion about why did this item go up by $2 million? If instead you say, here are our big priorities as an agency. This is how we decided on those priorities. This is how the budget reflects those priorities. Then you’re going to end up having a policy.

Grace Crunican (9m 17s):
And you’re both in agreement that the policy is where the board’s attention should spend. That’s, that’s what you should be focused on.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (9m 26s):
Depends on the board. You know, we recalled the fiscal and management control board. And so for us, the financials were really, really big part of what we did. But like I said, we’re a very unusual board. And I agree with Christophe a lot of the time when it comes to the financials, depending on the board, but for us spreadsheets, that’s all, it was, it was spreadsheets, revenue where I lost is where thinking about all of that. And then the policy discussions were completely separate. And I do consider a budget as a strategic plan, but the way it was set up at the agency and this way it’s still set up does not reflect that.

Grace Crunican (10m 2s):
All right. Let’s, let’s get into some substance and see how you handle this. We’ve talked a little bit about at revolution about the role of transit in equity, the issues of equity and who we serve. And we are certainly at the heart of a community. When you think about your housing and how you get to work and how you get to school and stuff like that, housing and transportation, those are two key parts of your life. That can be a real time and money suck. If you don’t have a, you’re not well put together in terms of housing and transportation. So how do you see the role of a board of transit agencies in that discussion and what is it you think we can do at the local level to help address the issues of equity and the relationship with housing, which I think is very much tied in transit too.

Grace Crunican (10m 45s):
That’s my assumption. Maybe you’d like to disagree with that to transit.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (10m 49s):
Yeah. I mean, I think transit boards need to play a really big part in this. I think unfortunately, when you’re talking about agencies and honestly, when you’re talking a lot about our industry only more recently have we started talking about equity. And I think a lot of that came out from the social protests throughout the United States. But prior to that, there has not been a conversation in transit about equity, unless it was coming from outside of the agency. And so I think with the board, depending on the board, but for me, it was pushing that pushing, moving beyond our diversity and equity initiatives, moving beyond just reporting the statistics about how many people of color were at the agency, but actually having the discussion about the failures internally so that we can actually start addressing the failures externally because anyone that works in our industry knows every time we build a rail line, we displace people every single time we build an extension.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (11m 44s):
You take, you know, communities that as middle income, you were able to actually buy a house, put your kids in a great public school. The second you start putting in those rail lines and you’re talking $750,000 studios. So everywhere you go to try and improve transit, you’re displacing everyone that you were planning on serving. And so not only does it make no sense, but you’re just throwing money out there under the guise of improving service while actually making the quality of people’s lives worse. And I think that transit housing link is not discussed enough and it is not planned for, because if you’re not thinking about these things, you can’t talk about transit oriented development.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (12m 25s):
You can’t take on the zoning issues that keep a lot of these transit-oriented developments from happening. It avoids all of the really hard stuff while saying the equity matters. And so I do think we have to move on Jesse’s initiatives, just writing mission statements and actually start making a difference within the industry as a whole

Grace Crunican (12m 46s):
Christophe. I’m not going to say I’ve subscribed to everything. Monica says is absolutes that every project has done this, but let’s say it does for now. And I want to make sure you guys get to the role the board plays. And then you can get to some of those details as to how you do that. Because Monica you’re on the board, Chris stuff, you’re on the board. I mean, you were happy you walk them in board members, get involved and get these issues before detailed.

Christof Spieler (13m 10s):
Well, I mean a couple, a couple things there. First of all, when we’re building a transit project, we should actually have an explicit discussion about what is our goal of this project. Like, like I feel like way too often, capital projects are presented as concrete. Like we are building 10 more miles of rail. We are building a new transit center rather than talking about what is the purpose of this transit center? Why did we decide to spend money in this particular space and what is our belief and how this will improve people’s lives? And if we have that discussion, it can often lead to us making much better decisions around the project. And some of those decisions are going to go out of outside of what an agency is usually comfortable with.

Christof Spieler (13m 53s):
Like agencies know how to pour concrete agencies know how to schedule bus service agencies don’t know how to do affordable housing policy, but we’ve got no choice. We have to think about those issues. And we have to think about issues that go beyond sort of the organizational footprint of the agency, which means we got to work with other agencies, which gets really hard. Okay.

Grace Crunican (14m 12s):
For just a minute. Do you have, when you were at Houston Metro, did you pass an affordable housing policy?

Christof Spieler (14m 18s):
Well, we didn’t Dan. I mean, that was one of the true frustrations. And using that, I’ll say the issues in Houston are somewhat different. This is something which is different by Metro area, Houston, isn’t in the same kind of housing crisis that a lot of the rest of the country up, but it’s sort of sneaking up on us, I would say in Houston too, historically, nobody was really having housing discussions, the city and the county weren’t either. And that’s really been a new thing, not just over the last couple of years, those discussions have started boiling to the surface and you’re starting to see sort of the transit agency engaged, but it’s tough too, because you have to realize a lot of the political dynamics here. I mean, we all know how contentious housing policies.

Christof Spieler (14m 59s):
I mean, a lot of what’s happening in this country is we’re trying to use transit agencies to solve housing problems. I mean the San Francisco bay, area’s all about not building housing in the right places and then expecting transit systems to adjust to the fact that people are moving further and further away from the core, because the core has become utterly unaffordable because the people who live there won’t allow more housing to be built there.

Grace Crunican (15m 21s):
I do want to Bart did have an affordable housing policy. I mean, we at 30% and anything at the stations where we’re required at 3%, we put the RFPs out in that fashion. We made sure it was a requirement. And I think they are trying to, we were trying to retrofit Bart anyway. And that was part of my discussion with Monica. I think that there is a way to tie your housing requirements to the project you’re about to put out there. I think that’s, I didn’t go into details about the issues, but at MBTA that you have, you do have an affordable housing policy at the T. No,

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (15m 54s):
No we don’t. And a lot of staff has spent a long time working with the department of transportation, working with the municipalities to try and move something like that forward. But here in Massachusetts, our intercore communities, even outside of that, you’re talking communities that minimum housing prices are approaching a million dollars. And so we are at a crisis and we have been for a very long time. And our transit agency is not responding to that through projects like the bus network redesign through projects like the rail vision at the agency, they are trying to address that. But until there’s some sort of connection, the land use varies by every municipality. The MBTA serves 182 minutes of palette is so you can see how difficult that is and doing the transit oriented development really is the only way to try to affect that housing policy from within the

Grace Crunican (16m 47s):
Well, so let’s, let’s follow that because both of you have been involved at changing the bus service that’s provided in order to make sure that it better serves the people that are transit dependent. Is that not correct? Yes. So you took a policy you’re on the board, you’ve got a particular philosophy and you’re trying to change the policy to address the equity issue. What steps did you take? You’ve got, let’s say we’ve got thousands of board members watching this broadcast and they’re trying to figure out how they can implement change. So we’ll use this as the example, how did you do it? How’d you go about doing it? So

Christof Spieler (17m 17s):
Step number one is actually change what we’re talking about. Put something on the agenda. I think our bus network as a whole, and in particular, the structure of the network, the actual route structure were something that had been taken for granted forever. Metro was instilled is really good at operating buses. The ops people were great, but essentially the, the bus system itself was never really a topic for discussion. So number one, job, as a board member board members should be setting the agenda just like general manager should be setting the agenda for the agenda

Grace Crunican (17m 51s):
To be talking about how do you get on the jacket? And I mean, figuratively, it’s nice, but literally a bar you have to have, if the general manager and the president don’t want to put it on the agenda and you’re a board member, that’s not the president that year. You have to get three other votes to do it, or you got to get the general manager or the board person, how do you get it on it? Did you just raise the issue and say, I’d like this item on? And everyone said, oh yeah, let’s go.

Christof Spieler (18m 15s):
You’re right. I was talking about sort of the metaphorical agenda. So what did I do? Number one, be the voice out there in the community. Talk to people out there about how do we make transit, better get local advocates, get community groups interested in these issues. And way before we actually started a formal process of bus network redesign I and others were out there in the community talking about why we thought this was necessary. So

Grace Crunican (18m 41s):
Where you doing it without the general managers or the, or the agencies knowledge, you need to go to community meetings or so you’ve got to continue going.

Christof Spieler (18m 50s):
I wasn’t hiding it from them, but I was also, I was at meetings and I would say I’m one vote out of nine. I am not speaking for the agency. And I would be very clear that I was not speaking for the agency. And I think that’s actually a powerful thing a board member can do. The next thing I did really at the same time is talk to the staff and, and, you know, go, go through the CEO to have those meetings, or really talked to the staff about what do we need to? Well, what I discovered is a lot of the best ideas were already there. They’ve already circulated at the level of the planning and scheduling department. They just hadn’t bubbled up. And I realized that part of my job as a board member was to help those issues bubble up. And then the other thing is, I mean, the most powerful thing a board member can do in a lot of ways isn’t vote, it’s ask questions.

Christof Spieler (19m 34s):
And that includes both in those private meetings, but it includes at the board and what meeting do, what questions do you ask on each item that’s on the agenda. And if they brief you on this is what this month’s bus ridership was start digging into that have that discussion. And I discovered really quickly that like literally sitting at the horseshoe with a microphone in front of me was one of the most useful things I could do. Just what we talked about at that Porsche ended up shaping agency discussion. So a lot of times it wasn’t far. Yeah, literally that big table that we’re sitting at and that we were live streaming and that the media was watching.

Grace Crunican (20m 11s):
So just to summarize, before we pivot you, you got to constituency from the outside, you started going to neighborhood groups or local community meetings of some kind. You talk to the staff with the general manager, you know, the staff can find the idea. And then at the podium, when the budget came up, you asked your question. When the, this other topic came up, you ask your questions to kind of get the issue out on the table or those three steps you take

Christof Spieler (20m 35s):
Finally important steps.

Grace Crunican (20m 37s):
Monica, how about you?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (20m 39s):
Our board set the agenda. The general manager would put things on if we need to vote on contracts or he needed specific feedback on something, but every single all five Lewis weight. And we look at the schedule and this was in public. And I would be like, okay, I want presentations on this project, this project, this project. And then it would go onto the agenda. And usually it was raising that, talking to the staff to see when do you have time to be able to make this presentation and going from there, in addition to what Krista said, going out into the public, talking to our elected officials, we also took in a lot of feedback. So I would get emails from groups. They get emails from individuals, tweets, all of these different things, and I would go through it and I would work with the staff to if I had questions to answer it.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (21m 23s):
And then the same thing was staff. They could reach out, listen, we’re working on this project. We need to get before the board. And then I would just put them before the board. So it was a lot of different interactions in many different channels that set what we thought was important to discuss in public with that appropriate step.

Grace Crunican (21m 41s):
So, so in Houston, Houston goes, you know, from New York to California, it’s a very big city, like a broad, broad geographic area in Bart. We had, I think 33 different could be 33 different jurisdictions when you count the cities and the counties, when you’re trying to deal with equity and Monica noted this earlier, you’ve got to deal with the cities and the, the jurisdictions you municipalities that you run through. And the land use policies of those areas. And some of those cities and municipalities have policies that say gay, affordable housing. We’re going to put you here. This is how we’re going to address it. And some of them have policies that don’t say we don’t want you, but that’s what they say, that we don’t want you here.

Grace Crunican (22m 24s):
And if you’re, if you need affordable housing, please go outside. I won’t even name the cities, but so you have two different kind of, there’s lots of, of jurisdictions that the T runs through. But as you w whose role is it to talk to the mayor and the, and the county head of the municipality and the counties to talk about these issues? Because we had in California, as I said, 33 different jurisdictions, I think Bart ran through whose job was at the board members to staff. You try and make a stand and get three or four areas to address it. Or you trying to do uniform policies. Do you appeal to the governor? What do you do as a board member?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (23m 5s):
I mean, I think as a board member appealing to leadership at the agency, working with them to figure out how they’re communicating with the municipalities, being responsive to the municipalities who reach out directly, and then trying to put together some suggestions, which for here in Massachusetts, goes to the legislature because the board was legislatively mandated and to the administration, through the secretary of transportation. So there are many different ways we had to do it. But I think once again, we’re in a very unique situation here in Massachusetts, where none of the inner core communities want to build any housing, much less affordable housing. So it’s already a contentious from the beginning.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (23m 47s):
And that relationship structure changed depending on the project and which communities it was going to be in. When you’re talking about the marginalized groups, a lot of the time, it’s the board working directly with those people or individual staff members working directly with those neighborhoods. And then for the board and staff, it’s then bringing it back to the agency to start having more of these discussions about more specific communities.

Grace Crunican (24m 10s):
Let’s go back a step. We’ve been talking now about the affordable housing and trying to get new. And, and that’s what new projects to a large extent, if you’re going to put a new line someplace, making sure you’ve got them at the stations is important. But the two interesting, the interesting thing that the two of you did was you changed the bus structure. You changed the bus structure to respond to where the people are. It’s my understanding, at least in Houston, when COVID hit, there was actually still an increase in ridership and those areas that were transit dependent, and you had put friends that there to stay. Am I right on that? Kristoff?

Christof Spieler (24m 42s):
Yeah. I mean, we, we, we saw the same thing we saw in Houston in we saw across the country, which is a lot of the routes that people really depended on for all of their daily trips, not the nine to five white collar commute routes, but those routes, the ridership stayed. And we really, again, it’s sort of, we had the discussion about what are we trying to accomplish with this bus network redesign? And one of the things we really focused on was we are trying to make current transit writer’s trips better. And I think that was, again, something really important to articulate. It was one of those things where part of your job as a board is for people to actually believe that that, that you need to have that credibility in the community.

Christof Spieler (25m 27s):
That when you say this is why we’re doing what we’re doing, they actually believe that that’s your actual motivation. And again, I think that’s part of the reason for having these discussions. And it’s part of the reason for board members being vocal parts of them. I think what the earlier discussion triggered in me too, is, is part of what a good board can do is actually be a sort of backbone to the staff that what I see all too often is a dynamic where a board wants something in principle. We want affordable housing to our stations and they tell the staff, we want affordable housing next to our stations. And the staff prepares a proposal does exactly that proposal goes out there. And the local city council members got upset like this is too dense.

Christof Spieler (26m 9s):
And then the board turns around and immediately looks at the staff and said, what were you idiots doing? Putting this proposal out there. It’s really important as board members to actually be consistent about that. So like part of the dealing with municipalities is actually the board and the staff sitting down and saying, here are the principles of how we are going to deal with these issues. Here are how we are going to respond and for the board to make it clear to the staff that we will actually back you up. If you follow these principles, we aren’t going to back down. We aren’t going to leave you standing on the plank out by, we are going to back you up. If you, if you follow through on the policies we’ve discussed, and if you approach these issues the way we’ve discussed them.

Christof Spieler (26m 51s):
And I think that’s an incredibly valuable thing, because I think board members often have the ability to sort of push back in a way that the staff

Grace Crunican (27m 2s):
Absolutely. I think you started this whole thing by, by the premise of the policy though. And I think that’s, what’s really important for board members that are out there. If you’ve got adopted board policies that makes it easier for the staff to follow and make tough decisions. And then you’re exactly right when people come around. So then question, Hey, wait a minute. That means we’re going to have this or that happened at this station. And they sparked a question and then you’ve got some board members to stand up and say, no, no, no, we need to take some of that heat. This was part of their overall policy. We aired the policies. We had that discussion in public. And now we’re implementing

Christof Spieler (27m 37s):
Like one of the things that really the protests after a murder or George Floyd, watching that play out and watching the discussion play out. I think one, the, like there are some really difficult discussions we have to have that are going to be really uncomfortable for people. Like I am deeply convinced that a lot of the current structure of the transit industry of the systems we operate of the agencies we are in is based on racism, not in a way that the current people who are the current stewards of those agencies are deliberately being racist. But even the way governance patterns performed, you look at Atlanta and ask which counties are in Marta and which aren’t the way station locations were chosen. You know, the Bart planners in the 1970s, why did they not put a station in the densest part of Oakland?

Christof Spieler (28m 22s):
Like there’s, we know that we know those motivations and we’ve sort of inherited systems that are full of that. And we are never going to get better unless we are willing to take that on head-on to actually have honest discussions about this is the truth of the systems we have. This is the truth of the policies we have been following up, even little things like, you know, what are the standards for bus stops compared to rail stations and say, we have gotten this wrong and we need to do this better and be ready to take that pushback. I mean, be ready that when that pushback comes on, oh, that housing is too dense that you are proposing in your station.

Christof Spieler (29m 3s):
You ready to give, like, why are you against low income housing? And, and to actually be willing to have honest discussions about the inequity is in our world, rather than pretending they don’t exist, or rather than trying to have a polite discussion around them. And again, that’s something that board members can do. That’s something that board members can play a really powerful role in. And something that staff by themselves are often in a much more difficult position to do.

Grace Crunican (29m 28s):
So let’s talk about where the board members come from in the first place, because if you’re going to have that discussion, you’re feeling empowered to do that. How did you get on the board at Houston? Metro? How did you get the appointment?

Christof Spieler (29m 39s):
Yeah, so, so I was a mayoral appointment and this is a digital, really important discussion of how do people end up on boards? I was at my oral appointment. I was unusual as a, my oral appointment in two ways. One is I got on the board, not really by being politically connected, but by being in the transit advocacy world, I literally wrote a blog about transit that led to me being named to a transit board. And we had a mayor and he’s Parker who was a policy wonk herself and appreciated the policy. Wonkiness the second is I got named to the board partially because I was actually a daily transit rider, which doesn’t sound radical, but it is actually on us transit ports, even in places like New York city, you have transport members who don’t ride transit.

Christof Spieler (30m 23s):
And so both of those things may be very unusual as a board member, I would say. And often when you look at boards, you, you see sort of appointments are, you know, European people or political up-and-comers. Here are people who have a relationship with a mayor, those kinds of appointments, and that can make boards really hard. And, and I think a good board is people who number one really care about the agency who don’t see this as a stepping stone to their next thing, but number two, bring a real competency and that doesn’t have to be transit. Like I really appreciated the lawyers on the board. I really appreciate the financial people on the board. When we had discussions about issuing bonds, I was really glad that the financial people were there.

Christof Spieler (31m 4s):
But I actually think that a lot of times that people who appoint boards do not really appreciate how much of a difference they can make with the right board appointments. And I also think that a lot of the people out there in the community who care about transit, don’t really realize that they themselves could be a board member. And that may be something to aspire to. Ultimately, I became a board member because, you know, I emailed a couple of people who I knew were in these discussions and said, this is something I’d be interested in. And I’m really glad I did that. Monica,

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (31m 37s):
How did you get on your board? I don’t know. That’s a question. I think a lot of people are asked after I was appointed. I was appointed by the governor. I had never met the governor before. I was not politically connected. I am a transportation and community planner. So I had been doing a lot of this work. I’d been working with a lot of advocacy groups that I’m working with. A lot of municipalities. I’m trying to make their transportation better working in partnership with our transit agency. But for me, it was really, I know how systems operate. I run a private shuttle service and it’s privately funded available to the public every day. That’s my job. And so I had a lot of this background and quite honestly, I’m also a person of color.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (32m 21s):
I’m a person of color is very upfront about that. And then the same thing, Chris Scott said, the reason I’ve gotten level with the public, I’m a daily transportation user. I use transit every day. I’m a bus rider predominantly. And so I think also bringing that unique perspective because we did not have that on the board.

Grace Crunican (32m 40s):
So your board is appointed, let’s back up. Peter Rogoff, a former FTA administrator is famous for saying, if you’ve seen one transit agency, you’ve seen one transit agency because they’re all very unique. They’ve been designed at different points in time. They’re constructed based on the politics of the area. Some are appointed by the mayor and a couple of county commissioners. Some are appointed by the governor, you know, some, a mix in part they’re directly elected by the public. So there’s, there’s a whole mix that’s out there. Monica, your board is very unique in that all of the appointments are by the governor. Is that correct? Yes. So new governor, new set of appointments, is that correct?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (33m 19s):
Usually here there’s depends on the governor. A lot of times governor will come in and just wipe everything out and start a new board, probably hire a new general manager, but occasionally there are some holdovers and they usually happen to be the ones like Kristoff said around the financials. People will deal with the finance. People will deal with retirement and things like that. They tend to hang over, but for the most part, it changes over.

Grace Crunican (33m 40s):
So he went into some detail about trying to get policy changes and advocating policy changes. So the first thing is your authority to be there. And then it’s also your colleagues and what they’re interested in, in part their geographic representations that are there. Sometimes appointments are made by a professional, but diversity, as you were referencing the lawyers and accountants and that sort of thing. Where do you take the involvement with your policy board members in terms of differences? When you have, if, if, if a governor has come in and appointed everybody, they take some responsibility that they have a specific message, but if not, if there’s competing interests, maybe we’re all county interests in, in urban interests.

Grace Crunican (34m 23s):
Where do you go with that? How do you deal with the, your anti colleagues, the anti your position?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (34m 30s):
I mean, I think for us, there were only five of us and we come from a complete political spectrum. That’s the other thing about the appointments here? Since there are five of us or add to be two Republicans, two Democrats, and one unenrolled. So you have that balance there, geography we’re from all over the Commonwealth. So we had those differences, the big thing for us, we were all very respectful with each other and actually got along well, we had our arguments in public, they were respectful arguments, but we argued those out in front of everyone. So they got to see why I was taking a particular stance. They got to see why my colleague was taking a particular stance. And then between that, we usually just came to some sort of collaboration or some sort of negotiation, but the public got to see all of that.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (35m 13s):
And so I do think it made it much more civil, but I also think we were just dealing with five people who cared enough to dedicate that kind of time. So we didn’t shut down each other’s ideas. We just tend to try and find some mix of what our stance was with the other four members,

Grace Crunican (35m 31s):
Christophe. Yeah. We had

Christof Spieler (35m 32s):
The moments of sort of extreme tug of war. But I think as board members, we realized that in those moments, that was a larger political fight that was playing out on the board, but that was in a lot of ways happening above our heads. And that, that didn’t prevent us from working together on the things that weren’t embroiled in that fight. And, and those moments will always happen on transit boards. And I think there is a basic, like that basic respect matters, but I really want to back up when Monica said too, which is explaining publicly why you are voting the way you do explaining disagreements and actually trying to get at the core of that disagreement, probably the most important vote I ever took on the board was an eight to one vote where I was the one vote against, it was a proposition we were putting on the ballot and I didn’t believe it was worded in a way that was really, you know, fair to the voters.

Christof Spieler (36m 27s):
And the board chair knew I was going to be voting against an advance. I didn’t blindside anybody. And I explained why I voted the way I did. And I left it at that too. I didn’t sort of try to undermine the decision once it got me because of the decision that been made. I think the public appreciates that kind of transparency, that the public realizes that these things are not always going to be unanimous. And if we actually show publicly where the tensions are and why we’re making the decisions, we are, I think there’s a lot of transit agencies are convinced that you Nana most votes are somehow important publicly.

Christof Spieler (37m 7s):
That that looks better for the agency of all the words. I think it looks worse for the agency when I’ve seen agencies that are really dedicated, like I’ve watched New York transit governance and what’s happened in New York, is the decisions all get made way before they come to the board. And when the board is just transparently, like play, acting out the decision after it’s gotten big. And I don’t think the public appreciates that, I think the public actually wants to understand how the decisions are.

Grace Crunican (37m 36s):
So first did the measure passed the one you opposed?

Christof Spieler (37m 39s):
I, it did.

Grace Crunican (37m 40s):
Okay. So the other thing you’re advocating for is civil discourse is people actually having disagreements and taking them in public and actually trying to make government work. Is that a fair summary? Yeah. You want to make the recommendation to Congress? Should we pause for a minute? And everyone can write their congressional let’s let’s, we’ve talked about equity and in the background, equity is also, it’s not just the racial issues, which, which Kristoff noted we should take forward. And certainly that can be brought up again here, but we’ve got at least on the west coast, the issue of homelessness, it affects all races and it, but if you’re talking all the way from Vancouver down to San Diego, we have huge homelessness problems, which is a huge problem for transit agencies.

Grace Crunican (38m 26s):
Whether you force collection of the money at the front of the bus, at the beginning of the, the end of the trip, you have station, you have automatic gates, whatever it is, everyone has a problem with homelessness at the stations underneath the infrastructure, on the cars, in the bus itself as transit board members. You’ve, you’ve seen some of that. What recommendations do you have on how to approach that? And what recommendations do you think transit agency, or what steps should they take to try and get that discussion on the table and get at some solutions?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (38m 55s):
I mean, I think having the discussion independent of safety safety is incredibly important. We’ve had a number of times where operators, station staff have been interactions, particularly with people who had substance abuse problems or were struggling with mental issues, having physical confrontations with the frontline staff, having physical confrontations with passengers. That for the most part, it’s really what I see in a lot of different areas at different agencies. That’s where the discussion of homelessness is that’s kind of where it lives or when talking about okay, in the winter, which stations are going to be allowing homeless people in. We have really nasty weather here.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (39m 36s):
So that plays out a lot here. But as far as having any discussions about how can we better this serving the populations, how can we work with the homeless community to provide better services? How can we work with social workers around providing more transit services for that population, those discussions aren’t had. And I think as long as we continue to have these discussions in just that safety standpoint and really safety, not for the homeless population, but just safety for everyone else, we’re not going to be able to actually address any of these issues. And we play a massive part in this because every social issue is on our transit systems and it’s amplified on our transit systems, but I don’t see our industry taking on homelessness at all.

Christof Spieler (40m 18s):
Yeah, no. And I think fundamentally the people most affected by homelessness are the homeless and fundamentally the solution to homelessness is housing, which means we have an issue here, which goes beyond what transit agents use can do. And again, that goes to one thing board members can do, which is be involved in these larger policy discussions. I think, secondly, your underlining of that safety thing, it’s almost like there’s two kinds of safety discussions we have on transit. One is legitimate safety discussions and there are legitimate safety issues on transit. I mean, we’ve had been in some really good discussions about sexual harassment on transit. And I know that is a very real thing and something that transit agencies need to take much more seriously than they have before.

Christof Spieler (40m 60s):
But sometimes the safety discussions we have is what Dr. Destiny Thomas would call essentially white comfort discussions. Is this an actual safety discussion or is this a question of people not being comfortable being on the same train as people don’t look like them or being on the same buses, people who don’t look like them. And frankly, oftentimes that’s when we’re having a safety discussion, that’s what it is. We’re not talking about actual crime. We’re not talking about actual assaults. We’re talking about, there’s a homeless guy on the bus. They are residents of our cities as much as anyone else. And they have a right to be on the bus as much as anyone else. And what I’ve really appreciated is the agencies that have moved beyond sort of police as a response to homelessness.

Christof Spieler (41m 41s):
In other words, solving the housing problem, is it for where a crime problem to, to dealing with it as, as a, as a social services problem, which it is and transit boards can either be a really productive part of that discussion or transit boards can play into that kind of, this is a crime problem narrative. And I think that’s where board members have to be really careful about which of those discussions they want to have.

Grace Crunican (42m 4s):
I’m going to just play the other side. Not because I particularly believe it, but I want to pull it out for you. Okay. The safety issue, when you talk about white comfort, okay. As an example, I had writers come to me saying, look, I paid up $7 and 50 cents for this ride. And when they did a fair inspection, this gentleman paid nothing. Okay. And he slept on the car and he smelled up the car. And so the rest of us were smushed into these other cars. So this person could sleep 20 miles in on the train from suburbia X. And the issue that’s also starting to brew is let’s have free transit. Okay. Let’s, let’s reduce the transit fares that are out there. So I think there’s some element of white comfort. Just if you said, there’s also some element of when you say that he has a right to be on this car, if someone paid seven 50 and someone else didn’t, we either need to change the policies of the fare system.

Grace Crunican (42m 55s):
So we have a subsidy that we provide for people who don’t have the means to use transit. And we need to provide adequate housing, which the transit agency has, I think, role as a community member, but we don’t have all the solutions in the transit bucket. And it goes back to our earlier discussion of housing itself. In Bart’s case, we have land around the stations. So we started to work with the providers of public housing to see what we could do with them, to provide what, what could the transit agency do to make its contribution, but more often than not. I think all of these problems that we’re dealing with today are problems that don’t fall with any one agency’s ballywick, it’s not just the housing provider. It’s not just the transit agency. It’s not just the other social service providers.

Grace Crunican (43m 37s):
It’s it requires some combination of a solution to figure out, you know, providing fair for folks. If, if you have, if you don’t have free trade zone, how as a board member, can you help cause those discussions? Because if I had the made the contributions, Monica made, it sounded like she gave us her whole life for six years on these six board meetings or four board meetings a month. And all the prep time that goes into that, who has the time who has the responsibility to do that other job of the integration in the,

Christof Spieler (44m 11s):
I mean, ultimately the staff has a lot of responsibility here. Board members have a responsibility to create an agency that has a staff, and that has a culture that can actually work out these issues. I do not want board members figuring out the details of how we do fair enforcement and board members have a role in sort of asking the right questions. And I mean, like one of the things that has always struck me unfair enforcement is if we have fares, it makes sense that we enforce them in some way. Why is it that we treat transit fare enforcement so differently than we treat parking enforcement? You know, we aren’t arresting people for overstaying a parking meter, or if we’re not feeding the meter, I have not seen videos of people wrestled to the ground by armed officers because they failed to pick up parking meter.

Christof Spieler (44m 56s):
And I think, again, why can we treat that differently is because a lot of the fare, a lot of the motivation for how we do fair enforcement on transit, that actually has very little to do with fair enforcement, that larger issues of class and race. And it’s actually using fare enforcement as a way to sort of pre-textual searches and everything else we do. Like it’s actually taking the discussion beyond the obvious discussion that’s in front of us and asking the larger questions in the larger context. And frankly, I think we ought to have a discussion about why we charge transit pairs. As I think one of the most amazing things is if you go around the industry and actually ask people, why do we charge fares? I think a lot of times, there’s no clear reason we can articulate as to why a given transit agency charges fairs.

Christof Spieler (45m 42s):
Now there’s cases like Bart work. They’re a huge part of the budget, which means if we’re going to have a fair, free discussion, we need to have a discussion about what replaces that funding. But even there, I think it’s legitimate to ask the question of what is the purpose of charging transit fare? What are we trying to do by charging that fair? And I don’t know that that discussion necessarily leads us to fair, free transit. Like I tend to think that often the opportunity cost is such that we do low-income fairs and keep other fairs in place and spend that money instead to make service better. That that’s probably a better solution, but I think we should have that discussion. We shouldn’t take for granted. And we should never say we charge fairs because we’ve been charging fares for decades. We should be able to articulate why we actually do that.

Grace Crunican (46m 24s):
I want to get to Monica on this very topic of fair freeze, but I want to inject that on the fair free on the issue of fair, free transit. It’s oftentimes been a justification for those who want to spend no money on transit at all, that we do charge a fair that it was incredibly. I spent some time in my youth, in Washington, DC, doing a cost allocation studies and Virginia’s philosophy is much different than Maryland. So poor Metro Amada has a tough time, had a tough time. I don’t know if they figured it out, figuring out different their structure because in Virginia, the theory was everyone should pay for themselves, pay for the whole ride if they could. And in Maryland, there was this assumed subsidy of some kind. And then the district even greater. What if we, if we were to go to fair free or there not some people nationally that would say this is that this is the social program and we don’t want to pay for it and start disinvesting in transit.

Grace Crunican (47m 15s):
That’s the fear I, I have on that particular topic, but I’ll put that out there. And Monica, why don’t you talk about fear-free transit and anything you’ve done to work that issue and your thoughts on it. So I’m going to back up a little bit on the fare free. I, the

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (47m 30s):
Fair free is just become this thing that we are throwing out there. So we can actually have this real discussion about this because as Christoph said, and I agree with Dr. Destiny, Thomas is this is a white comfort situation here. The largest evaders of the fare are white color people using the commuter rail. And they’re not just avoiding paying a dollar 70 they’re avoiding pain, tens of dollars every time they don’t pay a fair, but no police are going out on the commuter rail and arresting people. Whereas on our subway and bus system, you have police pudding, kids, kids of color in handcuffs for evading a dollar 70 fare, and then being able to tack on additional fines and keep them from getting a driver’s license.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (48m 20s):
So the board stance on that, we went to the legislature with staffing. We undid it because it was a ridiculous thing to have. But I think until there is an ownership of that and going to what Christoph said, actually talking about the data, lots of people have anecdotes about this one time that thing happened, but what does the data actually say? And so in this situation here, we are prioritizing people over other people. And so then I think elected officials and advocacy groups are like, fine. Let’s talk about free fares because we know who’s going to be impacted the most by having to pay less. That is where I see that conversation. I don’t agree necessarily with three fairs. I agree with the reasoning for pushing that forward.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (49m 2s):
I completely agree with it because only certain populations are being punished by this. And if no one can wrap their heads around that, then they are part of the problem.

Christof Spieler (49m 12s):
I would also say, I think part of the reason why for you fairs have become such a big part of the discussion. Is there number one, there’s something that a lot of people intuitively understand. And number two, I think a lot of people in the political world are, are making the assumption that one of the biggest barriers for low income residents using transit is the fair. And I think when transit agencies have actually had those discussions with their riders, the barriers we’re hearing about is frequency. The barriers we’re hearing about is reliability. The barriers we’re hearing about is how close is that service to their house and the quality of the bus stops. And that goes to the point of like, where should we be investing? I think that in most networks, what would really help low income riders is much better service.

Christof Spieler (49m 59s):
Yeah. But it goes to we as a transit agency have failed to articulate that, like the reason why free fairs have caught on to the degree they have is there’s a vacuum out there. And I don’t think the transit industry has actually articulated the alternative, the transit industry. He hasn’t said, here’s what we would do if we had more funding and here’s why it would make people’s lives better.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (50m 23s):
I’d like to put out that, I think part of this discussion, if you’re a transit

Grace Crunican (50m 28s):
And you’ve made it all the way to the general manager, generally speaking, you’ve been in administrative positions before and you’ve dealt with the infrastructure and we now find ourselves maybe since 2015 or so the, the problems of homelessness, I think lately, you know, we’re finally getting to the equity issue, dealing with racial disparity, racial injustice, we’re putting some of those things on the table. And you have a group of professionals that are not trained in the social service area. I saw that in the homeless, when we started in on the homeless problem at Barden say 2016. And so having boards that provide the umbrella discussion, the umbrella policies framework, and as you talked about it, the backstop for the general manager is going to be very helpful.

Grace Crunican (51m 15s):
It also means though that the, the infrastructure people, if you will, the road and transit people have to get into a subject area that they don’t have necessarily the language for the experience-based. I find many of them willing to have the discussion, just not having the tools, if you will, to, to Wade in. And that’s where members of the public who are well positioned, can help on that relationship and provide a broader framework for the discussion. Because in all cases, Christoph, at least you and I’ve seen Monica not on this have come back to the, what is the policy? What is the purpose? And you’ve both said, let’s have an honest discussion about that. If the discussion is white comfort, let’s not talk about their free until we get through the basic of who are we trying to?

Grace Crunican (52m 1s):
Who are you trying to address? So it’s, it’s having that honest discussion as a board member at the table. And it’s, it’s tough to have these discussions as a society, let alone a general manager, who’s worrying about, you know, the aging infrastructure that’s out there and all these other things. So I think there’s a great, there could be a great relationship of help where they’re willing to participate. If there’s some help from the board.

Christof Spieler (52m 23s):
I think one of the thing we actually do wrong a lot is we treat policy issues as if they were technical issues. We treat quality of service issues as if they were infrastructure issues. To me, one of the best examples is actually bus stop standards. Like what should a typical bus stop look like? And I think most bus operating agencies are an imposter that essentially says bus stop is an ADA patent assigned with very little information on the sign. And anything beyond that has to be justified by ridership. You want to shelter, you have to prove you have enough ridership. And that there’s nothing about a bus that technically means that a bus doesn’t need a shelter at every stop. Whereas some of the same agencies, if they were to build a rail stop, they’d always want to shelter.

Christof Spieler (53m 5s):
There that’s a policy decision of should every stop, have a shelter or not. And I wish we had that. I wish we didn’t just start from a standpoint of we’ve, you know, this is our shelter, you know, this is our shelter standard, and this is our technical standard for how you do bus shelters, but rather a standpoint of what do we feel the rider at a bus stop ought to be? And what should the minimum rider experience at a bus stop being? What should we aspire towards? Let’s have that discussion. And that obviously leads into a budget discussion that leads into a technical discussion. But oftentimes we skip that and treat, treat decisions that are about what kind of transit system we want to operate and what kind of system we want to be as if they were technical decisions.

Christof Spieler (53m 47s):
When they’re actually policy.

Grace Crunican (53m 48s):
It also leads into an equity decision because if you take a highly used station and a not so highly used station, and you go for a cleanliness standard, you’re going to spend your time cleaning where there’s more people than you are there. So you’re your equity standard can be cleaned once a month. That’ll be horrid places. It would be adequate for some fairly far out places. The same thing of safety. How safe do you feel at a stop? How safe should you feel at a stop, whose responsibility is it for you to feel safe? And what does that mean? What about the other people that are there? I mean, having those discussions makes it incredibly important to figure out the standards and then you can start to translate as to how we get there, but not being afraid to have the discussion is one thing reserving the time with very busy board members and very busy board meetings is another, is another tough call

Christof Spieler (54m 35s):
Was a question in the chat about what really motivates a transit board into action from a community standpoint and sort of how can the public engage with transit boards, which I thought was a really good question. And I’ll say from my perspective, one of the things that really struck me as a board member is how few members of the public it took to change the discussion that was having at the board table and to put items onto the agenda. I mean, I remember in one case we created a bus around because one public speaker showed up and I think that’s something the public and advocates often underestimate just how little work it can take. I mean, not on the big political issues necessarily.

Christof Spieler (55m 15s):
You want to put a new tax in place. One person at the board won’t do that, but a lot of the policy issues and a lot of the smaller decisions that transit agency makes the public can actually be enormously effective and reaching out to board members and coming to board meetings can be extraordinarily useful tool. Especially if the board actually hears the voice of transit riders.

Grace Crunican (55m 37s):
Monica, did you have people participate at the board or was it a top-down governor says we’re going to do it this way. How, how much could your board listen to the public?

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (55m 45s):
Oh, as much as they wanted to tell us, not only we have people who would come in, people who could send emails, voicemails, they, like I said, they would tweet at us. They would mail us things. And those were all ways that we took in information and we made sure we shared it with other board members. As far as the administration bringing something down, the governor, worked with the secretary. And if the secretary wanted to fight for something, that’s one thing. But when it came to us as a board, we serve the employees and we serve the public. And I think having that frame of mind, especially for me means that I am responsive to each of those writers. So if I’m going the pharmacy and my pharmacist is like, this bus has been delayed for six weeks in a row.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (56m 28s):
Well, now it’s become an issue. And now I’m reaching out to staff to check in with that. But I do. I think me and my fellow board members, we felt a responsibility to serve them.

Grace Crunican (56m 39s):
How about before we go? And we only have a minute left. I want to talk about the relationship between the staff, the employees, the workers, and the, and the board. What responsibility did you have for the employees? You mentioned the Monica. What responsibility do you have for the employees of the agency? You’re a board member to,

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (56m 57s):
I think we had a ton of responsibility. One of the first things I did when I became a board member is I went to every garage. I went to the break room for you, went, I went to lunches and let them just yell at me and tell me everything that we’re doing wrong. And then it became this project where it’s like, we need sofas in the break rooms. We need this in the break rooms. We need all of these things. That was the first thing I did. It was the thing I kept through for all six years, because they are our internal customers and our customer experience department that I started was internal and external. I think it’s a huge responsibility because sometimes especially for certain groups of people, the board may be all they have. They might not have a general manager to listen.

Grace Crunican (57m 39s):

Christof Spieler (57m 40s):
And, and operating a transit system is one of the hardest jobs in the world. The people who are out there driving the buses, the people who are out there maintaining the vehicles every time I got some insight into what it took to do that I was in awe and realized that I myself would never be able to run a bus. And so I think having a humility and having an understanding that ultimately an agency has to put the buses and the trains out every day and everything that’s behind that.

Grace Crunican (58m 7s):
A big, big thank you to both of you were being cut off. Thank you. Thanks very much. I appreciate you being here and thanks for the audience as well. Bye-bye

Monica Tibbits-Nutt (58m 15s):
Thank you.


Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free