A playbook for the new Metro Transit general manager
Metro Transit worker Kevin Davis checks the Go-To card of a University of Minnesota student. Photo by H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.
Just months ago, Metro Transit faced a projected $130 million annual operating shortfall.
Now, thanks to decades of advocacy from community members and bold leadership from legislative champions, Metro Transit is a solvent agency with abundant resources to invest in our region’s future.
With upwards of $450 million annually in new funding, Metro Transit’s strong financial footing allows the agency to build a faster, more efficient transit system to attract new riders and better serve existing patrons, which in turn will help reduce climate pollution, provide excellent and affordable access to opportunity, and create healthier communities.
But money alone isn’t enough.
We also need strong, visionary leaders at Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council who can seize this moment of opportunity with the level of urgency and initiative necessary to meet the needs of our people and our climate. And we need Gov. Tim Walz’s administration to clearly voice its backing of bold Metro Transit and Metropolitan Council leadership.
As a longtime transit rider and Met Council staff member since 2012, Lesley Kandaras has the experience, knowledge and relationships to transform public transportation in the Twin Cities. Her first 180 days as General Manager will be critical in setting a new tone and trajectory for the agency.
First, Kandaras needs a leadership team that establishes a new status quo. She needs agency insiders who know how to get things done and outside instigators who bring new perspectives from advocacy, engineering, and other regions with world-class transit systems. She needs a team that can inspire a radical culture change to build Metro Transit into a nimble and creative organization ready, eager and unafraid to take action.
Second, the agency must position itself as a high-quality resource for all members of our community, regardless of income, race, background, age or ability. This will require simultaneously embracing the fact that transit is an epicenter of social challenges and providing excellent service to attract significant numbers of new and diverse riders.
Rather than punishing vulnerable people or dismissing housing instability, chemical dependency, and economic security as another jurisdiction’s problem, Metro Transit can lean in and be a connector and a problem solver, providing compassionate support and service navigation. That approach is at the core of the new Transit Rider Improvement Program, which will bring new personnel onboard with skill sets around public health, conflict de-escalation and social services.
And rather than being pigeonholed as a safety net for those who can’t afford a car, Metro Transit must deploy its new funds to deliver immediate change. We need high frequency buses that come every five or 10 minutes and that allow riders to board all doors. We need to give green lights to buses at intersections to make them faster. We need to reverse the narrative that public transit is second-class transportation with aggressive marketing campaigns that amplify ongoing improvements; underscore the benefits of transit to our climate, health, and pocketbooks; and build a culture of respect and community on our buses, trains and platforms.
Making that happen will require that Metro Transit and General Manager Kandaras collaborate across jurisdictions, working with cities and counties on infrastructure improvements and new projects. It will require that Metro Transit and its leadership hold strong to a bold vision, even in the face of parochial concerns. It will require that the agency be tenacious in its commitment to transit equity and proactive in its vision for streets that prioritize people — not cars.
As advocates, we hear every day from riders who want better service and residents who want to use transit. Last year, our statewide poll found that one in five drivers would prefer to travel by another mode and nearly one-third of Minnesotans would be more likely to use buses and trains if there were greater access to transit where they lived. In just the past few months, nearly 1,000 people signed our petition calling on Met Council to appoint visionary leadership for transit.
Metro Transit has the resources. Metro Transit has the public and political will for transformative change. Now is the time for action.
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