How to Run a Transit Company without Breaking a Sweat

MacArthur Station: Where Bacon’s Rebellion nearly met an untimely end.

by James A. Bacon

NORFOLK–When the Norfolk light rail project was piling up cost overruns and threatening to run off the rails because no one had the money to pay for it, the powers that be in Hampton Roads prevailed upon Philip Shucet to bring the project back under control. Taking over as CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, he quickly fulfilled that mission, and then went on to improve the productivity and efficiency of the region’s bus system as well.

Shucet had proven his mastery of large, unwielding organizations as Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner under Gov. Mark Warner, and then joined the private sector, where he conducted a clinic on productivity and efficiency in bridge building with the Jordan Bridge project. Rebuilding the aged and decrepit bridge had been deemed so expensive, around $200 million, that the City of Chesapeake shut it down. Working under the flag of Figg Bridge Developers, Shucet said he could complete construction of the bridge for less than $100 million. He left that project in order to take the helm of HRTransit but, according to press reports, the bridge is scheduled to open in 2012. If anyone wonders why Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton believes that outsourcing the design and construction of mega-projects to the private sector is a good idea, the Jordan Bridge is a case study.

In a Thursday panel discussion during the Governor’s Transportation Conference, Shucet explained how he applied his magic touch to Hampton Roads transit, and he made it sound simple. The key was to stay focused, he said, and stop making changes. “We held the line and said, ‘no.’” He re-worked contracts, he let a few people go. And he managed expectations by telling the truth. When there was bad news to reveal, it didn’t sugar coat it. The results have been gratifying. He stopped the runaway costs dead in their tracks. Originally estimated to cost $232 million, the project had shot way over the $300 million mark when Shucet came on board. The final capital cost, he said, came in at $317.6 million.

The Tide light rail, which runs 7.4 miles from Norfolk General Hospital through downtown Norfolk and out to Newtown Road, also is generating nearly twice as many passengers as originally projected: 4,900 weekday riders daily on average versus an estimate of 2,900. Operations are still far from profitable, but they are considerably less unprofitable than budgeted.

(As an aside, during the conference, I have been riding the Tide between my parents’ downtown condo and the Norfolk Marriott Waterside. The stations are attractive, the buses are clean and trains run on time. The experience is much more pleasant than driving — and less expensive than parking. I did nearly kill myself — literally — when sprinting to catch a train before it left MacArthur Center Station. I ran in front of the street-level train to get to the boarding platform just as the driver was about to leave the station. The guy was so rattled he stepped out of his cabin to warn me to never, never dart in front of a stationary train — the darn things jump out like jack rabbits.)

Meanwhile, Shucet has been shaking up the region’s bus operations. Many buses and trains run nearly empty, he explained. He figured that almost anything that got butts in seats would represent an improvement, so he marketed aggressively to the region’s universities and major employers, offering a variety of incentives to encourage people to use mass transit. In a parallel initiative, Hampton Roads Transit restructured its routes, eliminating routes with minimal ridership and increasing frequency of bus runs on its strongest routes. Total ridership has increased and this year HRT was able to rebate some money to the local governments that support the organization.

Shucet will remain as CEO of HRT through January then step down to resume his more lucrative career in the private sector, where he will look for more opportunities like the Jordan Bridge to make money by saving taxpayers money.

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3 responses to “How to Run a Transit Company without Breaking a Sweat”

  1. I’m a bit of a skeptic here…. I’m an admirer of Mr. Schucet but going from reforming VDOT to building a bridge to running a light rail seems wildly different in terms of expertise.

    and then I’m presented with what Shucet did accomplish at VDOT verses what Mr. Connaughton seemingly has accomplished in comparison.

    that’s probably unfair…. perhaps Mr. Schucet laid some necessary groundwork that smoothed the way for Mr. Connaughton and perhaps it is Mr. Shucet that should occupy one of the new seats on the MWAA board.

  2. Hey, if you don;t have to care what it costs, and don’t have to care if it runs at a profit, then – No Sweat!

  3. Hey, if you don;t have to care what it costs, and don’t have to care if it runs at a profit, then – No Sweat!

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