Here’s How the RTD CEO Candidates Said They’d Make Denver Transit Better

RTD Candidates
From left, Stephanie Dawson, Richard Leary, and Dave Genova. Photos: David Sachs

RTD held what amounted to a public job interview Thursday for three finalists hoping to fill the general manager and CEO post vacated by Phil Washington earlier this year.

Stephanie Dawson, Richard Leary, and Dave Genova each had 20 minutes to answer questions about their experience and why they’d fit at RTD. Afterward they spent an hour speaking one-on-one and in small groups with RTD employees, advocates, and anyone else who wanted their ear.

Here’s what they had to say.

Richard Leary, chief service officer for the Toronto Transit Commission; formerly chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

Leary began his career in transit opening and closing doors on MBTA trains before climbing the ladder to become COO of the Boston-area agency. His experience as a transit worker was evident in his talk, which centered around operations, providing good service, and being a good employer.

In Toronto, Leary runs the day-to-day revenue, safety, and customer service operations. In 2009 he came under fire for retiring without attending a board meeting about a fatal crash on Boston’s T.

Leary was the only candidate who said transit should be more attractive than using automobiles. “It’s our responsibility to get people out of their cars,” Leary said. “What we have to do is make sure that once we build these systems, we maintain these systems to make sure they’re so spectacular that we keep people coming back. It’s about driving people from their vehicle into public transportation.”

To do that, Leary talked about creating quality first-and-last mile infrastructure.

Streetsblog asked about attracting riders with higher frequencies.

“I’m one that believes you match capacity to demand,” Leary said. “If you’re gonna run a 10-minute headway and run six vehicles an hour, if the capacity doesn’t warrant it, the ridership demand isn’t there, why would you spend good funding? You could run five vehicles an hour on a 12-minute headway and save the money… I think [high frequency] helps, but it can’t be the only way to do it… In the inner city of course, during rush hour of course, but off-peak to many locations that have low ridership, that’s not gonna drive ridership.”

Stephanie Dawson, acting chief operating officer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Dawson is a career employee of the Port Authority, a huge bi-state agency that oversees the PATH commuter rail, as well as airports, tunnels, bridges, and port commerce in the New York-New Jersey area. She’s also a veteran of the Iraq War, where she received a Bronze Star.

Dawson touted her skills as a manager and regional collaborator Thursday night. She compared the regional nature of RTD with her experience working with two states with two governors and two agendas. While she didn’t say it outright, Dawson indicated that her experience heading such a massive agency (including dealing with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy) primes her for the role at RTD, a less complex agency.

“Denver and the Denver community is growing, and RTD is providing service to many areas that never had service before,” Dawson said. “I work in a very congested area right now. And while our services are very diverse, this is an opportunity to work in a growing, thriving environment.”

Dawson spent half of her 21 years at the Port Authority in the technology department, and emphasized the role technology has to play in the future. It’s one of the biggest challenges facing transit agencies, she said.

“I’m conversant in technology,” Dawson told Streetsblog. “I understand how to employ it, and really I’ve been an advocate for not being so conservative. Because if you wait until a technology is mature, then you don’t have much use for life in that technology.”

Dawson could’ve easily been referring to RTD’s long overdue smart card system — a fare technology that cell phone apps will eventually outpace. But she didn’t wade into the specifics of local issues. “It’s pretty hard to talk at a detailed level without having a level of intimacy,” said Dawson, adding that the first thing she would do if hired would be a 90-day assessment to decipher what needs to stay and what needs to be overhauled.

Dave Genova, interim general manager and CEO for RTD

Genova is more of a known quantity, having been at RTD for 21 years. Before filling in for Washington in March, Genova was the assistant general manager of safety, security, and facilities for eight years.

On Thursday Genova hung his hat on RTD’s successes of late, particularly FasTracks — four new rail lines and one BRT route opening next year. “I’ve been a very instrumental player in the success of RTD, particularly in delivering capital projects… and also being at the table and developing the requirements, participating in negotiations, and now administering and implementing the largest public-private partnership in transit in the United States.”

The interim RTD chief called himself a “servant leader” who cares about collaboration and safety. He mentioned RTD’s controversial fare increase, which sparked backlash from advocates and business owners (advocates are still fighting for an income-based fare).

“So the result was, we were able to come out with a fare structure and fare rates that was pretty well generally accepted by the community and our Board of Directors — but even bigger than that was the relationships we built along the way in the collaborative process,” Genova said.

Although RTD doesn’t broadcast any of its public meetings in any form, Genova said transparency is a key tenet of his, pointing to financial documents recently uploaded to the website.

Like the other candidates, Genova also talked about the role of technology. RTD doesn’t have real-time data on its fleet or its customers that allow for a more seamless transit experience, but he said that’s coming “very soon.”

“When I look into my crystal ball, I imagine a great transit city where FasTracks is complete and all of the spokes connected,” Genova said. “And how we get there is… getting real time data out on bus information and rail information, getting that into the private sector, the private sector putting that into apps — using technology and real-time data to possibly replace a lot of our inefficient services.”