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Moving on After 20 Years at The Rapid

Peter Varga CEO of The Rapid

By now you’ve probably heard the news. I will be leaving The Rapid at the end of my current contract, which is in effect through September 30, 2018.

This decision was made with my wife, who recently retired, and my family. At this point in my life, I am looking for more flexibility in work commitments and want to explore new ways to use my skills and experience.

This is a bittersweet time for me, as I look back with pride on my years at The Rapid and also look to new opportunities, which, I hope, will keep me engaged in the work of public transportation.

Where it all Began

I started my transit career 36 years ago as a bus driver for Santa Cruz Metro in Santa Cruz, CA. At the time I took the job, a career in transit was not on my agenda. But as so often happens, we are led to the place we are supposed to be. I quickly grew to love the industry, primarily for the people, both those that I served and those who worked alongside me. I was also fascinated by the workings of transit–all of the pieces and parts that need to come together to provide safe, reliable, timely service on a daily basis. As I advanced and learned other aspects of the business, it was clear that transit was not just a career for me, but a calling.

In 1993, I started working for the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority (GRATA) as the Director of Operations. In the fall of 1997, I was appointed as interim Executive Director before accepting the permanent position a few months later. Then-Board Chair George Heartwell and I made a pact to create a better transit authority to serve the people of the greater Grand Rapids area. With the passage of the millage in the six cities in April 2000, my contract with GRATA was transferred to The Rapid and I became CEO.

Transforming Transit in the Six Cities

Looking back over the many changes that have come about since 1997, I can’t help but be grateful for the opportunity to lead this organization, the many supports who have been instrumental in The Rapid’s success, and the outstanding staff who have work with me in this endeavor. We started with a system that stopped running at 6:15 p.m. on weekdays and had no Sunday service. most routes ran only once an hour and there were many places that had no service at all.

Today, ridership has more than tripled, growing from 3.4 million annual trips to 11.9 million annual trips. revenue service hours have grown 157 percent and we went from 17 routes to 23 routes, increasing coverage, access, and opportunity across the region. Service frequency has improved too, with more than half of the route at 15-minute peak service.

To accomplish this, we needed to expand and upgrade our equipment and facilities. We doubled the number of buses operating at peak service from 64 to 133, at the same time improving the average age of the fleet from 11.2 years to 6.1 years.

With the expansion of the number of buses and the construction and renovation of various facilities, we increased the assets more than fivefold from $27.5 million to $139.3 million, far outpacing the growth in the operating budget which doubled to $42 million.

With the launch of the Silver Line in 2014, we were able to open the first bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Michigan, on time and under budget. I admit this is among my favorite projects because it has shown what attractive, efficient, public transportation can do for a community’s economic vitality and sustainability, and quality of life. I am excited about the potential to build on this success with additional lines.

Transitioning

Over the next 18 months, I will be focused on working with staff to finish up projects are in the FY17 work plan, as well as developing and executing the FY18 work plan. I am committed to leave The Rapid well-positioned to meet the opportunities and challenges of the future. At the Board’s discretion, I will be available to assist in the search for a new CEO and develop a transition plan.

I have every confidence that the Board and employees share my commitment to the long-term success of The Rapid and are dedicated to continuing this work long after my time here.

Public transportation changes people’s live for the better. It has been my honor and privilege to do this work.

Written by Peter Varga

CEO of The Rapid and Chair of the American Public Transportation Association.