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Getting Out the Vote, CATA Style

When 75 percent of voters in a community approve a tax to support public transit—especially in today’s tax-averse environment—you can bet that agency is doing something right.

In the case of the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing, MI, it’s doing several things right, says Sandy Draggoo, chief executive officer and executive director, describing her agency’s recent win at the ballot box when voters overwhelmingly approved CATA’s millage proposition to renew its operating funds.

The millage, which will generate $14.7 million annually for a new five-year funding cycle starting in 2016, is CATA’s largest source of revenue, contributing about 38 percent of its annual budget.

The landslide, she says, “wasn’t about a short-term campaign, but a result of what we do every day. You’ve really got to have a great product on the street every single day, every single time. You can’t have a poor product and then go out for a millage vote and expect a 75 percent approval rate.”

At CATA, a “great product” involves every part of the agency, from its people (the receptionist to the board of directors) and its buses (which are washed inside and out every day) to the driving skills, professionalism, and customer-service focus of its bus operators; its collaborative partnerships; and its positive media relations. They are all part of the system’s culture.

“All of these things wrap into what it means to be CATA. When we go out for a vote to have the millage election—the highest in the state of Michigan—we know what we’re really asking for and they know what they’re really getting. We are accountable to them,” she added.

The CATA culture begins with ­Draggoo, who has been at the agency for 41 years—nearly 30 of them as CEO. She meets with every new employee one-on-one in her office for about an hour. “I explain our culture—what it means, what CATA means,” she said. “New employees need to have the right attitude.”

Second is ­Draggoo’s top-down leadership style—or, in her case, bottom-up style. CATA’s organizational chart portrays ­Draggoo at the ­bottom of the chart.

“I’m at the ­bottom, supporting everyone at CATA in their ability to do their work,” she said.

Who’s at the top? “Riders and taxpayers. We never forget who we’re working for,” she said, including taxpayers who might never board a bus.

As for CATA’s focus on riders, she knows that bus operators are the face of the agency even though she’s at the helm. “Riders don’t care a bit about what I do. They never even see me, unless it’s on television,” she said. “I don’t give them anything they need. Our operators—the people who literally open the door to CATA—do.”

And bus operators also play a significant role in keeping taxpayers happy by putting a priority on safe, courteous driving. For example, she says, CATA drivers are aware that pulling out into traffic—especially in front of small cars—can create lasting ill will.

Draggoo also points to CATA board members as integral players in the agency’s culture. “We have a great board of directors that understands the difference between setting policy and letting me—as the head of the operational team—do the operational work. The board sticks with policy and lets me lead a great staff,” she said. “Together, we’ve been able to do so many great things and create great partnerships,” which extend to the ATU.

All of these elements contribute to CATA’s strong brand, which is reinforced in the media. “Our community doesn’t hear or read bad things about CATA—not about union issues or board disagreements or anything like that. What they read is the good news. All of this helps CATA get to 75 percent. You can’t do that if the system looks bad or is constantly in trouble.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship, Draggoo said. The agency supports the community, and the community supports the agency.

CATA, a mid-size urban bus agency, began in 1972 with 14 fixed routes; it provided 750,000 rides that year. Today it operates more than 30 fixed routes and several curb-to-curb services in a 559-square-mile service area. It provided 11.9 million rides in 2013. CATA currently employs 325 people, of whom about 218 are bus operators.
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