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A Conversation with APTA Chair Valarie J. McCall; Focus on Expanding Collaboration, Inclusion, Value

PT: What motivated you to want to serve as APTA chair?

McCall: I first became active in APTA as a member of the Transit Board Members Committee. Immediately, I saw the value that transit board members gain and contribute to the association’s work. When I was nominated to succeed the most recent chair, I knew it was an opportunity to help motivate other board members and expand APTA’s role and importance. I’m grateful to be able to do this job.

PT: On your first day as board chair last October, you launched a collaboration initiative. Give us an update on this work.

McCall: The rationale behind my collaboration initiative dovetails with why I first became active in APTA. The association has so many unique members, giving us such broad expertise. If you consider APTA’s three main constituencies—transit board members, transit-related business leaders and the general managers and CEOs of transit agencies--we all bring a different perspective to the table. The question is: How can we ensure that these constituencies work more collaboratively?

On the internal side, it’s about how we align our efforts and work together. On the external side, it’s about how we coordinate better with some of the key associations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Regional Councils.

PT: Tell us more about the external and internal focus of your collaboration task force.

McCall: In my role with the city of Cleveland, I’ve been very active in the three groups I highlighted. Since I regularly attend their conferences and APTA conferences, it was logical to ask how we could work a little bit more closely together. This was the start of our external collaboration because members of these organizations are often directly involved in public transportation governance and financing issues.

Within the APTA organization, we have held listening sessions at events like the Transit CEOs Seminar and the Business Member Board of Governors (BMBG) Annual Meeting. The goal is to solicit ideas on how we can expand collaboration throughout the association. At the upcoming Bus & Paratransit Conference, we’ll be meeting and reporting out about what we’ve been doing. We also have a listening session scheduled for the Transit Board Members and Board Support Seminar in April. In addition, we are surveying board members and the entire APTA membership so that at the end of this process we can say we were inclusive.

We have a phenomenal task force co-chaired by David Stackrow [board chairman, Capital District Transportation Authority, Albany, NY] representing transit board members, Ann August [professional consultant, Ann August Consulting] representing transit agency leaders and Patrick Scully [executive vice president, sales and marketing, Motor Coach Industries] representing the BMBG. And we have a great group of people who have just rolled up their sleeves, all with the same goal in mind—making sure we come out of this with us more aligned together. And I think it has been a great success so far.

PT: Since assuming the board chair role in October, what has been the biggest surprise and what has been your most rewarding experience?

McCall: With any association as massive as APTA with so many moving parts and constituencies, it’s often easy for activities to become siloed. We sponsor a bus conference, a rail conference, a massive Annual Meeting, as well as industry-specific events and hundreds of committee and working group meetings.

So one of the things that was more of a surprise than I expected was the degree to which our three major constituency groups have room to improve collaboration among themselves.

That said, one of the most rewarding experiences has been discovering all of the commonalities where people really do want to learn and grow and work together. The more we do this, the greater APTA will become. The goal is to move collectively from good to great. Patrick Scully, chair of the Business Members Board of Governors (BMBG) coined that phrase.

I think we’re moving in that direction. We’re all connecting with each other, networking with each other, doing peer-to-peer best practices together. I think it’s very, very, very important. As board chair, I just want to make sure that we’re focusing on the APTA of the future rather than the APTA of today. We want to stay stabilized and we want to be sustained.

PT: In your position with the Cleveland Mayor’s Office, you played a pivotal role in the city’s successful bid to host this summer’s Republican National Convention. What does the event mean for you and for APTA?

McCall: Our readers may be surprised to learn that 80 years ago, the two political parties held their conventions in the same host cities selected this year. In 1936, Cleveland was the site for the RNC and Philadelphia was the site for the DNC.

I can tell you that Cleveland worked hard for this honor. I was born and raised there; I love Cleveland. Back in the day, the city was sometimes the brunt of jokes, but no more. Cleveland has rebuilt its economy. We are leaders in healthcare, manufacturing, education and other areas. Next year, the city will host the American Bus Association conference, one of the country’s largest events. All of this, along with the RNC convention, adds to Cleveland’s image as a destination city for tourism.

One reason for the city’s successful rebirth is our public transportation. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has made Cleveland a multimodal transit city with light rail, passenger rail, trolleys and a modern, efficient BRT system.
And there is another important element: The city’s leaders—including the mayor, city council, county council, the Destination Cleveland tourism board, the Greater Cleveland Alliance, Chamber of Commerce--worked together as a team. This is what we try to practice every day, and it’s what I brought to APTA because it does work.

Now I’m working with [APTA President & CEO] Michael Melaniphy and his senior staff, the BMBG, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and Cleveland’s officials to make the RNC convention is a success not just for Cleveland but also for APTA. We are discussing some joint events that will help promote public transportation policies. Again, it’s all about collaboration and inclusion.

PT: How has your role as board chair influenced your work on the board of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority?

McCall: As the board chair of APTA, I feel an added sense of responsibility to the GCRTA. I take my local role as seriously as I do my national one. In fact, GCRTA may be the only transit agency to have had two sitting board members serve as APTA chairs. Prior to my election, George “Big Daddy” Dixon was chair of APTA in 2004 and he is still a sitting board member of GCRTA.

Cleveland has a great transit agency headed up by Joe Calabrese, one of Governing Magazine’s public officials of the year. My role for APTA gives the GCRTA great credibility in the national spotlight on public transportation issues. It’s no coincidence that one of Mayor Frank ­Jackson’s biggest initiatives this year is Sustainable Cleveland 2019, so it all goes hand in hand with transit.

PT: Now that a new five-year authorization law is in place, what do you believe is the next big challenge for transit boards?

McCall: Transit board members need to understand the new law. They need to make sure that they’re coming to APTA, attending all the great discussions that we organize with the FTA and learning how the FAST Act pertains to their agency. APTA has a phenomenal government relations team that works closely with communications, research and policy. All board members should use this expertise.

I also think the new law’s procure­ment provisions are especially important for transit board members. Recently I had an opportunity to hear the perspectives of two of APTA’s largest BMBG members, New Flyer and Motor Coach Industries. There are things that we should be looking at doing, especially when we buy buses. Something as simple as harmonizing specs for buses could save money for transit agencies.

I can’t stress enough the importance of working with APTA. You learn, you grow, you meet people, and it is important sometimes to get out of our community to see what else is going on in the rest of the world. APTA does a great job of bringing that to the forefront.

PT: What is your next big, aspirational goal?

McCall: I’m going to look forward to being a chairperson emeritus and supporting the leadership of APTA. I’m excited about Doran Barnes coming up after me … and about David Stackrow, whom transit board members would like to see in a future leadership role at APTA.

There are many great leaders coming out of the APTA Executive Committee. I’m looking forward to sitting back and helping them with leadership and encouraging their growth.

I just hope and pray that whatever I am doing, I am still in touch and in tune and able to grow, learn, and give back to others.

As long as I can do that, the sky’s the limit. Whatever I do next, I want to feel good about it and bring value to all that I do. Who knows what the future holds? I could be a greeter at Target or president of the United States.

APTA Chair Valarie J. McCall, fourth from left, recently convened a meeting in Cleveland with Republican National Committee leaders, city officials and APTA staff to plan events at the Republican National Convention in July. Participants included, standing from second from left, Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone, first vice president, National League of Cities (NLC), APTA Secretary-Treasurer Kim Green, BMBG Chair Pat Scully, Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director, U.S. Conference of Mayors, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy, NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony and APTA Vice Chair Doran Barnes, joined by RNC staffers and staff from APTA and the other organizations.

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