Over a decade ago, when Bonnie Todd, executive director of operations, joined Sound Transit, the agency was focused on constructing the first phase of the light rail system. With less than two years before Link was scheduled to begin operating from downtown Seattle to SeaTac, Todd was charged with building and shaping the future operations department. In honor of International Women’s Day, the Seattle Transit Blog’s Lizz Giordano interviewed Todd about her experiences. (Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
LG: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your 10 years at Sound Transit?
BT: Well, we opened light rail. That was huge. When I first got here, there wasn’t even really an operations department. There was this little group called ‘Transportation Services’; I’d always laugh and say that sounded like a hotel shuttle. I’ve since found out that on the West Coast it’s not an uncommon term for an operations group.
But [the operations division] was very small; the agency had been very capital-focused. When I came in, there was maybe 21 months until we were going to open light rail. There hadn’t been quite the focus on operations and it really crept up on us.
One of the things that was very enticing about the job offer was that I really had a blank canvas of sorts to work with. I had worked for the American Public Transportation Association for about four years, where I did audits of rail transit agencies all over North America. I had a real understanding of what worked well and what didn’t and what was critical to put in place for an operations department to be efficient, be safe and have the right processes in place.
We also were contracting with King County Metro to do that work. So, I had to reach across this partnership. Getting them to do what we felt needed to be done required a lot of relationship-building and gaining their confidence.
I don’t really think about it often, but it’s really very different than it was ten years ago when I arrived. We’ve got light rail, we’ve got the extensions, as well as expanded Sounders and bus service.
Looking forward, the CEO realizes that the projects we’ve committed to delivering are huge and require a greater input and collaboration with the operations department. The operations department now has a formal seat at the table with Peter Rogoff’s new approach to project development. So now my time is quite divided between day-to-day operations and assisting in project development.
LG: Now that you’re on the expansion side as well, what are some things that you’d like to see incorporated into the system?
BT: Transit integration is already top of mind, more than it’s ever been with the designers. I also want to see a system that is flexible from an operations standpoint. That includes things like turn-back tracks and turnouts, things that you can use to single-track when there is an accident (or breakdown). You don’t want to be completely stuck with no way to get around. It’s a reliability issue, it will keep the system from backing up and keep people moving even though it may be at a slower pace.
Those are the kinds of things that we think are very important. And as the system gets larger and our ridership goes through the roof, you really have to be nimble.
LG: What do you view ST’s role is regarding customer service and the customer experience since so many customer touchpoints are outsourced to Metro?
BT: It’s a little challenging sometimes because ultimately it is Sound Transit’s brand and we are responsible if something goes wrong. We contract out a lot of our bus service, which is really not that uncommon in the industry. Light rail is a little different. What we have here is a bit of a hybrid, where we actually control more than people may think.
Metro basically operates the trains, the control center and does maintenance. But Sound Transit either creates or approves every single standard operating procedure, standard maintenance procedure and emergency procedures.
We do all the customer service work for light rail — taking complaints and putting out all of the rider alerts. We determine everything related to schedule frequency, number of vehicles that are going to be out day to day and planning for special events. If you go out to a Husky game (or other special events) most people you see out there are Sound Transit people. We’re organizing the traffic flow and all of those sorts of things. We also [manage] all the security and law enforcement.
There are certainly terms within the contract [between Sound Transit and Metro], but you can’t write down everything that’s ever potentially going to happen. We spend a lot of time trying to influence, guide, and on occasion direct, what Metro is doing. And the way we interact with Metro and influence them and guide them has had to be done through relationships.
LG: So what are some biggest complaints and compliments you hear from riders?
BT: Certainly when we first opened the system and when we first extended it with the U-Link, there was an impression of overcrowding. People wanted seats, that used to be the biggest complaint that we’ve heard, but that has dropped immensely. We’ve never had a consistent theme of complaints really about anything. Honestly, I really am not just saying this for the benefit of somebody interviewing me. We really do provide great customer service and we just don’t have any one thing that customers are focusing on, other than more service, more frequency.
We’ve gotten a lot of kudos for special events service related to Husky games. Those are challenging when you’ve got an end-of-the-line station where people are all coming from one direction and all leaving in the same direction. So you’ve got to have every single car you’ve got available out there. You need great crowd control, you’ve got meter people and you’ve got to give them information. And all of that requires easily 40 or 50 people every time we do it.
LG: What accomplishments or change you made at ST are you most proud of?
BT: One of the biggest was having a Sound Transit-owned maintenance management system with our contractors using our system. Now we control the data and the information, and we have access to it so we can standardize it. That may not sound really exciting to anybody else, but it was very exciting to me. We have a huge responsibility, we have billions of dollars in assets that we need to maintain and we want to be able to do that as effectively as we can.
I think my biggest accomplishment is probably just the operations department itself — developing it, putting the structure there — actually putting some paint on that blank canvas. And getting it up and running and as effective as it is with a relatively small group of people.
LG: How did a Marine end up in the transit sector?
BT: When I was in the Marine Corps I was in aviation, I was an avionics technician. Believe it or not, we’ve actually just recently hired somebody in a very critical position out of aviation. It is transportation, whether you’re moving goods or people or whatever. In aviation, there are many, many similarities — equipment that you’ve got to maintain and operators and safety considerations and things like that. When I got out of the Marine Corps, I actually had a number of job opportunities with companies like Xerox and IBM. It just so happened that my mother was ill at the time, I’m from Virginia and there was a job open with the metro system in D.C., working in their electronics shop. It was comparable in pay to starting out with Xerox or IBM and it was the closest thing that I could get to be near her at the time.
LG: What did you do in the electronics shop in D.C.?
BT: I repaired collection equipment. It was working on a bench, as opposed to going out to the machine and troubleshooting it there. This was actually component-level repair, so I worked on fare collection equipment, train control equipment, communication equipment and some power equipment. That’s where I started in transit, I was 21 years old.