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MIT Transportation Seminar


Remarks: Jennifer L. Dorn

Cambridge, MA

Public Transportation: Get Ready for the Ride of Your Life!

Thank you for that kind introduction. It is so rejuvenating to be in a room with aspiring transportation professionals.

To all of you who are transportation students and prospective students: Congratulations. In transportation, you’ve chosen a great field and an unparalleled program here at MIT. Few, if any, other fields give you access to so many challenging tasks and draw upon so many talents and skills.

Transportation is a prerequisite for almost everything that we do in life -- from housing to health care to the economy and our civic life. And your career in transportation will keep you on your toes, because you will be learning something new all the time. You’ll learn about 20-year planning horizons, tunnel excavations, risk management, and human services… about economic development, local politics, media relations, and zoning laws. Then, on your SECOND day on the job!… you’ll learn entirely different things.

When I started at the FTA, someone told me, “When you’ve seen one transit agency… you’ve seen one transit agency.” And they were right …in public transportation, you’ll never see exactly the same challenge twice. That’s one of the beauties of Federal transportation policy – it is rooted in local decision-making. So, get ready to be surprised, challenged, enlightened, and invigorated by your profession, wherever it leads you.

You will also find a keen demand for the expertise that you can develop here at MIT. In the next five years, no less than FIFTY percent of the workforce that currently plans, develops and manages our transportation systems will be retiring, taking decades of experience and skill with them… So, keep hitting the books — because we need you!

I want to do two things in my brief time with you today. First, I want to tell you a little bit about the Federal Transit Administration and what we do. You can consider that just a little recruitment effort on my part… because we are always in the market for talented professionals like yourselves. And, second, I want to share with you some of my own observations about leading and managing change in the public sector – observations that I hope you may find useful in whatever sector you land!

Each year, Americans travel over 9.7 billion miles on transit — by bus, rail, trolley, and ferryboat. During the 1990s, transit ridership increased over 28 percent. In fact, transit was the fastest growing of all transportation sectors.

In our capacity as the steward of Federal funding for public transportation investments, the Federal Transit Administration provides over $7 billion in grants to build, renew, and maintain transit systems throughout the nation – in every State and thousands of communities. The bulk of that money — $5 billion — is distributed by formula to cities and States.

But, another two billion, including our New Starts program, is distributed through discretionary grants each year. The New Starts program provides over $1.5 billion each year for major capital investments in new “fixed guideway” transit systems or extensions to current transit systems, like the Silver Line BRT and the “T” in Boston. In our terminology, “fixed guideway” transit generally means subways, light rail systems, electric trolleys, or commuter rail lines.

Through this program, FTA helps to shape transit investments – ensuring that they produce cost-effective results for passengers, communities and the nation, by enhancing mobility, reducing congestion, improving air quality, and, importantly, by spurring economic development and growth.

As you know, the real estate market has been hot for the past decade … and so has transit. In fact, you might say that transit is in a building boom. Since 1993, new rail transit systems have opened in 17 cities, and growing transit systems in the U.S. have added over 3,000 miles of track – an increase of more than 45 percent in just 10 years.

Today, the Federal Transit Administration has full funding grant agreements with 27 communities that are building new fixed guideway systems or extensions to current systems. Under these agreements, both the Federal government and the community commit to a particular funding level, and agree upon the specific design of the project. Another 24 communities have already begun the system design process necessary to qualify for Federal funding. And, incredibly, another 120-plus communities are undertaking a public deliberation process to consider major new investments in transit.

How much will all of these projects contribute to the economy? How many more jobs will be created? How much will families save on transportation expenses? How much new local tax revenue will be generated? The simple answer to these questions is: we just don’t yet know.

But here are some things we do know:

Increasingly, as we evaluate proposed transit projects, FTA looks for a commitment that goes beyond transportation… Before we will jointly fund major transit projects expects, we ask communities to make commitments to transit-friendly land use policies. We look at issues like zoning regulations, transit-supportive parking policies, a commitment to walkable communities, and economic incentives for transit-oriented development. We want major transit investments to produce real dividends for the community -- in terms of more transit riders and in terms of economic growth.

And we have backed up these intentions with action. In early 2001, FTA’s senior management team developed a strategic business plan to guide our work. It identifies 5 major goals – and each year we identify about 15 specific objectives associated with those goals. Each of the objectives is assigned to an individual who is responsible for overseeing its implementation. And we meet regularly to discuss progress, identify problems – and celebrate successes.

We’ve gone a step further, though, in our efforts to improve. As a management team, we have stepped up to the plate by agreeing to be held jointly accountable for 4 specific accomplishments – all of which are key to the success of our strategic plan. We all sink or swim together – and performance bonuses depend on our success. These we call our “core accountabilities.”

President Bush’s Management Agenda called upon government agencies to become more outcome-oriented and customer-focused…and that’s precisely what we have done in our core accountabilities. Rather than hold ourselves accountable only for the day-to-day things over which we have direct control, we have set standards that will impact and reflect the success of the transit industry overall.

For example, we are “on the hook,” so to speak, for increasing transit ridership on a per market basis in the 150 largest urban areas – areas that now represent about 95% of all transit ridership in the U.S. So it’s our collective intent – our job – to make sure that transit agencies are focused on their customers and have the tools and information they need to attract riders.

You will probably be surprised to learn that this goal – increased ridership – was not eagerly embraced by the transit industry. Frankly, many transit agencies – which are generally public agencies that report to either a mayor or regional board – were much more accustomed to measuring success by counting the number of buses they had or the number of trains they operated. Actually increasing the number of people riding those buses and trains was a bit of a scary proposition.

But an interesting thing happened … once we started measuring ridership on a system-by-system basis, ridership began to matter. It began to matter to the transit agency CEOs…to their boards of directors…and to the communities they served. And last fall, the industry’s largest association – the American Public Transportation Association – made “increasing ridership” its number one strategic priority.

So let me transition here to my first lesson of leadership and management: What’s measured, matters. Lofty goals can be inspiring, but if you really want something to happen, you must set measurable objectives, measure the results, and make those results widely available and known. Whether you end up celebrating success or inspiring improvements, the simple act of measuring results will drive success.

Now, I certainly don’t pretend to be a management guru, but I’ve had the great fortune to learn by osmosis from some of the sharpest, most astute leaders around, including U.S. Senators and Cabinet members.

So let me explain my second observation about leadership and management by sharing with you a story about my first job in public service 25 years ago – working for Senator Hatfield, who was then Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. After experiencing frustration that I and other women weren’t being treated as professionals in the advertising industry, I had taken my newly minted masters degree in public administration and headed for Capitol Hill, ready to change the world.

Soon after joining Senator Hatfield’s staff, I eagerly became a member -- and later became the chair -- of the Capitol Hill Women’s Political Caucus. In that capacity I was pursuing what, at the time, was an important issue for many of my colleagues – that is, women’s pay equity on the Hill.

You may remember – though most of you are probably too young to remember – that Congress had exempted itself from the laws requiring that women and men be paid equally for equal work – laws that, of course, applied to every other profit and not-for-profit entity in America. Stories about gender discrimination were plentiful, but not often told-on-the-record, for obvious reasons.

With what seemed then to be a tremendous amount of money from an anonymous foundation grant -- $5,000 – our small band of renegades sorted through the publicly available, though largely unexplored, pay records of Congressional offices. We were fully armed with information that – surprise, surprise – showed that overall, Congress had a pretty poor track record in hiring, promoting and paying women in professional jobs. We scheduled a press conference. And, as chair of the organization, I was to be the spokesperson.

The day before the press conference, it occurred to me that I should probably let my boss know of this plan, so in I walked to Senator Hatfield’s office. I explained to him that the following day, I would be making this announcement to the press – and that some of his colleagues might be embarrassed by the disclosure. “I just wanted to make sure that wouldn’t be a problem,” I innocently explained. He paused for a moment, and quietly considered the bomb I had just dropped on his desk. Then he looked at me, sighed softly, and said, “Jenna, if you believe it’s the right thing to do, then do it.”

Since that time, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a little more politically savvy, but Senator Hatfield’s response has stayed with me as a guiding light for all the tough decisions of my career: He created an environment where it was safe to take a risk…to do what I believed was the right thing to do.

As a corollary to that lesson, I’ll reveal the bias of my age and my gender by telling you this bit of disquieting news: Doing the right thing is probably not going to get you elected homecoming queen! Getting something important done usually means you’ll be breaking some china, as we used to say…

So if you are a leader who is focused on measurable results that really matter, you’ll undoubtedly encounter resistance from people who are more comfortable with the way things have always been done.

Which brings me to my final point – when you are managing people, become a talent fanatic. Some of you probably play chess – and a recent article in the Harvard Business Review might resonate with you, as it did for me. It’s about what good managers actually do. Author Marcus Buckingham interviewed some of the great leaders and managers in business in the course of his research.

His research found that truly great managers do not try to make their employees conform to inflexible job descriptions or tasks. Instead, they sense, appreciate, and then utilize the unique talents of each individual. Buckingham believes that, unlike the game of checkers, where every piece has the same abilities and personality, great management is like a game of chess, where each employee has particular strengths. “Great managers,” he concludes, “don’t try to change a person’s style” to fit a job description. Instead, they find creative ways to utilize that style for performance.

When I read Buckingham’s analysis of the chess game of modern management, it reminded me of the principle that has guided me at the FTA and in my previous management positions. To manage and lead today, you must become a talent fanatic, as Tom Peters has said. Collect it, hoard it, amass it, compete for it, reward it, and never waste it. Treat talent as the most precious resource you have -- because it is.

There’s no point being a fanatic for talent unless you are willing to let talent be talent, and resist the urge to homogenize all of the unique, idiosyncratic gifts of your employees into one amorphous similarity. Don’t try to make a square peg fit in a round hole. Instead, when you need different competencies working together, form teams -- and let talent decide who does what.

And, speaking of talent, I’d like to take a just a moment to talk directly to the women students here today -- who will be trailblazing in a profession that is still predominately male. We’re making progress, but it is slower than in many other fields. An industry survey conducted five years ago found that women comprise only 13 percent of management positions and 26 percent of professional positions in the transit workforce. So it is pretty clear that many of you will be forging paths where none existed.

But remember that you are joining a long line of American women trailblazers. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has said that, while role models are important, you can’t sit around waiting for them. “If I had been waiting for a role model of a black female Soviet specialist,” according to Rice, “it would have been a while.” So, instead of waiting for a role model, Rice became the role model. And you, too, have that tremendous opportunity in the transportation sector.

And, for all of you here today, keep in mind that you are entering an exciting, dynamic time in the transportation industry -- a time that will require a new appreciation of the mobility challenges in our communities and of the unique talents of your employees.

I have said more than enough to get us started on our dialog. Most importantly, I am delighted to be here to recharge my batteries with aspiring professionals at the beginning of what I know will be illustrious transportation careers.

Congratulations, welcome aboard…. and enjoy the ride of your life!

Commitment to Accessibility: DOT is committed to ensuring that information is available in appropriate alternative formats to meet the requirements of persons who have a disability. If you require an alternative version of files provided on this page, please contact