Kempton: Keeping Public Transit ‘Absolutely Essential’ in OC

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Orange County Transportation Authority CEO Will Kempton will step down from the agency on Feb. 28, ending a nearly four-year tenure that started at the height of the Great Recession.

Kempton spoke recently with Voice of OC about his time at the agency, the difficulty of navigating it while sales tax revenue was plummeting, and the recent controversy surrounding the appointment of his potential successor, Deputy CEO Darrell Johnson.

Kempton also discusses his accomplishments, core leadership values and his next moves with a transit advocacy group in Sacramento.

Q: Looking back on your tenure at OCTA, what would you say is your most important accomplishment and why?

A: I believe there has been a series of accomplishments. I can break it down into three areas.

I think one was managing through the recession.

Back in 2005 we predicted we would have $24 billion worth of sales tax revenues as part of Measure M2, and when the recession hit we had to revise that figure downward to about 14 and a half billion. So I think managing through the recession was a critical factor and a significant accomplishment, because we’ve come out of it on the other end a stronger agency. I think we’re more fiscally sound. We’re certainly more efficient.

Second issue would be sort of programmatic in nature. Obviously delivery is a huge element of our program, and we delivered, brought to construction or initiated about $2 billion worth of construction projects in the county. The voters approved Measure M1 and Measure M2 [the countywide half-cent sales tax that funds transportation improvements] on the basis of promises made, promises kept. Another element of that is taking the next step in planning the program and making sure we’re going to deliver that program, and that was accomplished through something called the M2020 program. That document is carrying us from the present into 2020.

We’ve taken the next step with M2020, and that is to move the program from this point on to the end of this decade. And the way we’re going to be doing that is through a combination of bonding and spreading the work out so we manage the cash flow, so we can get two-thirds of our freeway projects under construction by 2020 and the remaining freeway projects environmentally cleared.

The third accomplishment I would say deals with the organization development or management of the agency. I’m a big fan of performance-based management, and I have implemented a performance-based management structure here at OCTA.

I have also pushed for one OCTA. We have two-thirds of our employees operate the transit. We’ve got our coach operators, our maintenance workers. We’ve got some contracted folks as well, and we’ve got our admin staff here in this building, and there tends to be a separation there. I didn’t like that and I pushed for a single organization.

When things happen, when we have a problem, people get together as a family.

A good example of that is one of our coach operators’ sons was badly injured in Afghanistan. An IED exploded, and he was really severely injured. I got the word, I was out to the base to see the coach operator. He was obviously very upset. We pledged all the support that we could for him. We held a fundraiser for him to be able to fly to Germany to see his son because he was transported almost immediately from Afghanistan to a military hospital in Germany.

Q: As the country implements emerging concepts like new urbanism, green energy, clean technology, how do you see Orange County’s public transportation evolving into the future?

A: Well, I think the public transportation system is going to be absolutely essential to achieving the goals and the requirements set forth by the state. People don’t know how green our operation is, but 95 percent of our fleet is powered by alternative fuels, so we’re well ahead of many other agencies in California in terms of converting. We’re also doing some experimentation and some testing of other sources of power, hydrogen and electric, to determine how those power sources might be integrated into our operation.

[OCTA] did a transit system study while I’ve been here, and we were able to determine a number of options that we could pursue to test whether we can provide transit services more efficiently. Testing some of those concepts that came out of our transit system study is the way we’re going to look to provide that more efficient service.

Q: We recently learned about a necessary redo in the appointment process for a new OCTA chief executive. Was it always the plan to have Darrell Johnson succeed you as some have said, or did you have a different way forward in mind?

A: Well, it’s not my decision. The first thing out of the box, whoever is going to be the CEO of this agency, that will be determined by the board of directors. That’s their decision, and rightfully so. That’s part of their responsibilities.

I was asked when I was hired to create a succession plan, which I did. So if you look at our organization and all of our folks, we have identified for all of our management and a good number of supervisorial positions we’ve identified succession strategies for each of those.

Now all things equal, we would prefer — in terms of my management of the organization I know I would prefer — to hire from within if you can. It’s positive. It helps give people a sense that they have opportunities within the organization and there could be a career here for them.

I did develop an individual who I felt — I actually reached down into the organization and bought him up to be deputy CEO, which he has been for, I think, more than a year and a half. We spent a lot of time developing him.

To the extent that I’ve been able to help mentor him, I’ve done that. We put him out in front. We got him appointed as deputy CEO to the American Public Transportation Association board of directors. That’s not done usually. Typically a board member is a full CEO. I have had Darrell going around representing OCTA at various meetings, giving him an opportunity to get fully versed on all aspects of the job, and so that was my role in fulfilling the direction from the board to develop a succession plan, which I did.

Darrell was the individual I selected to develop as a replacement for me.

Q: Will bus fares continue to rise in the future? What’s the best way to keep them low?

A: Essentially with respect to bus fares, there’s really two opportunities for dealing with that. One is to cut service, reduce the amount of service that you’re providing. Second is to raise fares. I think there’s a third — we touched on it earlier with respect to the transit system study — and that is efficiencies. I think if you can become more efficient, figuring out a different way to do business that’s more cost effective, then you’re going to be much more effective in keeping fares low.

One of the ways we have tried to do that is promotional opportunities to ride the bus. You see our buses operating. They’re clean. There’s no graffiti on the sides. There’s no etching in the window so you can’t see out the window. When you get on them, they’re clean. They’re not littered, they’re not cluttered. They’re safe. We have the safest transit security operating in the state. And we’ve got to just expose more people to that product. So we’ve done a little bit more in terms of promotional opportunities.

One of the things we did with our buses, as an example, is we’ve provided a service to the OC Fair. … For $1.50, which was the fare at the time, you could go to the fair, and you’d be handed a coupon when you got off the bus at the fair, and that would be good for a $9 reduction in the price of admission to the fair, so you get into the fair for two bucks. We had 46,000 riders this year on that service. What that means is — and we did surveys — about 59 percent of the people riding were new riders.

Q: With such a major turnover in leadership on the board and a upcoming new chief executive, do you see any big changes as a result of that turnover?

A: You know, I don’t. Obviously every board has its own personality, but I look at the incoming board members and I see some pretty bright people. And some have some talents and expertise in areas that we need at the board, so I think that’s going to be very positive.

The mission of this organization, which is to improve mobility in Orange County and provide mobility to our residents, doesn’t really change all that dramatically, and that’s particularly true because of the sales tax measure. Measure M2 provides the framework in which we operate, and the key objective and the holy grail of the best program is delivering the promises made to the voters.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m going back up to Sacramento, which is my home, and I’m taking a position as executive director of a sort of a nonprofit called Transportation California. That’s a transportation advocacy organization made up of contractors, some architectural and engineering firms and construction labor. And we’re going to be seeing what we can do working with other interest groups across the state to figure out a way to raise some money for transportation.

We’ve got huge needs in this state from a transportation infrastructure perspective in particular, and I’d like to sort of end my career by seeing what I can do to help the program that’s been so good to me.

— Interview by ADAM ELMAHREK

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