A Metro Red Line train in Houston. Image courtesy of The Houston Chronicle, 2017.
Urban transit agency boards play a vital role in translating a community’s needs and preferences into lasting action. Often made up of ordinary citizens representing specific neighborhoods or constituencies, these boards engage in critical, long-range planning that can transform cities for better or worse. At the same time, however, many board members come into the role with no formal training in planning, engineering, or finance. This often creates a learning curve for these officials, who must make vital decisions while still learning the ins and outs of their agency and its operations.
“An informed board member can have a tremendous impact on his or her agency,” argues Stephanie Lotshaw, program director of Transit Center. “They can effectively champion a particular cause, engage more sharply with employees, and counter-balance or mitigate special interests in the community.”
In a decisive effort to empower transit agency board members throughout Texas, the Center for Transportation Equity, Decisions, and Dollars (CTEDD) at the University of Texas at Arlington has partnered with Transit Center, a nationally-known firm dedicated to advancing smarter transit. This partnership, the “Texas – Building Better Boards (TX-BBB)” initiative, will offer a range of educational opportunities and team-building exercises to empower board members to more effectively advocate for their community’s interests in the agency’s major decisions.
“By working together with the CTEDD team, we hope to build a program that creates more-informed transit board members, and thus superior outcomes for their agencies, their ridership bases, and their communities,” Lotshaw said.
The TX-BBB initiative will involve stakeholders from across Texas, and the partners hope to eventually work with every transit agency in the state. Efforts will be focused on three simultaneous initiatives, described as follows:
TX-BBB Boot Camp: The flagship event of the initiative will be an annual “Transit Boot Camp,” tailored to provide training and in-person support to newly-appointed (or even long-serving) members of Texas transit boards. The Boot Camps will be divided into modules spread out over a one- or two-day event and will cover topics ranging from transit finance to community engagement and the latest technology innovations coming to mass transit.
TX-BBB Networking Summit: In conjunction with the annual Boot Camp, the initiative will host a networking summit focused on information-sharing, mentorship, and building social ties among all transit board members, both new and seasoned. The Summit will allow board members to share ideas in a more relaxed and supportive setting, and will also serve as a vital supplement to the Boot Camp sessions.
Online Resource Library: In addition to the in-person events described above, the TX-BBB initiative will also build and maintain a digital information resource, open only to board members and officials involved with the TX-BBB program. It will serve as a 24/7 information database for members who might need answers to a specific policy or technical question. The Library will include digital files of all Boot Camp presentations, as well as relevant academic and news articles and educational resources useful to board members. The Library is intended to grow over time as the TX-BBB initiative empowers more board members across the state.
The partnership aims to bring fresh ideas and innovative thinking to transit boards across Texas, while also empowering them to speak out on issues that affect their neighbors and the communities they serve.
“Transit board members make the final call on many key transit decisions, and they serve as vital links between transit agencies and the community,” says Christof Spieler, a transit consultant and former board member of Houston Metro. “Educated and empowered board members can make transit better by asking the right questions, articulating the benefits of transit, and making tough decisions with more confidence in themselves.”
Over the next four years, the partners hope to grow TX-BBB into a permanent organization, the Texas Association of Transit Board Members. This group would eventually take over administration of the programs outlined above and would establish a permanent pipeline of talent and information to ensure Texas’ transit agencies are led by passionate and informed community voices.
“All of us at C-TEDD and UTA are excited to be part of this bold partnership for Texas,” said Shima Hamidi, the Director of CTEDD. “A core value of policy research is to collaborate across disciplines and geography, and by working together to meet this challenge, we can advance our shared goal of smart and equitable policy decisions.”
Hamidi also pointed out the anticipated impacts of this new educational effort on Texas communities.
“UTA’s strategic plan calls on all of us to find enduring solutions to the policy problems of today and tomorrow,” Hamidi added. “We very much look forward to helping these advocates build the next generation of focused and fearless transit leaders.”
The initiative will be reaching out to transit agency boards in the coming months to plan the first set of in-person events, which are expected to occur in the latter half of 2019.