RapidChat: Peter Varga

Earlier this year, long-time Rapid CEO, Peter Varga, announced his plans for retirement in 2018. But before he says his final goodbyes, Varga reflects on his past years as being at the forefront of Grand Rapid's dynamic public transportation systems.
Earlier this year, long-time Rapid CEO, Peter Varga, announced his plans for retirement in 2018. But before he says his final goodbyes, Varga reflects on his past years being at the forefront of Grand Rapids' dynamic public transportation systems.
Rapid Growth: What was it like to live in Grand Rapids back in 1997 – when you first started your position as CEO with The Rapid?

Peter Varga: I actually started in Grand Rapids in December 1993 when I accepted the position of Director of Operations at the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority. During those early years from 1993 to 1997, Grand Rapids was a sleepy town and there was hardly any life on the streets after work hours, As Mayor John Logie used to say, "You could roll a bowling ball down Monroe Center and not hit anybody at night.” Store fronts were closing on Monroe Center. There was no transit center. Buses would line up on Monroe Ave. on both sides near the Government Center. Passengers would have to transfer by dashing across the avenue. Things began to change when the arena was built as public/private partnership. Eventually things accelerated as more development occurred, with the convention center, the restoration of Grand Rapids Civic Theater, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and the growth of Medical Mile. We eventually built Rapid Central Station in 2003-2004 a couple of blocks away from the arena.

RG: What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment while working for The Rapid?

PV: Taking an old tired antiquated “50s” style bus system and making it modern, dynamic and a sustainable regional transit system. We have been enabling people to go to work better while making it more green, sustainable and accessible to all.
RG: When did the Silver Line project first fall in your lap?

PV: The Silver Line did not fall—it was part of a vision that John Logie started. He wanted to create a major new transit investment; hopefully, a light rail system. I had advised that we should study this and Board Chair George Heartwell and I went to Washington to talk to the Federal Transit Administration. Using their advice, we secured grant funds with the help of Congressman Vern Ehlers and Senator Carl Levin. We established a task force: Great Transit Grand Tomorrows. After looking at 10 corridors, it was determined that a Bus Rapid Transit in the Division corridor was the preferred investment. We secured federal funds and state match funds of $42 million. We finished the project approximately $5 million under budget. BRT costs one tenth of what a similar light rail would cost.

RG: What were you doing before you joined The Rapid team?

PV: I was the Transit System Manager of the Muskegon Area Transit System, a system managed by Muskegon County. Prior to Muskegon, I was the Safety Training Officer at Santa Cruz Metro in California.

RG: What industry leaders did you look to for inspiration?

PV: There are several over the years who I have looked up to, but in truth we have usually mentored each other. Gary Thomas, the CEO at Dallas Area Rapid Transit; Mattie Carter, Past Chair of American Public Transportation Association (APTA), and transit board member in Memphis; Peter Rogoff, former Federal Transit Administrator; Transit Consultants Alan Wulkan and Diana Mendes; Michael Scanlon, former CEO at SAMTRANS and Caltrain and the CEO of Louisville’s’ TARC; Barry Barker. Frank Lichtanski, former CEO of Monterey Salinas Transit, is the one who encouraged me to become a transit CEO more than 30 years ago. Gary Thomas and Michel Scanlon encouraged me to run for APTA leadership and I was elected chair in 2013.

RG: What do you think the next 20 years will hold for our public transportation system?

PV: There will be many changes due to the development of autonomous vehicles including buses. They are already experimenting in Lyon, France with small autonomous buses. Autonomous vehicles could be useful for transit in last and first mile options, bringing people to and from bus stops or BRT stations. However, the proliferation of empty autonomous cars filling the roads with other vehicles could cause massive congestion problems and impede the efficiency of transit.

RG: The costs and availability of parking within the city of Grand Rapids is a huge topic of conversation, but people are still adamant about driving their cars. What do you think it is going to take to get people to make the switch?

PV: First, I believe that millenials who love choices in mobility will drive some of the change; especially as they tend not to buy cars and may not have two car families. Second, cities in their planning process can emphasize a mixed-use, mixed-income development with improved accessibility in sidewalks, bike paths and BRT corridors. Corporations and entities can also encourage different patterns of behavior. Spectrum Health, as an example, offered parking cash out to the 500 employees who were located at 25 Ottawa. All Spectrum Health employees can have their transit rides fully subsidized Monday through Friday. Millenials will pave the way; they will be half the work force by 2020!

RG: What is your personal favorite transit system?

PV: Good question. Let’s see...The Rapid. I also love the transit services in Budapest; so flexible, so easy to use. Then there is San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle in the United States.

RG: What is your best piece of advice for someone who is fearful of utilizing public transportation?

PV: It is lack of familiarity that people have. Public transit is easy to use like any mobility device, such as bicycle or car. In fact, one does not need a license to use, just a transit card or cash. Soon we will have Smart Cards and Mobile Ticketing which will make it easier. People living in large cities are so accustomed to it. Smaller cities, unless their parents taught and encourage their children to ride, have a harder time, because all they were taught is to go by car. We have staff that can help many people and employees of businesses to orient themselves to the use of buses. Mercy Health, for example, works with us on such orientation programs. My best advice is find a buddy and look up your favorite restaurant or brewery on your route and go. You will discover the miracle of not worrying about your car or yourself. You will learn about people in a way that you cannot find driving your car in isolation. You may [even] find romance.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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