A Historic New RTD CEO

Debra Johnson, RTD’s new CEO.
Photo courtesy of Debra Johnson

In November Debra Johnson took the helm as the CEO of the Regional Transportation District (RTD), the Denver area’s transit agency.  Her tenure at the agency is historic as she is the first female CEO in the agency’s 51 year history, as well as the first Black female CEO.  Johnson has spent her nearly quarter century career in leadership and executive positions in transit agencies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., before coming to Denver. She converses like a Six Sigma blackbelt, well versed in optimizing complex operational issues at large organizations, while at the same time having the tremendous empathy of someone who truly knows the essence of public transit.

Johnson arrives at RTD facing unprecedented budget cuts and falling ridership due to the pandemic.  In January, a recent federal transit relief package gave $203 million to the agency, allowing them to bring back 137 part-time bus and train operators who were laid off in 2020 due to the budget crunch.  She has spent the first few months of the job making it a priority to listen to the operators of the buses, trains, other employees, and customers that use RTD.

In an interview, we asked Johnson what it means to her to be running one of the largest transit agencies in the country, after growing up relying on public transportation herself and not having a car until her adult years.

“The importance to me is having an understanding of the significance of public transport in unleashing people from their limitations… And for me specifically, I’d be remiss in saying being a black woman in this spot, recognizing that oftentimes it’s women of color that are transit dependent, it’s really recognizing that it’s important that we adhere to our schedule because that’s our commitment we make to our customers… and if we’re late that could impact their livelihood.” 

On her first day on the job Johnson referenced a Pew Research Center study finding that 54% of transit riders nationally are single mothers of color.  She recognizes that “not everyone is trying to get to a high rise in downtown Denver or to the tech center” and that the agency needs to be “agile and flexible in recognizing that there are a multitude of different customer segments”.

“One thing for certain is that we don’t have traditional commute hours anymore… We have to recognize that we have to be able to pivot and be transformational.  Public transport is still going to be that vehicle that moves people to and fro.  However, it may be done differently.”   Johnson alluded to potential public-private partnerships that could compliment RTD, making it easier for people to get the last mile from the bus stop to their destination.  Alluding to use of mobility tools like bike share, scooter share, and rideshare. 

When asked what changes we might see in the future, the new CEO said that this year RTD will begin a comprehensive operational analysis, or a top bottom look at the entire system, known as “Reimagine RTD”. The process will involve a thorough analysis of ridership, community growth, and ensuring that the system is optimized for riders. “We have to be able to recognize that we have to be open to new ideas and continuous improvement.”   She stressed that part of this process will be an extensive community input phase in which she encourages everyone to get involved in when details emerge later this year.  She also mentioned that we may see Bus Rapid Transit or “BRT” on Federal Boulevard.  Using new lanes that would allow RTD bus riders to bypass traffic jams and move more people quickly up and down the corridor. 

She sees transit not only as a tool to bring opportunity to communities, but also as a tool to help fight climate change. High performing transit can entice both wealthy and working class riders “to get out of their cars.” Something that can help reduce air pollution and fight climate change by encouraging people into using RTD as a more environmentally friendly type of transportation and “being a good climate action steward by reducing your carbon footprint and investing in future generations.”

We asked Johnson what else she wanted the community to know, and she made it clear that she wants RTD to get more direct feedback.  “We want to ensure that we can hear from all of our customers about what it is we can do to be better partners.  The one thing about any transit agency is that we are interwoven into the community fabric into the areas in which we provide service.  We are open to come out to different community events and have discussions about what might be, as opposed to what was.  Just have an open mind, we are willing to roll up our sleeves and engage.”

Do you have Questions or Feedback for RTD?
General feedback or questions:  303.299.6000
For feedback on near term service/schedule changes:  https://www.rtd-denver.com/service-changes
To engage in the Reimagine RTD process (long term planning will start again in earnest this summer): https://www.rtd-denver.com/reimagine


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