October 14, 2012

Columbia-area bus director setting the stage for change

The new director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, Bob Schneider, would be the man reconfiguring the Midlands bus system if voters approve a penny sales tax for transportation Nov. 6.

When Bob Schneider was getting his master’s degree in political science, he needed a paid internship, so the young college student pestered the people at Tennessee’s Knoxville City Hall until somebody found a place for him.

His assignment was to help establish late-night and Sunday bus service. Riders used traditional buses on established routes, calling ahead for vans to deliver them the last leg home.

Schneider worked with police on safe drop-off points, met with employers to spread the word on the new service, and made sure bus drivers and passengers understood how the system worked.

Twelve years later, Knoxville residents working second- or third shift jobs still use the service because it’s more economical to deliver passengers by van when their destinations are scattered.

Now 37, Schneider said that kind of flexible service would work in Columbia.

He just may get a chance to find out.

The new director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, Schneider would be the man reconfiguring the bus system if voters approve a penny sales tax for transportation Nov. 6. Key members of his board of directors say they have confidence in him to modernize Columbia’s beleaguered bus system.

Still, Schneider is fielding criticism for a lack of details on which services he intends to provide with $13.7 million a year from the sales tax, if it passes.

He has talked about suburban park-and-ride lots, express routes into town, a loop through the central business district and 30-minute service on most routes. But he freely admits no one will know specifically where routes will expand until months after the Nov. 6 vote.

That frustrates some.

Community organizer Virginia Sanders, upset that Schneider was not forthcoming, took her complaints to the board of directors last week. “We need maps,” she told them, “and you need to tell us where you could expand.”

Former co-workers and colleagues here say if anyone can restore faith in the bus system, Schneider can: He learns fast, communicates well and is able to transform big ideas into action.

In Knoxville, he dressed up in a goofy costume to promote ridership.

In Boise, Idaho, he renegotiated contracts with unionized bus drivers unhappy with their raises.

Through it all, Schneider – who explores local history, drives fast motorcycles and prides himself on his knowledge of rock ’n’ roll – took the scholarly approach.

“He keeps the focus where it should be in this business, which is on the consumers, our passengers,” said Melissa Roberson, chief administrative officer at Knoxville Area Transit, where Schneider began his career in 2000.

“He’s very quick on his feet in terms of being able to pull data together and figure out a course of action,” added former boss Kelli Fairless, director of Valley Regional Transit in Boise. “He ... stays focused and just gets things done.”

Early years in transit

Schneider grew up in central Florida, the only child of a flooring-store owner and a public school teacher.

At 21, he married his high-school sweetheart, Amy Ungerer, now a math teacher at Eau Claire High School. They have two girls, Allison, 8, and Eliza, who’s in kindergarten.

The couple left home for Western Carolina University, a small state school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Schneider majored in history. He wanted to be a college professor.

But when it came to historical events like the Civil War, Schneider was more interested in the root causes than the battles. A change to political science and public administration satisfied his interest in government systems.

Schneider was recruited for graduate school by the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. He remains an ardent UT football fan, the kind who wears orange and white checkered pants on game day, said Mark Hairr, who was a co-worker.

As it turns out, Schneider’s $7-an-hour internship in the mayor’s office there changed the course of his academic and work life.

He landed a job at Knoxville Area Transit, initially specializing in transit services for people with disabilities. Over the next six years, Schneider worked his way through every major department, learning the bus system at a time of growth and change, said Hairr, now director of parking and transit at UT.

“He really rose through the ranks pretty quickly,” Hairr said.

Roberson, chief administrator of Knoxville’s transit system, remembers Schneider first as a college student, interviewing her about transit financing. “I thought he was very sharp,” Roberson said. “He seemed to be really interested in the topic.”

Later he returned to Knoxville Area Transit as an employee. And Roberson said he left his mark by setting up processes to “tighten up” operations.

“In the olden days, if you wanted to get a bus fixed, you pulled it in to the garage and asked the nearest mechanic to take a look at it,” she said. “Now we have parts inventory and work orders, and it’s a little more formalized.

“Bobby helped us set up those,” she said. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Schneider finished his PhD and taught a night class while working full time at Knoxville Area Transit. His research topics were transit governing boards and public involvement in decision-making.

In February 2007, he left Knoxville for Boise and his first general manager’s job, considering it “a great adventure” far from home.

His first year in the job, steady increases in the price of gasoline got people out of their cars and onto buses, said Fairless, executive director of Valley Regional Transit.

At the same time, Boise’s bus system was changing. Bus riders had always hailed a passing bus, but the city wanted to establish conventional bus stops, with signs and shelters.

Schneider used the change in boarding as an opportunity to market the system, generating an increase in ridership approaching 15 percent that year, Fairless said.

During Schneider’s tenure in Boise, the bus system was acquired by Veolia, one of the largest transit companies in the world.

In the summer of 2011, Schneider found himself in Columbia, at a dinner meeting with Veolia officials and local business leaders intent on improving the bus system. He was groomed and ready for a new assignment.

New leadership

Here in Columbia, it’s a different story than in Knoxville or Boise.

Here, the bus system is short on money and innovation.

The system was owned by utility company SCE&G until 2002, when the city of Columbia agreed to take it over. Ridership stayed pretty steady until this year, when the SCE&G, as planned, ended a $5 million-a-year subsidy. Elected officials with Columbia and Richland County seemed to be caught flat-footed.

Business leaders stepped in, paving the way for new leadership at the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority.

Chamber executive Ike McLeese said while Schneider was willing to do what it took to get the system under control – service was cut by 40 percent – he also understands the potential for transit in Columbia. “He speaks in terms that people can understand and accept,” McLeese said. “And he exudes, he builds, confidence in people that he knows what he’s doing.”

Jennifer Harding is part of the new, 13-member board of directors that took over when Schneider did – part of the chamber’s plan to restore public confidence in the CMRTA heading into the referendum.

“We had to make huge cuts in service in order to meet the revenues we were projecting and had been given by our partners,” said Harding, a real estate professional. “He was fearless.”

Board member Mac Bennett, head of the United Way, said Schneider figured out the lay of the land quickly: He knows who makes the calls behind the scenes and who’s related to whom. He enlisted in the chamber’s Leadership Columbia class.

Bennett said the board is determined to deal with long-range transportation issues and policy matters while leaving day-to-day operations to the professionals.

When Columbia hired Veolia to run its bus system, Schneider came to Columbia with dual posts, duplicating Veolia’s organizations in Savannah, New Orleans and Winston-Salem. He serves as both Veolia’s general manager and head of the board of directors.

Schneider said he answers to the board on policy matters that include all bus services, fares and purchases made with taxpayer money.

He also said his Veolia salary is not public information and that he’s essentially working for the board without pay. After Monday, both he and Veolia will be on month-to-month contracts with the CMRTA. The board will take up the renewal of their contracts in November or December, attorney Frannie Heizer said.

Retired state employee Bob Liming served on the board until last year’s shake-up.

He criticized the make-up of the new board because he said it does not include any bus riders. The new administrative set-up gives Schneider too much authority, he said, without necessary checks and balances.

Liming, too, is troubled by the lack of a specific plan for service improvements if voters approve a local sales tax. He noted that, two years ago, local governments spent $500,000 for consultants to prepare detailed expansion plans as part of a sales-tax campaign narrowly rejected by voters.

“This is not a private business,” Liming said. “It’s a public transit authority. Should not the public have every right to know how every penny is spent?”

For his part, Schneider said the previous bus plan has limited value now.

“A lot of it was just more of the same,” the director said. “I don’t think that’s what people want. ... I don’t think people want more empty buses running at certain times of the day or night.”

Schneider said his “Vision 2020” plan, laying out the concepts he’d like to introduce to Columbia over the next eight years, is the best outline he can provide to voters weighing whether to support the tax. The “Vision 2020” plan includes those suburban park-and-ride lots, express routes into town, a loop through the central business district and 30-minute service on most routes.

“For me to draw up a map on a piece of paper and say, ‘This is what it’s going to be,’ is untruthful,” he said.

Federal law requires him to meet with riders on major changes in service. Then, the changes are reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration.

Where to next?

Professional bus driver Lucious Williams said Schneider requires someone from management to be at work at 5 a.m. when drivers start their shifts – to greet them, answer questions or pass along safety information.

Every week, Schneider takes a turn at early-morning duty.

“That’s something he initiated,” said Williams, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“Other than that, what you see in the political arena is what I know about Bob. He presents himself well.”

Larry Livingston, Veolia’s assistant general manager and a 40-year veteran of the Columbia bus system, sees promise. His new boss has provided vision and focus. “Because of the funding,” he added, “there’s not a whole lot we could do in the last year.”

Schneider said if the tax does not pass, he’ll rethink how to provide services – something that should have been done two or three years ago. “Every opportunity we had to be great, we would be,” he said.

But unless political leaders identify a different way to fund service, he said, the system would face severe reductions.

When it comes to his job, Schneider said he’s motivated by having independence and responsibility.

“I’m doing something that’s never been done in Columbia,” he said.

“There’s something to be said for not letting people down.”

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos