ORT Chief Getting Up To Speed

Joel Gardner can best summarize his goals for Ozark Regional Transit with one word — efficiency.

Considering his background serving in the U. S. Marine Corps, it’s easy to understand. Gardner, hired in September as the ORT’s new executive director, only recently has relocated his family and gotten settled into his new office in Springdale.

ORT’s management firm, First Transit, reassigned Gardner’s predecessor, Phil Pumphrey, after 10 years in the wake of a failed sales-tax measure last spring in Washington County.

Gardner has worked with transit systems in Jonesboro, Reno, Nev., and Sherman, Texas. He sat down recently with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal to discuss his goals for the organization, as well as his thoughts on ridership, funding and the future of ORT as a public transit service.


Northwest Arkansas Business Journal: How did you get interested in this field? What is your background in the transportation industry?

Joel Gardner: I fell into it. I was in Idaho with the Marine Corps and private industry. My wife wanted to take a final transfer over to Arkansas to be with her dad. I was looking for work and the interview I had with the city of Jonesboro had kind of fallen through. By the time we had moved out there, the person that they eventually did hire for the job had quit. They needed somebody to finish their budget, so I stepped in with a $2 million budget and an office and a staff of one — me — and started it from there. That was 2005.


NWABJ: Tell me about your experience with the Marines.

JG: Pretty simple. They taught me how to lead. That’s really what it boils down to. No glory, no guts. That’s me.


NWABJ: What is your role as executive director of the ORT?

JG: My role here is a servant to the people that I work for. I guess that’s the best way to put it. To find a way to build efficiencies into the jobs that they do, and make sure these guys can get their jobs done. As a leader, that’s what I am going to do. That’s what I have been ingrained to do. That’s what I have always done. And that’s just to make it so everyone else can do their jobs.


NWABJ: What are you most looking forward to about this position?

JG: I am looking forward to seeing this system grow and develop into a system that I know it can be. I see a lot of potential. I really do. But the first thing we’ve got to do is clean up our own backyard before we tell anybody else what to do or how to do it, or anything to that effect. We’re already working on some items that I have classified as inefficiencies. We’re already working on cost-saving measures, looking for ways to reduce monthly payments on items we either don’t need or we’re paying too much for, and looking for ways to save the taxpayer dollars. I am designated as a steward of taxpayer funds, and I’d better be a wise steward.


NWABJ: What does ORT do well and what does it need to work on?

JG: They really present themselves well in the community. To look at ORT from the outside, and I’ve looked a lot from the outside and a little from the inside, I’ll tell you this: A clean bus is really an efficiently run bus. And the reason I say that is when we have a clean bus, we have maintenance people that take care of the buses. We have drivers that take care of the inside of the buses. We have employees who are driving well. They care about passengers. And I don’t necessarily mean the lack of dirt, but the lines are straight, it’s well maintained, all the things I just outlined. That shows that the staff here is phenomenal. And I can already tell the staff is phenomenal.

Some of the things we need to immediately begin working on are route efficiencies. That’s going to be the first thing we start addressing — where it works and where it doesn’t work. Like all transit systems, there are areas that are dead areas.


NWABJ: What do you see as the role of the ORT and its dollars? Is it to provide services to homeless, disabled or unemployed, or is it providing a bus system to move cars off the streets, to serve the working population?

JG: Public transportation should be, when we look at our ridership, it should be a combination of choice riders and need riders. Choice riders are those of us in the work force who choose to use public transportation because of its efficiency and its timeliness. Then there are need riders. It should be a combination of the two.

Need riders should not be our primary focus. When we get this into a regional system that serves well and provides proof of on-time performance, and quality service, we’re going to get the choice riders, the people who have vehicles.


NWABJ: To follow up on that point, how challenging is it to run a bus system in an area where parking in most of the region’s downtowns isn’t very expensive, and where people are reluctant to give up driving in favor of riding? How do you get past that?

JG: By providing a quality system that shows on-time results. One of the best examples I can give. If we look at a downtown structure, there is going to be a demand for parking. Spaces are a premium. As a businessperson, if I have to go more than walking distance to my location to do business, do lunch, whatever, I would like to have a system where I can get on public transportation, get there, do what I need to do, and get back on time.

When I look at some larger cities that are served with public transit, and this is a large community, I actually look at the riders and I see workers, and I do sometimes see homeless, and I see the elderly, and I do see the disabled. I see everybody utilizing it.


NWABJ: How much have you heard or been told about the quarter-cent sales tax that failed in May? What can you do to find additional funding?

JG: I’ve heard all kinds of different stories about the quarter-cent sales tax. I still believe that we need to clean up our own backyard before we start going somewhere else. We need to utilize the funds we currently have to the best of their ability before we start asking for anything else. That will be something that, if we need to start asking for more money in the future, then we’ll do it in a proper way. That’s the best I can say about that. Not saying that it was previously done improperly, but I think we need to make sure we clean up everything of our own. If we treat this as a business that will spend every dollar as wisely as possible, then we will scratch and claw for every dollar coming in.


NWABJ: What collaboration do you want to see occur between ORT and Razorback Transit?

JG: Every bit that we possibly can. We are already working together. One of the biggest things we need to look at is where we are duplicating service. If Razorback is heading down a street and I’m sending a bus down the same street, anybody looking at it can say that is a waste of money. [Razorback Transit logistics manager] Adam Waddell and I have already sat down and started talking about where we can be more efficient. It’s not a territorial thing. It’s working together to provide the highest quality of service to the community. If I am chasing one of his buses or he’s chasing one of my buses down the street, we’re wasting money.


NWABJ: What is your approach going to be for ORT to provide transportation services to the business community? Does this area need that?

JG: No doubt, whatsoever. If we look at Washington, D.C., and I know we are nowhere the size of Washington, D.C., but when you get on and off a train or a bus, the majority of people are business travelers. Now, they may not be three-piece suit and tie business travelers, but the working professional. And that’s anybody from McDonald’s all the way up to suit and tie. Those are the folks that I really want to see starting to use ORT.


NWABJ: Are there any specific projects or policies that you are working to implement right away or have started right away?

JG: The first thing is to review all the projects and policies that are here now. I think probably for me personally the first thing I’m going to start pushing the staff on is the public parking lot driving, where we are actually [driving] into parking lots. Parking lots are a waste of time, and what I mean by that is when you get into a parking lot, we’ve gone from an average of 17 miles per hour on a surface road down to 3 miles per hour in a parking lot. We start to waste time. We reduce efficiency and increase chances for accidents every time we pull into a parking lot. I’m talking about with the fixed-route buses. Paratransit buses are small enough to get in and out and act like a regular vehicle. That’s what they are designed for. But the big fixed-route buses, they should not be in a parking lot. Those buses are not originally designed for that.


NWABJ: So, looking at routes, looking at pickup and drop-off points, those are immediate areas to address?

JG: Efficiencies and inefficiencies. I can understand why it is the way it is because it grew from a dial-a-ride program into a paratransit into what it is now. But as we grow and separate paratransit services from fixed-route services, there are certain things that need to be shed from the fixed route, and allow the paratransit services to continue to provide.


NWABJ: So, specifically, what can you do increase the use of ORT buses in the next year?

JG: The first thing is to take a look at the routes. Find out what they are serving and why they are serving. Take a look at the ridership and what those needs are. Then start making the adjustments from one route to the next route. I have already made a commitment to the folks in Rogers that I would start there, because they were the first ones to ask, ‘Will you take a look at our routes?’ Yes. First come, first served. So we’re going to look at Rogers, then Bentonville, then Springdale and then we’re going to look at Fayetteville. No specific plan on which one goes second, third or fourth. But we’ll take it one step at a time and look at route efficiencies and look at where the needs are, and if we are providing the services needed. And if not, how can we?


NWABJ: And lastly, what is success for ORT? How would that be defined or described?

JG: Good question. The best way to describe a successful ORT would be accident-free on a daily basis, quality of service, being on time and quality results.