Deborah Prato is less than a month into her new job as CEO of The Rapid, the Grand Rapids metro area’s public transit system. It’s certainly a change of pace from the expansive systems where she previously held executive positions at New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and NJ Transit — some of the largest public transportation systems in the country. In an interview with MiBiz, Prato said while the scale is different, the mission to provide safe and reliable transit options that can also help fuel economic growth remains the same.
You’re coming to The Rapid from massive transportation systems in New Jersey and New York City. How do you see that experience applying here?
It’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison and though the scope and scale is different, public transportation is public transportation. The smaller market has the ability to do more and more ability to be creative. For me, it’s an opportunity where I’ll get to know every employee and their name and hopefully their spouse’s and dog’s name. That’s literally impossible to do in New York City.
What were some of your duties at the MTA?
My title was senior vice president of people and business transformation and we were working on the blocking and tackling part of engaging employees to make sure we were delivering service in the most effective and efficient way. If there was ever a job that I had that was tough, it’s that one. Your reach is so far, and trying to roll out something programmatic is difficult when there are so many employees.
How did you see bus ridership shift during the pandemic?
Bus ridership stayed strong during the pandemic. It’s a real backbone service and it’s really recognized that having a bus where you live is a valuable commodity. Across the country, challenges have been operator availability and finding a candidate pool with a commercial driver’s license. There are difficult national trends of recruiting and retaining (workers), along with private carriers offering signing bonuses and things like that.
What are some of your early priorities at The Rapid?
In my first 90 days, I need to learn. I’ve been in transportation before, but I haven’t been in this community. I need to listen and learn what this community needs and wants, what customers are saying, what employees are saying, where community leaders have problems, and where business leaders have issues where transportation could provide a solid solution. Then I’ll form some goals and objectives and move to creating a strategic plan and execution and tactics on that. My goal is that the community understands the value that transit provides.
When approaching community leaders, how do you make that connection between public transportation and economic development?
It’ll be a team effort on making this pitch. I only represent what we could possibly bring to the table, but there is an element of what could be as we explore different types of transportation modes. We’re looking at on-demand service in Kentwood and Walker — that will be new. Transit could be part of the solution. If it’s not the cure, it could definitely be part of what gets us to a financially sound solution.
How can metro transit systems improve under financially constrained conditions?
(The Rapid) has a pretty good capital program. It’s healthy. We’re going to get creative with some of our subsidy partnerships and seek non-traditional solutions to what’s been there. It’s pretty well settled that transit provides value to properties and businesses. I see public transit as the great connector, as valuable as any other infrastructure. Power, sewer, water and public transit are what leads to economic vitality. If we need to flex and create a new solution, we’re open to looking at that.
How has The Rapid rebounded since the early weeks of the pandemic when it was potentially looking at hundreds of layoffs?
Some people did take voluntary furloughs, but no one was laid off. How do we move forward? That’s the million dollar question. What’s ridership going to do? Will remote workers stay as remote workers? In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a slight uptick in commuter (rides). Year to year, it has stayed pretty steady. I think we’re going to come back strong. This is a community that values transportation.
You’re coming from a high-density city like New York to a very car-centric state like Michigan. How do you adapt to that major transportation culture difference?
Certainly, population density drives more people to public transportation. But Rochester (N.Y.) was a very similar car-centric town with a lot of discretionary riders. (Editor’s note: Prato worked for seven years as chief administrative officer at the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority.) I think our amenities and ability to get people where they need to go safely without the hassle of a car and make it easy will help change the mindset. This is a totally green alternative. Instead of 60 cars on the road, it’s 60 people on a bus. I think West Michigan is ready to hear that kind of messaging.