Tim Fulton  00:08

Welcome to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. We are a weekly Columbus centric podcast focusing on the civics, lifestyle, entertainment, and people of our city. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. This week, the city’s transit system is going through a transformation. At least that’s the intention. On the occasion of an impending transfer of power and a sales tax issue on the ballot this fall to bulk up services. Columbus underground reporter Brent Warren sat down with both the outgoing and incoming CEOs of the central Ohio transit authority or coda to discuss the shift in leadership, the transportation project set to be on the ballot this fall. And what’s next for the former Greyhound station in downtown. You can get more information on what we discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast.com. Enjoy the interview.

Brent Warren  01:07

I’m here with Joanna Pinkerton, President and CEO of the central Ohio transit authority. And Monica Tez. Fowler Deputy CEO. But those titles are about to change very quickly or very soon. And that’s kind of where I wanted to start today. If you if you guys don’t mind. Joanna, can you tell us a little bit about what’s happened in the last month? And what what you plan for your future?

Joanna Pinkerton  01:32

Sure. Thanks, Brett for the question. We can’t help but be all smiles. It’s a great question. We’re feeling really good. I did announce to the Board of Trustees in the community that I’ll be departing Kota. My last day is May 6, officially. And just recently, the Board of Trustees last week in a special meeting, met and they unanimously offered and I believe she accepted to Monica tailless. Fowler to be the next incoming president and CEO of Kota.

Brent Warren  02:07

And can you tell us anything about sort of the how that decision was made from from your and Sure.

Joanna Pinkerton  02:15

You know, you know a lot about transit. And I do think there’s kind of a following and an understanding in the community that things are changing. That includes our transit agency in mobility and how we move to support this growing economy. As part of codice growth, we have been really successful in recruiting talent, everyone from frontline operators, to IT professionals. And Monica was one of those recruitments. Now, I hope she doesn’t mind me admitting it was a tough recruitment. We stole her away from another very successful transit agency on a different coast of the United States. She has a lot of experience, which she can tell you about in other states, having built out major capital programs. So two years ago, when we really were looking for someone with an eye on operations, we had her in our sights, it took us almost a year to recruit her to the Columbus region. And thankfully, with Columbus, we have a great story to tell. And she bought into the vision of helping us get to next.

Brent Warren  03:21

before and I do want to hear about your background. Monica. Joanna, can you tell us what you’re going to be doing next? Or do you have? Do you have those plans out? Are they made yet?

Joanna Pinkerton  03:31

Well, you know, that’s the question. top of everyone’s mind. My next is focusing on myself and figuring out how I want to invest my time going through a lot of changes right now with sending my youngest away to college, this fall. And I also, I’m really having great conversations. When you think about having worked in the automotive industry, transit and tech. I’m exploring what might be next for me, but those plans are not set yet.

Brent Warren  03:59

Monica, can you tell us about a little bit about that decision to come to Columbus and your background before you before you did? It was about a year ago that you came to Kota is that right? It’s

Monica Tellez-Fowler  04:08

almost exactly a year ago, actually. Yeah, I think I do have a history of large capital projects. So in Texas, I did a couple of rail projects in Denton County 21 mile rail project that connected downtown Denton to dart in Dallas. That’s a lot of inner community inner agency collaboration. So a very regional approach there. That was also

Brent Warren  04:44

probably a very expensive project, right? What was a price tag on

Monica Tellez-Fowler  04:48

very expensive but it was a little over half a billion. Okay, so now this is years back. So yeah, it would be more fast forward. instruction prices is probably close to a billion. And then shortly after that, so that was kind of an interesting place because it was really a smaller agency. And I got to do a lot of you know, everything from strategy, the financial model, you know, that to actually been out on platforms while we’re installing ticket vending machines, and understanding positive train control and all of those pieces. So that was really kind of fun. And really, kind of my big exposure to that large transit capital projects, I got recruited to go over to Fort Worth, because they were in the process of trying to build a rail there were they built in, we ended up being building a 27 mile rail project that went from a little past downtown Fort Worth into DFW airport, again, connects with dark connects with Denton, the regional connection is huge. And so really kind of understanding the customer aspect of that, and everything we did was kind of that approach of, what does it look like for a customer because they don’t see boundaries, and they don’t, they don’t want to, they don’t need to. And so really kind of bring in that approach. So there’s really kind of good, we did a first time debt issuance there, where we received a bond buyers deal of the Year award for that. We’re recognized for that that’s in the financial world that’s in pretty big. But also, it really got a lot of accolades from FTA on that project and specific and we had a lot of regional support. Based on that I got recruited to go to Washington State did some BRT projects there. And they actually had one built out, they did the groundbreaking for the second one in September. And they are in their construction for their third line there. So that’s in Vancouver, Washington, is right across the river from Portland, Oregon. So really kind of, again, taking that regional approach and the connectivity, we were actually, we had service that went across the bridge into Portland. And so as we were there, they started talking about replacing the Interstate bridge project. So the the transit, transit agencies are really kind of big partners in that, because the bridge, the big push there is the bridge should not be built without a dedicated some sort of dedicated guideway, and what would that look like, so whether whether it’s light rail, whether it’s BRT, and who would run it, and all of those different aspects, so I was the representative for that for that mega project. So it was the only project that I didn’t see through till the end, and I was a little disappointed. But in talking with Joanna, and a male who was my predecessor, really kind of got excited about the things that are going on here in Columbus and, and the opportunity that’s in front of us, right. And so, you know, made the trip out here. And once I was here, and I recognize the community, I saw all the possibilities. I think that’s when I was kind of bought in, aside from just Joanna in general, she knows how I feel about we’re did

Joanna Pinkerton  08:29

a pretty hard sales job it was. But it was easy, wasn’t it? The restaurants and the lifestyle? It just, maybe were I hear the term a lot that we’re an undiscovered gem. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore. But once you actually get your feet on the ground in this city in this community, it kind of sells itself.

Monica Tellez-Fowler  08:47

It’s it’s a beautiful community. I mean, especially coming from the west coast for me, like I you know, we were walking out to lunch with animals, like, I just love that the sidewalks and they’re so clean, and they’re so open, you know, like, you can just walk on a sidewalk and come from the West Coast. You know, that’s kind of like, that’s not really a thing there all the time. So, yeah, just have really enjoyed it. And I think once I came here and visited here, it was, it wasn’t that much harder to get me to say, Yeah, I want to be part of this. And

Brent Warren  09:18

in terms of the the work of what Kota has been doing, like for the past year and this coming year, I mean, I’ve been writing about this stuff for over a decade. And this seems, strikes me as maybe the most important year for Kota in that time. There’s just a lot happening. There’s a lot of big projects. What’s your vision for Kota this next year and for the future? Where do you see it heading?

Monica Tellez-Fowler  09:45

That’s, I mean, such a great question. But I would say that I don’t really have to come in with a whole new vision because the vision is already there. It’s really just more about implementing it and that’s the great thing about it is there’s kind of This long laid out plan I think maybe we get in five, six years. And maybe we’re starting to think about okay, well, what are we talking about? If we are able to get the density that we need, if we are able to see some of the development, Gil, when you know, is that when we start talking about like, Are there are other alternatives we need to start evaluating. But for now, I think we need to just build out what we have planned that vision is laid out there. And that’s really the path we need to do. Because I think we need to introduce the region to what the possibilities are. And once they start, like embracing that, and we see that then, then we can then say, Okay, now we have we can make, we can dream bigger here, we can do bigger things well, so

Brent Warren  10:48

yeah. And I don’t think we’ve mentioned it by name. But Linkous is, is the name of sort of that big vision. And the plan is to go to voters in November for a sales tax increase. And a lot of that vision involves building out Bus Rapid Transit BRT corridors. There’s also improvements to existing service and bike and pedestrian improvements, all of that, that we’ve been covering. One of the comments you, I know you, you all have seen this that we get, and you mentioned, rail already. But there’s a whole subset of people who, who, when they hear you talk about BRT, all they can think is, it’s not real. That’s not exciting. When are we going to get real in Columbus? So I don’t know, if both of you want to touch on that. I think

Joanna Pinkerton  11:37

we can both touch on it. You know, I was here during the 1999 initiative. I think the reality is how much things have changed in that 25 year time span, especially the fact that BRT and dedicated transit, Rapid Transit has accelerated across the nation, it’s actually a preferred alternative. You see a lot of communities who are choosing to do BRT instead of rail, because it gets you the same headways, the same timing. And it’s done at a fraction of the cost. And so Columbus’s big idea. And the region’s big idea is how do we connect as many communities and create as much opportunity. So you can build four or five different corridors, which is what the current plan is. Now, that does not rule out that may be one of those corridors, if necessary, depending on the engineering stuff I’m not going to get to get into today, you know, might be rail, but we can see the same performance out of rapid transit. It’s also what the federal government is funding in the entire link us model is really based upon us bringing home almost a billion dollars from the federal government by leveraging our local sales tax. So that half a penny that voters get to design on in November, could leverage so much money from the feds where they’re investing right now.

Monica Tellez-Fowler  12:54

Yep, I think that’s exactly it right in, which is why I’ve kind of talked about is like, we have to introduce this this concept of this regional transit to the community first, and they have to embrace it. And that means density built, built in density, the economic development that typically goes around that you see around these types of projects. Once that happens, once they once they understand it, we may be calm, more competitive, so that we can leverage our funding so that we can receive federal funding to help build out some, you know, whether it’s light rail, or whatever the case, I think you have to choose what’s right for the community. And what I’ll say is, you know, BRT, bus rapid transit is it’s fast, it’s efficient, and it’s a sixth of the cost of light rail. And so it makes it’s affordable. And it makes us it makes it the right choice for us right now. It doesn’t mean that we’re, you know, that’s going to be it forever, but it is the right choice now.

Brent Warren  13:51

Right. And one of the things I know people have talked to talk about with Linkous plan is that it’s not a single line where everybody else kind of misses out. It’s kind of lines all over the region is, is that a good way to describe it?

Joanna Pinkerton  14:07

Yeah, yeah, that’s it. I do like that you’re tiptoeing into a really important conversation. So I’m going to run with that, if you’ll let me Sure. The reality is we have five corridors planned. And then sometimes the question is, what if I’m not on a corridor? And the reality is, it also includes that funding would cover a 45% increase in our existing local best network? That’s significant. That is huge.

Brent Warren  14:33

What and I was gonna ask about that, because, you know, I’m a regular bus rider. So that’s, and I know a lot of people when they hear about these big plans, they’re like, Well, I read the bus every day. How is this going to help me? Right? And if I’m not one on one of those corridors, so what does that I mean, I’ve heard people talk about potentially 24 hours service is that so

Joanna Pinkerton  14:51

that 45% increase, that’s like a financial number. The beautiful thing about link OS is it’s really community based as you’ve been covering it for the last Few years, the feedback from the neighborhoods, from employers to say, this is the type of service we need. So you can add those hours, maybe at the end of shift, you know, like later nights 1am 2am, maybe it’s 24 hours in certain neighborhoods. In addition to the additional bus service, you mentioned sidewalks bikeways road improvements. This is the first time ever in the state’s history, that we would also be building supportive infrastructure. So when you get off of transit, you need a sidewalk, you need a streetlight, you need a safe place to land to finish your journey. And all of that is part of the program to build out connections between communities. So you may not have a corridor coming through your community, you might be surprised at the bikeway or the sidewalk that gets built in your community to connect you to transit very easily.

Monica Tellez-Fowler  15:48

I I’ll add the coda plus zones, because that will be something that we can do launch pretty quickly. And we have communities right now that maybe it’s gonna take a while to get those sidewalks down, maybe it’s gonna take a while. But but we need to connect them to to a larger system. That Kota plus zones allows us to do that, whether it’s, you know, unsafe because of sidewalks or lighting, or there’s just not close to any lines, right? We can we can accomplish that with those coded lessons.

Brent Warren  16:22

And that just in case people don’t know, it could have classes on demand service. Yeah. So you call us in the words of vandalism right to you, basically, you

Monica Tellez-Fowler  16:31

can call up, we also have an app. So like, I just keep wanting to say micro transit. So Uber Lyft thing, it works very similar to that. And it’s just, it’s just quick, but it also has some mobility options so that people with challenges can also use this service.

Joanna Pinkerton  16:52

Yeah, I want to point out that the two largest growing groups of people in our community, so the aging community, and the younger community, so under 20, they are the two biggest users of CODA Plus, they are driving demand, it has increased more than like, I think it’s like two or 3,000%. I know this is recorded, don’t quote me on that, since we launched it with our partner Grove City in 2019. And then since then Westerville, the entire city of Westerville, you can ride Kota plus. And it’s been amazing to see how people who maybe don’t own a second car in the family, or they don’t drive anymore, or they’re not driving yet, are using it for point to point trips, like, hey, I need to do a grocery trip, or I need to go to the doctor, or I’m going to take it to get to a fixed route transit line. It has surprised us, we modeled our micro transit off of what had been done by Chicago and LA, in the kind of 2015 2018 era. And it’s really been a model that transit agencies across the nation have replicated. So link us includes funding to expand that to other neighborhoods, we have a lot of neighborhoods and cities who want it today. So working on it. So after that November vote, Coda plus will be a really quick reality.

Brent Warren  18:07

Great. I wanted to ask about another potential big project, which I haven’t heard as much about recently, which is the Greyhound, the former Greyhound station downtown which Kota owns. I’m trying to remember the timeline Cotabato in 2021, Greyhound for a while was operating downtown out of the Kota bus terminal at the Columbus Commons parking garage. And then now they’ve since moved our way out to the west side. And there’s been all kinds of issues with that move. But the whole time Kota has has held on to this piece of what’s really I mean, I also read about development. So that’s a very prime piece of real estate right in the middle of downtown, right? What can you tell me about code his plans for that piece of real estate?

Joanna Pinkerton  18:54

Well, I can talk about the genesis and then pass it over to you if you’d like. But that was really an important part of our board’s vision for what the future looks like. So knowing that that real estate had had issues for decades in the past, it was very successful for us at the time to bring Greyhound into our site, the bus terminal and let them run operations there. So securing that site for future development. This is where I really like to talk to the community about Coda as a tool, right? We should be supporting your goals and your economic development, your social structures. We I think we all know that the rate Columbus is growing, something needs built on that site. So we have undertaken a federal process. We are regulated by FDA and the DOD to make sure the site is clean, and that it’s safe. It’s kind of a long drawn out process, I might say a little bureaucratic,

Brent Warren  19:50

clean in terms of like not polluted or that kind of thing.

Joanna Pinkerton  19:53

That’s right and double checking for historical value, okay, of anything that was previously on the site. When we get through that process, we Willie really would like to partner with the development community to see what is feasible, you know, what type of mixed use development should be on that site. So again, we own the land, but we see the development community coming in, and really building that out in the future. And I

Monica Tellez-Fowler  20:19

think so one of the studies that’s being done right now is the downtown convergence plan. Right? So they’re really kind of trying to analyze, you know, where are the best places for there to be kind of that transit hub, so to speak? Will it continue to be that location? You know, there’s also discussion about bringing passenger rail to the region. And, you know, we’re obviously we’re going to have to connect to that we want to be huge partners with that. So, you know, are there two two different large hubs somewhere downtown, connecting? That’s certainly one of the main ones and eastmain is kind of always on discussion. But I think that those plans have to kind of play out and there has to be some decisions made. That’s not a oh, you know, Kota only decision, obviously, City of Columbus is a huge partner in in making that decision. But that will kind of guide us in in what we put there. But the discussion with developers is ongoing. And it’s certainly something that I think we’re trying to keep interest in ensuring that when it when it is built out, it’s built out in a big positive way. Can

Brent Warren  21:38

you give me any kind of timeline for when, when, like the studying is going to be wrapping up or when we could see something come together for that. So yeah, that’s

Monica Tellez-Fowler  21:47

wrapping up soon. And I think that decision, I mean, we’re really looking for that decision to be made here in the latter part of this month, or early April. So I’m hoping that we have some decisions to bring to our board by this summer, that

Joanna Pinkerton  22:06

decision for clarification, being the Feds kind of clearing us to move forward. Yeah, in the development community has been wonderful. They’ve been incredibly patient. Because we can’t, you know, have a predetermined conclusion there, we have to let some of the studies take place. So getting that feedback, like in the next month or so allows us to then officially begin conversations with the development community. I think when you look at what that was formerly known as the CDC, I think it’s downtown Columbus incorporated. Now

Brent Warren  22:35


Joanna Pinkerton  22:36

what they’re looking at with with the number of residential units, they’d like to see downtown, more walkable and connected communities, you can expect that they would be participating in that. But there’s no official plans right now, I just want to be really clear in case any of the feds are listening.

Brent Warren  22:54

I’m sure there’s been interest of you keeping a track of the development community. I’m sure there’s interest in that. So they’ve been great about it. Yeah. Yeah. I wanted to ask really quick, because in the last couple of years, there’s been kind of a struggle. And I know, it’s not just at Kota, but to hire enough operators to ramp up the service the way that that you wanted to, where do you stand with that? And what’s out look like for even this year? I know there may be some service changes coming and how is the hiring going? And I know, also sorry, this is a multi part. Question. Monica, you also worked on you were involved in the the talks with the union about the latest contract, which was just signed? Can you talk a little bit about that and where we stand in terms of the workforce and getting people to work at Kota? Sure.

Monica Tellez-Fowler  23:43

Yeah, so what the contract was, I think, from, from my perspective, very positive. I mean, one, we got a contract for three years. Right. That’s, that’s a great win. But I think even more so is I think, Joanne and I really came in with ideas about what we wanted to see in that. And that was, for us, demonstrating to the employees how we recognize what they bring to the table and the vital role that they play within COTA and in the community in general. So it really wasn’t about us going in and getting a win, other than making sure that they understood that we truly value the efforts that they put forth every day, every day, right. So we were able to do that, you know, with wages and benefits, but also in just bringing them to the table more. So one of the things that I think that may be overlooked, but it’s it’s very important is we really set up multiple committees, internally to say these are these are work groups that we’re going to have internally that will not just be coded administrative staff, but it will also be TW representation and the rash. Now behind that is we want to make sure that as we’re having these discussions, and we’re making decisions, that there’s really a partnership there, right. And so that’s really something that I would, I would say is a win. I also think that there are some benefits to that contract that will continue to not just retain the employees we have, but attract employees. And I think at some point, this is going to be really one of the more attractive places to work in the region. I

Joanna Pinkerton  25:27

would agree with that wholeheartedly. Even when you think about the fact we’re the last like, what was it industrialized country that doesn’t have support for families. So we we got out ahead of that even before the contract with the toy, 12 weeks, paid family leave for birthing parents and six weeks for all other parents. We have employees taking advantage of that. I think there’s a recognition, you started the question, with the workforce shortage, this is not unique to Kota, it’s not unique to transit. This is a reality that our nation faces. So looking at what really is important to people who want to maybe work a couple years, or five years, or 10 or 30, you’re welcome to stay for 30. But adapting our business practices to accommodate the new lifestyles, a lot of that’s written into that contract that Monica helped orchestrate. And that’s a first for us. And I’d like to think of things as a win moving forward only when everybody’s like, okay, there’s something in here for me. It’s not a management win. I don’t, you know, I don’t believe in that type of mentality. It’s what works well for people. So I think it’s a beginning. It’s not the end. But it’s a really good start. And the reality is, we all are going to have to figure out how to be more efficient at work, when there’s a workforce shortage, that doesn’t have a foreseeable end.

Brent Warren  26:48

And in terms of the coming year, and the possibility of getting, you know, hiring on more operators and adding back service,

Joanna Pinkerton  26:56

that’s been going great. So our last two same day hiring events that we had last year. incredible success. We’re having another one here in just a few days. I think it’s April 24. Yes. So come on out April 24. From what I understand, it’s a lot of fun. It is

Monica Tellez-Fowler  27:11

to truck. Yeah, yeah, we, and I think the first one was very successful. But as successful as that one was the second one, just like it was even better, because there was some lessons learned, they were able to streamline a lot of things. And I think people came out. And I mean, just an incredible group of people who were really passionate about trans transit, and mobility in general. So we were really excited. I mean, I got to go out and spend a couple of hours out there and do some interviews myself. And it was it’s just really a good time. And really kind of we’ve have everyone, we have representation. We have operators there. We have some vehicle maintenance technicians that come out. We have people from administrative staff. And of course, HR is there to keep us in check. But But I think for the from the community perspective, we really are getting a lot of interest in finding a place here at Coda for them. And

Joanna Pinkerton  28:07

I think that’s part of a broader conversation. You and I have known each other for years now. And I’m really passionate about people getting into stem and the trades. So that’s a broader conversation happening right now in Ohio, Central Ohio. There’s a lot of job opportunities. Maybe you don’t grow up thinking, oh, I want to be in transportation. There is so much going on here from it to vehicle maintenance techs to electrification, like, we need people who can understand how to help us adapt to hydrogen fuel cell. Our operators are not only frontline service employees, they are they are operators driving a million dollar computer on wheels. Right. So it’s an exciting career field to look into. And I think we’re finally getting people to understand there’s a lot of different opportunities here.

Brent Warren  28:57

Well, great, I we’re running out of time. So I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk to us today. I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you wanted to add? Is there anything we missed? I always when I’m talking to people for stories, I always say that at the end because I sometimes get some of the best stuff that way. But is there anything that we missed that you wanted to add? Before we go?

Joanna Pinkerton  29:19

I would like to point out, this is our 50th anniversary. Not a lot of organizations make it to 50 We are here for the community and I think you know all of our pins say something like rolling since 1974. And if the community wants us to we’re gonna keep rolling for another 50 Great, thank you. Sure.

Monica Tellez-Fowler  29:40

Thank you.

Tim Fulton  29:54

Thank you for listening to Confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. Again, you can get more information on what we did. Cast today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast.com Please rate subscribe, share this episode of The confluence cast with your friends, family, contacts enemies to your favorite transit specialist. If you’re interested in sponsoring the confluence cast get in touch with us. We can be reached by email at info at the confluence cast.com Our theme music was composed by Benji Robinson. Our producer is Philip Cogley. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. Have a great week.