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Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nathaniel Ford was named to the role last October and started in December. Since then, he's instituted a reorganization and is seeking to do more to make the system efficient.
Jax Daily Record Monday, Oct. 7, 201312:00 PM EST

'Total transformation' of JTA in Ford's first year

by: David Chapman

Nathaniel Ford began his research even before starting as CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority in December.

He rode the buses. He listened to riders. He talked to the agency's staff and board.

All to determine what was being done right and what he'd look to change when he started.

It's a pace he's continued since being named head of the authority last October, when he began considering how to mold the organization.

Already, he's streamlined management, filling some roles with people "who could withstand the pace of change I wanted to implement."

He's had close to 100 meetings with public officials, citizen panels, community groups and the media among others.

And, he's better defined what — and how — on time is and demanded accountability.

The former leader of transit systems in Atlanta and San Francisco has a mission to spread the word about the value of public transportation in a county dominated by people more comfortable behind the wheel than being along for the ride.

Ford's also working on a route restructure, a bus rapid transit system and preserving the 6-cent gas tax.

He's been impressive to many, including City Council member Johnny Gaffney, the liaison to the authority.

"It's been a total transformation with the JTA, that wasn't an easy task," Gaffney said. "He's really engaging the community and the leadership in Jacksonville."

The first year

Ford was named to the role last October and started in December to take over for the retiring Michael Blaylock.

Blaylock led the authority for 10 years and through most of the Better Jacksonville Plan, but saw the end of his tenure blemished by a Florida Times-Union report about JTA's extensive failure to review drivers' criminal and driving records.

Ford was selected from more than 100 candidates who entered the national search. When he stepped into the role, he said he wanted to hear from the community before formulating a plan.

"At first, I did a lot of listening," he said. "The infrastructure and the basics were there."

His first major task was to realign the management structure to one he says needed to be "flatter," that is, more streamlined with management able to react quicker and provide direction and accountability.

The result was reducing management positions from 42 to 37, and filling some roles with people who could handle the pace and pressure.

"In terms of my background … in terms of quality of service and moving millions of people a day, the pressure is very, very high," Ford said. "I expect things to be done yesterday."

The system also allows him to "roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty" by being more involved in the day-to-day operations.

From users, he's crafted the goal of what he wants the authority to become: an organization that provides a "robust" transportation network, one with more technology, better responsiveness and being a visible part of the community.

Ford says about 80 percent of JTA riders rely solely on the authority to move about the city. The other 20 percent are choice riders. He wants to dramatically increase that number.

"The road and highway infrastructure lends itself to the car-centric culture," Ford said. "At some point we will reach capacity. … To grow as a community, to have a vibrant Downtown, we need to have a vibrant transportation system."

The known, unknown challenges

"I inherited an agency on the cusp of doing some great things," Ford says.

Yet, it needed improvement.

He calls stepping into the auto-laden culture of Jacksonville a "known challenge."

The "unknown challenges" were those that incorporated technology and performance.

One of the first questions he asked when he started was about the authority's on-time performance, which he says was met with questions and "fuzziness."

"If I am Krispy Kreme, I know how many doughnuts I am making," he said.

From January-March, he said the authority worked on how to better identify on-time performance. Now, that means drivers can't be more than five minutes late or leave one minute early from any stop.

Based on those metrics, the authority has about a 65 percent on-time rate.

Ford says the rate has been improved to about 70 percent now, despite outside influences such as the school year starting and the closure of the Mathews Bridge, after it was hit by a ship in tow. "The Mathews Bridge has been bad," he said.

Five major routes have been affected and the day the accident happened, on-time rates dipped to into the 30s.

When the bridge is reopened, Ford says the authority will be able to better evaluate routes being tweaked and established.

In-house technology also has been an "unknown challenge," Ford says, but is an issue being addressed. That means upgrading systems that can communicate with one another and making it so staff can better use their time.

Building relationships

Ford's the person behind the scenes overseeing that change, but he's also out acting as the lead voice.

He's individually met with each council member at least twice in his first year — once for an introduction, another to explain the authority's budget.

Gaffney said he's been impressed with the way Ford has stepped in and made the organization his own. The responsiveness and outreach has increased.

"He's a stickler about those buses being on time," he said.

While Gaffney said he had a "pretty good" relationship with Blaylock, he said there was a perception the administration before Ford "didn't have a good relationship with City Hall."

He said Ford being at the forefront and keeping council engaged has been beneficial.

On the executive side, Mayor Alvin Brown also has an "excellent" relationship with Ford that "benefits our entire community," said David DeCamp, Brown spokesman.

DeCamp cited JTA's participation to consolidate and improve Internet services, which when combined with other authorities' participation, annually saves the city about $200,000.

Ford also has been establishing relationships with those outside City Hall, namely in the transportation industry.

"It's nothing but positives right now," said Jeff Sheffield, North Florida Transportation Planning Organization executive director. "He's been respectful of all the groups in the region."

The North Florida TPO is an independent regional transportation organization for Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties. It partners with JTA general projects and also ensures its plan is consistent with aspects of JTA's to ensure federal funding.

Sheffield said he is confident with the message and plan Ford has undertaken, but one of the bigger challenges will be the system itself.

"The message only works when the system is efficient," Sheffield said, referring to the overall infrastructure and performance. "That's one of the challenges Nat has right now."

Revamping the system

Ford touts the "Blueprint for Transportation Excellence" as a way to achieve greater transportation efficiencies.

One of the main results will be a route restructure, which he hopes will be unveiled before the start of the 2014-15 school year. To do so will mean examining ridership, the numbers of people using certain routes and listening to community.

It also means examining the entire transportation framework to determine how each component, such as the upcoming Bus Rapid Transit system, the Skyway, roads and even commuter rail all can — or maybe can't — work together in harmony.

"I'm working to ensure they fit in the overall system and not just putting them there," he said.

The bus rapid transit system will be the next tangible transportation component the public will see, he says. As its website describes it, the system will include dedicated travel lanes, technology-equipped and weather-protected shelters and pre-boarding ticketing machines among other improvements. Plans were recently filed for the Downtown phase of the system, which will cost $13.4 million, according to the website.

Financial stability and the looming gas tax

Ford says the key to JTA will be its financial sustainability — not just cutting, but the need to increase revenue. The authority was just approved for a $172 million budget.

In the coming months, he'll present a plan for a new investment policy and another for transit-oriented developments on its real estate. Such developments integrate transportation into residential and commercial mixed-use developments. Ford said he hopes the authority will review its real estate assets in the next several months for such an idea.

Then there's the gas tax.

The 6-cent tax on every purchased gallon of gasoline in Duval County expires in 2016. Ford says there is no danger to the operating budget the next two years, but that a gas tax is "clearly" needed for the future. The tax has been used to fund road construction and maintenance and is estimated to raise almost $29 million this year.

It's an issue on which the mayor and Ford disagree.

"The mayor, as he started prior to election, opposes extending the gas tax," DeCamp said. "That tax is increasingly inefficient in a time of escalating fuel efficiency in motor vehicles."

Taxpayers already contribute to maintaining the transportation system through ways such as the Better Jacksonville Plan and that "a better course will be to begin exploring innovative ways and sources to support transportation," DeCamp said.

Council will weigh in on the issue and could vote to continue the current tax, implement a new surcharge or drop it.

Gaffney said he is undecided on the issue at this point, but looks forward to the discussion. He said it should take place in the coming months.

Ford also said he expects the gas tax debate to "move higher up on the list" of issues council will address. When it does, Ford he said the authority will provide both council and the administration with analysis and data.

"It's not a question of if we need a gas tax, but when," Ford says.

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