Longtime Transit Leader Named ‘Outstanding Public Transportation Manager’
By Sean Belk - Staff Writer
July 31, 2012 - Approaching a 40-year tenure at Long Beach Transit, Larry Jackson has seen the ups and downs of the industry, a changing demographic in the city and a revolving door of political leaders. But he said one thing has remained the same: his goal to run the independent, non-profit public transportation agency like a business.
The Michigan native was 26 when he was first hired by the City of Long Beach in 1975 to help conduct financial analysis of grant programs for Long Beach Transit. A few years later, the agency hired him full-time to manage the administrative operations. He quickly moved up the ranks and, in 1980, was named president and general manager, a position now called president and CEO.
Today, as the nation’s fifth longest tenured president of a transit agency in the United States, Jackson is being honored by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) with the 2012 “Outstanding Public Transportation Manager Award.” Considered one of the highest honors in the industry, the award recognizes public transportation “excellence in leadership and innovation.” He is expected to officially receive the award in Seattle during APTA’s annual conference on October 2.
In the 32 years Jackson has been manager of the non-profit corporation, working with the Long Beach Transit Board of Directors, the transit service has expanded its ridership from carrying 8 million passengers per year to 28 million riders annually, while nearly doubling its fleet from 125 to 228 buses that serve customers in Long Beach, Lakewood and Signal Hill, as well as portions of Artesia, Bellflower, Carson, Cerritos, Compton, Hawaiian Gardens, Norwalk and Paramount.
“I can remember my predecessor telling me . . . ‘we can’t grow any more’ . . . and now we have 300 to 400 percent more customers,” he said. Throughout Jackson’s career, Long Beach Transit has added a free Passport service that circulates downtown, marketed for tourists, a U-Pass program at California State University, Long Beach and public transportation vessels, including the Aqualink and Aquabus.
Jackson has also been an industry visionary. He has held important positions on various boards and industry groups. Not only did Jackson serve as president and chairman of the board of APTA from 1985 to 1987, he took on the prestigious role as North American executive committee representative for the Union International of Public Transportation Officials from 2008 to 2009, representing mass transit systems from the United States, Canada and Mexico.
One of the first innovations he helped accomplish at Long Beach Transit as early as the 1970s was creating Long Beach Transit’s Dial-A-Lift service, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. The specialized service provides separate vehicles that pickup people unable to use the regular bus because of physical challenges.
The service was created through a public-private partnership with Long Beach Yellow Cab, which integrates the service into its regular fleet, saving Long Beach Transit millions of dollars, Jackson said. Long Beach Transit also installed wheel-chair accessible ramps for disabled passengers, “ahead of the national curve,” he said. Also, in the early ’80s, Jackson was integral in the development of the Long Beach Transit Mall, which connects bus routes to the Blue Line service and has recently been renovated. The mall now serves 25,000 riders daily.
Long Beach Transit’s workforce has also grown over the years, expanding from 350 employees, when Jackson first came on board, to 731 employees today, including those hired through public-private partnership contracts with Yellow Cab and Catalina Express.
Jackson said one of the first changes he made was working to build the agency’s own “fully funded” pension system and workers’ compensation fund, instead of paying retirees out of the fare box.
“Basically, whatever cash was coming into our system, a portion of that went to pay the people who retired,” he said. “We had no money set aside for that . . . Today we have our own pension system that is fully funded for all of our employees . . . We needed to get our house in order to make sure this organization was running as a business, not as a social service agency.”
There have been some bumps in the road, however, including financial hardships such as fewer subsidies from state and federal governments and declines in ridership – as has been the case in the last five years during the recession. In recent years, Long Beach Transit froze pay raises, had to raise fares and asked employees to pay more toward their pension funds.
But Jackson said, no matter the financial difficulties, it was always his goal to make sure no employees were laid off. “We’ve never had a layoff . . . We’ve never run a deficit operation . . . and that’s something that, as a businessperson, I’m very proud of,” he said.
Innovations have also come in the form of technology. Jackson was instrumental in introducing hybrid gasoline-electric buses to Long Beach Transit’s fleet before state regulations required the agency to do so, and by the end of this year, the transit system will be replacing its old diesel buses with 64 compressed natural gas coaches.
What’s next for Long Beach Transit? He said the agency has already received federal funding to introduce “all electric” buses that will likely be operated as part of the downtown Passport route, with electric charging platforms installed in the ground.
“All-electric is on the horizon for the personal automobile and it’s something that I think has great potential for mass transit,” Jackson said.
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