In the Spotlight: Phil Washington
Phil Washington has served as Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) General Manager since 2009 and, prior to that, he was RTD’s Assistant General Manager for nearly ten years. He is also the Chair of the American Public Transportation Association, and a member of Eno’s Board of Directors. He has recently accepted a new position as Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), and will soon leave the city where he has spent the last 16 years establishing RTD as North America’s most dynamic transit agency. In this spotlight, Mr. Washington will reflect on his time at RTD and his exciting next step at LA Metro.
You spent the first 24 years of your career in the US Army, eventually becoming a Command Sergeant Major, the highest noncommissioned officer rank. How did you end up in transportation?
Quite by mistake, actually. Divine providence. I was ready to retire from the Army in 1999, and saw an ad in a newspaper for an assistant general manager position running internal support systems for a transit agency. I answered that ad and ended up getting the job. One problem was that I had a year left in the army. I called a buddy of mine, who unfortunately was later killed during the 9/11 attacks, and told him that I got a job and I needed to get out sooner. He was able to cut off six months for me. I told this to my predecessor at RTD, and he said he would wait for me.
Why have you stayed in transportation?
I stayed because it’s exciting. It’s a great industry, and a great profession. We have an impact on people’s lives every single day. There’s something different happening everyday. I love the unpredictable nature of it.
What skill from your military career would you say has helped you the most in your transportation career?
Discipline, and the understanding that you have to stay with it, whatever it is. That get-up-when-you-fall-down approach. That’s what I brought to my transportation career, along with a whole lot of other things.
You spent 16 years with RTD, and have been GM since 2009. What would you say has been your greatest achievement there?
Taking care of the employees. Yes, we built a lot of things, and we built a lot of infrastructure, but I think taking care of our great employees in terms of both professional development and welfare has been the greatest achievement. Another one, of course, is providing safe and reliable mobility options for the riders in the Denver metro region.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Moving people everyday. I’ve always said that a good day is when my operations guy tells me that we got everyone home safely. Safety – getting people back home to their loved ones safely and efficiently – is the greatest challenge. It’s a big responsibility for any transit CEO.
Tell us about your new position as CEO of LA Metro and how it came about.
It’s very exciting. The LA MTA Board is ready to do something great in terms of infrastructure investment and of course their first priority is safety. They approached me about the possibility of coming out. That appealed to me. What appealed the most to me was the opportunity to be part of another effort to transform a major metropolitan region through transportation infrastructure investment. You don’t get this type of opportunity to have a real impact everyday. I also was attracted to the opportunity to be a part of high-speed rail in California. I have mixed feelings about leaving Denver. We’ve done a lot here, and I’m proud of our accomplishments, but I have an opportunity to be a part of another regional transformation.
What’s the most daunting thing about leaving RTD and joining LA Metro?
It’s not really daunting, but leaving the employees and such a progressive region is always tough. In Los Angeles County, moving 1.4 million people a day safely and efficiently is no easy task. I take that very seriously. People expect a safe, efficient ride. LA Metro includes more than transit too; it includes highways and planning, so there will be challenges that go along with that too. We can’t forget the basics, either, sidewalk, walkability, accessibility, etc. There will be great projects, but one must remember the basics in terms of making sure the city is livable and accessible.
What will you miss the most about RTD and Denver?
The employees, and the progressiveness of key stakeholders. I’ll miss them. I’ll also miss the region, which has been very innovative and progressive. The willingness to invest in transportation infrastructure has been wonderful. In 2004 when we went to ballot for our FasTracks, 39 metro mayors were in unanimous support of the initiative. It is very unusual to get unanimous support for anything, but we did. Not to say that there hasn’t been opposition, but the overall progressive nature of this region has been wonderful from the Governor to the mayors to county commissioners, to the various chambers of commerce.
What would you have your legacy at RTD be?
I was recently going to speak to our Leadership Academy, and before I arrived, they were asked to list what they thought my values were without me knowing. After I spoke, they unveiled my values. I was very proud of what they wrote: loyalty, integrity, discipline, humor, trustworthiness, professional development, and learning. Those are the things that I want my legacy to be. But most of all, the biggest one is taking care of people. We started our 12-month Leadership Academy, the Multi-Agency Exchange program, and the Workforce Initiative Now (WIN) partnership. We are implementing the only Public Private Partnership (P3) in transit in this country, ridership has increased some 12 percent on rail in 2014, and we have reached out to the community by hosting what we call our Operation Give-a-gift (an annual event to donate gifts for impoverished children and seniors), and we honor our military vets with annual luncheons. Yes, we’ve built transportation infrastructure that people will use for the next 100 years since I’ve been at RTD, but the number one legacy I hope to leave is that taking care of people is the most important thing you can do.
Any advice for the incoming GM, whoever that may be?
My advice would be to do the right thing. We know what the right thing is, or normally we do, as CEOs. The challenge is doing it, and having the fortitude to follow through. Do the right thing – your gut tells you what that is. Sometimes the challenge is to do it in spite of criticism, of people putting pressure on you to do something different. And the right thing is to take care of people, to insist that projects remain on budget and on time, and to do the right thing for your employees.