In the Spotlight: Jeff Gonneville

In the Spotlight: Jeff Gonneville

February 18, 2016  | Ann Henebery

Jeffrey D. Gonneville is Chief Operating Officer of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). A graduate of University of Massachusetts Amherst with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Mr. Gonneville has been in public transportation for nearly 20 years. Before becoming Chief Operating Officer, he served as the Chief Mechanical Officer of the MBTA, responsible for the maintenance, oversight, long term strategic planning and all other related tasks for maintaining a state of good repair for the Authority’s 210 light rail, 432 heavy rail, 1,000 bus, and 1,100 non-revenue fleet.

First off – Tell me about yourself. How did you end up in transportation?

I began my career in transportation when I was a student at UMass Amherst. UMass had an on-campus transit authority that was very unique: maintenance, operations, and mid- level management was all student-run. The small full time senior management staff acted as mentors and supervisors to the student workers. I loved working on cars, but to work there you had to start as a bus driver before working in maintenance. I began driving and admittedly I was not the best – I maybe got into a couple of accidents. As time went on, I worked my way into the garage, then worked my way up into management. By graduation, I’d become the service manager, scheduling maintenance for buses and managing the student employees.

UMass Transit was an exceptional program, and my experiences there convinced me that transit would be my profession. After graduation I went to work for ATC Vancom (now Transdev) in Detroit. From there I moved here to the MBTA, where I’ve been for fifteen years. I started as a project manager in the vehicle engineering division and moved up the ranks, becoming Chief Operating Officer in May 2015.

What has kept you in the industry?

Its size and sense of camaraderie. Public transportation is such a small industry that everyone – even if they’re thousands of miles apart – is within everyone else’s reach. Many times I’ve received calls from other agencies asking for advice, and just as many times, they’ve been willing to offer theirs. We work well together because our purpose is common and clear: we exist to transport our customers – safely, quickly, and reliably.

Can you talk a little bit about the “Ghost Train” incident back in December? Tell me a little bit about what it was like managing a crisis like this from the inside.

The experience was unforgettable. Our employees – who stopped the train within minutes – did their jobs to the fullest: their quick reaction kept our customers safe.

I knew immediately that, as COO, I’d have to do the same: I needed to step up and take ownership of what happened. I’d handled other incidents, but this was the first potentially catastrophic event, and I didn’t want it to jeopardize our riders’ trust. I became the point-person – the “face” of a crisis – for the first time in my career. I took command and mustered my office’s response: talking to the media, briefing the Secretary of Transportation and Governor, and taking steps to make sure this never happens again.

Was there anything you had learned from Eno’s TSE seminar that you were able to apply during this crisis?

In class, we acted through a case where Howard Permut played a Governor responding to a crisis situation. He asked for an executive briefing, and our job was to give him quick and accurate updates on what needed to be done.

This was exactly what I had to do during the “Ghost Train” incident. I needed to tell the Governor, his supporting staff – and the public – what happened, what needed to be done, and what measures we’d taken to keep it from happening again.

After handling the “Ghost Train” incident, has your leadership or managerial style changed? What are your take-aways from handling that situation?

This situation was full of firsts for me. I’d never been the “face” of a major crisis, never directly interacted with the Governor’s office, and never held my own press conference. After the “Ghost Train”, I have the confidence of my leadership abilities having experienced and successfully managed through this crisis.

The incident presented some policies and procedures that needed strengthening. They are now being changed, and our speedy response accentuated our staff’s professionalism.

What do you think is the biggest priority for a leader or manager at a public transit agency like the MBTA?

Set reasonable goals and make your expectations clear. Everyone – wherever they are in your agency’s hierarchy – needs to know what you expect them to do.

Everyone who has a place has a purpose, and if their purpose isn’t clear, then their performance will suffer.

What advice do you have for up and coming leaders in the transportation industry?

Meet your peers and be involved. It’s helpful to have contacts and friends around the industry that you can ask for advice. They can really guide you through your career and more recently in my case a crisis.

After the runaway train, two former MBTA officials contacted me, along with Howard Permut and Jerry Premo (Eno Board member). It was comforting to have that support at such a tough time.

Any final words?

When I was a bus driver at UMass, I’d never expected to make a career of transit. Twenty years later, I can’t imagine having done anything else. I’ve been very fortunate, and have had many amazing opportunities. I’m proud to be a public servant, and to be part of our industry.

(Photo: courtesy of Mass Transit Magazine)

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