Joanna Pinkerton prepares central Ohio's transit agency for a more integrated future.

The hard work has paid off for the Central Ohio Transit Authority. In August, the American Public Transportation Association named COTA the best-operated midsize transit system in North America. The national recognition validated nearly 15 years of steady improvements at COTA, which has transformed from a poster child of incompetence to a nimble, efficient and much-admired organization.

Joanna Pinkerton, COTA’s CEO since April, was excited to collect the award in late September at APTA’s annual meeting in Nashville. Yet, she also acknowledges some mixed feelings. “Here’s my biggest struggle with the award,” she says, sitting in a conference room at COTA’s massive McKinley Avenue bus complex a few days after the conference. “We are really good at what we do here, and I am so proud of our employees. But the landscape is changing. The target is moving. There’s an old expression, ‘If you’re standing still, you’re already behind.’ The real opportunity for anyone in the mobility industry is we have to make sure what we’re doing continues to evolve.”

Note her use of the word “mobility.” Pinkerton, 42, doesn’t see COTA as a bus company or even as just a transit organization. It should be a “mobility systems integrator.” What that means is COTA can’t just be about fixed bus routes. It also needs to help people connect with other forms of transportation, both public and private, such as ride-sharing services, electric scooters, traditional cab companies and—who knows?—maybe a magnetic train traveling at supersonic speeds through a frictionless tube someday. “The other day, someone said, ‘You’re kind of like our chief mobility officer,’ ” Pinkerton says. “I said I like that title better than CEO because that’s what we’re trying to work on—making sure that people can move in this community.”

As nice as it was to receive the national award, COTA can’t rest on its past successes if it’s going to achieve Pinkerton’s vision. “I’m so glad that the national association recognized us for the work we’ve done, because there’s been a lot going on at COTA,” she says. “But I remind our team, ‘We are best in class, but what class are we judging ourselves against?’ We have to do what’s right for central Ohio, and, quite frankly, I’d like to be the model that leads the nation.”

Indeed, a huge opportunity stands before COTA. A transportation revolution is occurring in the city, sparked by the city’s 2016 victory in the $50 million Smart City Challenge. That achievement has resulted in even more excitement and economic activity, spawning mobility startups, new technologies and major investments from the public and private sectors. As the largest mover of people in the region—with nearly 19 million trips made in 2017—COTA is well positioned to capitalize on the moment.

William Murdock, the executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, says today’s dynamic transportation scene requires a new kind of leader at COTA. He says the agency needs a chief executive who understands the needs of the people who ride COTA the most, while also embracing new technologies and collaborating with community partners, including the business sector. “It’s a tough balancing act, but this is a time for somebody who’s able to see the future of transportation and mobility for where it’s going but not forget those who really depend on it,” Murdock says.

Murdock, who served on the search committee that recommended hiring Pinkerton, says she’s the ideal person for the task. She’s energetic, collaborative, thoughtful and forward-thinking, with a strong track record in her previous roles at Ohio State, the state of Ohio and Union County. “We need to make things happen, and she’s got a history of it,” Murdock says. “She’s set up for it.”

Finding Solutions

After graduating with a degree in civil engineering from Ohio Northern University in 1998, Pinkerton went into the construction field. She worked at Bellefontaine’s Thomas and Marker Construction, which has handled a variety of projects throughout the state, from the Freed Center for Performing Arts at Ohio Northern University—where, coincidentally, Pinkerton, a violinist and a French-horn player, attended on a full-ride, music-performance scholarship—to the Polar Frontier exhibit at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “I really love construction,” she says. “I love to build things.”

Her move into the transportation field wasn’t expected. While taking some time off following the birth of her first son, Pinkerton was recruited by Steve Stolte, then the elected Union County engineer, to join him in Marysville. She worked for Stolte from 2004 to 2009, overseeing all development processes across the board (water, sewer, roads, bike paths and more) during a time of extraordinary growth. “That set the tone for my entire career,” Pinkerton says. “What I learned there was consensus building, including bringing very disparate people and disparate opinions around a table to work on a solution. Those who are getting to know me here at COTA know that I’m a solutions-based thinker—what are we trying to solve, and how do we get there? That’s what I learned at Union County.”

In 2009, Jolene Molitoris, then Gov. Ted Strickland’s director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, hired Pinkerton to serve as her development coordinator. “She said, ‘I want you to do exactly what you’re doing in Union County statewide,’ ” Pinkerton says. “Thankfully, I was young and naïve enough to believe that that sounded very reasonable.”

Pinkerton’s focus was to make sure that state transportation officials worked hand-in-hand with what was then the Ohio Department of Development, connecting economic development to infrastructure investment. She spent every Friday at the Department of Development’s offices, immersed with the team there, looking at deals and evaluating the impact they could have on the community. “That was a really incredible experience,” she says. She continued to work for the state under Gov. John Kasich, serving as ODOT’s central Ohio regional manager. Again, she focused on connecting infrastructure to economic growth, and she built ties to local economic development stakeholders focused on job growth during the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Stu Nicholson worked with Pinkerton at ODOT. “She is one of the most quietly brilliant people I think I’ve ever met in the transportation business,” says Nicholson, who served as the spokesman for the Ohio Rail Commission. “Last-mile” solutions are a much-discussed topic today, as business, public and civic leaders try to figure out ways to better connect people from public transit to their final destinations, such as their jobs or their homes. Yet Nicholson recalls talking with Pinkerton about that issue during their time together at the state about eight years ago. “She’s very forward-looking,” he says.

Pinkerton continued to focus on the future of transportation and building community partnerships at her next employer, Ohio State University, where she served as the chief operating officer for the Center for Automotive Research and the co-director of the Honda-Ohio State Partnership after leaving state government in 2012. Her next move came when she took a job overseeing strategy, capital investments and new partnerships for the Transportation Research Center, an affiliate of Ohio State in East Liberty and North America’s largest independent transportation proving ground.

While at TRC, the recruiting firm BeecherHill approached her about taking the helm at COTA. COTA’s leaders spent about a year looking for a replacement for Curtis Stitt, who retired in 2017. During his nearly six years at the helm, Stitt continued the operations improvements and strong financial stewardship that started under his predecessor, Bill Lhota. Last year, COTA debuted a complete redesign of its bus system that better aligned service with community needs. The new grid-like system improved efficiencies, boosting ridership by 9 percent and bringing 100,000 more residents and 110,000 more jobs within a quarter mile of a stop. That was accomplished with 34 fewer buses in operation—a nearly 10 percent drop from before.

Pinkerton, who’d never worked for a transit organization before, acknowledges having some doubts about the job at first. But after speaking with COTA officials and community leaders, she warmed to the idea. She was intrigued by COTA’s internal strength, as well as the opportunity to lead the organization during a time of great technological and cultural change. “Maybe I didn’t know the transit world specifically, but I’ve been through [transformation] before,” she says. “That made me more comfortable with joining the team.”

An Energetic Leader

Pinkerton’s energy was apparent from the start at COTA. On her first day on the $305,000-a-year job in April, she showed up before dawn to introduce herself to and ride the bus with the first-shift operators. “She was right there, welcoming folks to their work and starting her day with them,” Murdock says.

“She seems to have an aggressive leadership style,” says Andrew Jordan, president of the Transit Workers Union Local 208, which represents 870 workers, including 700 bus drivers. He notes that she wasted little time in making some administrative restructuring moves, shifting all training programs, for instance, to the human resources department, a decision the union supported. She also engaged Jordan right away, setting up a meeting with him within a few days from her start date. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I need to get my feet on the ground and running and then I’ll meet with you,’ ” Jordan says.

Pinkerton has moved quickly to shore up the organization’s involvement with community economic development projects, one of the top priorities COTA trustees gave her. She’s used her contacts to keep COTA top of mind as big projects get underway, such as new corporate headquarters for CoverMyMeds and White Castle. “We want to be more integrated in the economic development community,” Pinkerton says. In the past, transportation and transit tended to enter the conversation late in the game. “I think I’ve seen that transformation already—thinking of COTA as a partner at the front end,” she says.

Internally, an ambitious change agenda is also underway. COTA is working with Smart Columbus to build a new multi-modal app that will incorporate other forms of transportation, such as ride-sharing services, to help people reach their destinations more efficiently. COTA hopes to debut the app next year. The following year, COTA plans to roll out its online payment system and is considering what to do next with its C-pass program. Funded by grant money and Downtown property owners, C-pass provides bus passes to Downtown workers to encourage transit use and ease parking and traffic congestion. COTA is now considering whether to expand the concept to other work and population centers.

All the change has caused some uneasiness within COTA. The transit union launched a campaign, called “People Before Robots,” warning that driverless vehicles pose a threat to jobs and safety. Pinkerton says COTA has no plans to implement autonomous vehicles at the moment. She also points out that automated vehicle experiments currently underway elsewhere include operators on board. “Even with automation, there are still operations that go on,” she says. Still, Jordan, the union leader, would like COTA’s leaders to take a stronger stance against automation. “We need COTA to come out and say, ‘We’re backing our union, and we will keep the bus operators in the seat.’ ”

Trudy Bartley, chair of the COTA Board of Trustees, is confident that Pinkerton can get buy-in from internal stakeholders as she navigates these technological and cultural challenges. “It’s difficult because transportation is changing,” Bartley says. “With transportation changing, some of the skill sets are going to change as well. I think she is very good as far as reaching people where they are and not being prescriptive.”

Nicholson, Pinkerton’s former ODOT colleague, echoes Bartley. “I think Joanna is going to be one of the best leaders that COTA has ever had,” he says. “She’s lived her life in engineering and transportation and developing new ideas. I think she’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Q&A with Joanna Pinkerton

Do you approach the job differently than your COTA predecessors?

Certainly. I’m facing different issues. I served on a commission with Bill Lhota many, many years ago when I worked at Union County. He was dealing with financial issues at COTA. They were having challenges with revenue and the ability to provide service. Thankfully, that’s not the case for me. Then my direct predecessor [Curtis Stitt] was leading through aging fleet and sustainability issues. The past leadership have made great decisions and put us in good shape to operate well. What we’re facing now is to provide more service to the community and to solve problems that no one has an answer to yet—congestion as our community grows, reducing pollution, providing more equitable access to people who have barriers and ensuring that households that are struggling can move really efficiently.

Is the business community more supportive of COTA than in the past?

No doubt. Any company you hear right now is clamoring and talking about the shortage of skilled workforce, and they’re talking about the challenges they face with getting people to and from work. All of the corporate community leaders here—they’ve reached out to me, and we’ve talked about what they’re facing. Their presidents and their CEOs are sitting down with me with no agenda, saying, “This is what I’m dealing with in my company.” They have been very welcoming. They see [transportation] as an issue impacting their bottom line.

Is COTA still considering light rail as an option?

The voters made that decision with the levy that was voted down. We don’t have any programmed plans, capital plans for light rail. What we do have our eye on is where we would need to have more mass movements of people along corridors, and those analyses are mode-agnostic. Then when it becomes time to make those type of investments, we would work with the community to decide which mode is appropriate. There’s some really cool research coming out of the East Coast and Europe showing platooned buses that can exceed the capacity of light rail in dedicated lanes because of how they can be spaced differently.