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John Nations, new head of Metro, wants public transit to boost growth

John Nations
File photo
John Nations

When Chesterfield mayor John Nations took on the job earlier this of running the campaign for Proposition A to help an ailing Metro, he had no idea that a few months later he would become the agency's new CEO.

"It was the furthest thing from my mind," he says.

Leading the campaign was tough. Success seemed dubious. Prop A called for an increase in sales tax in St. Louis County during an economy that had many area residents reeling. Voters trounced a similar measure in November 2008. But the enthusiastic Nations drummed one message, as he says, "relentlessly" to St. Louis: A good public transit system is crucial to economic development, specifically in capturing new jobs for the region.

Last week the Metro board of commissioners announced that Nations (left) would succeed Bob Baer who has lead Metro for the past two years -- first as an interim president and CEO and since last September as its permanent chief executive.

Nations, an attorney at Armstrong Teasdale, will become Metro's CEO on Oct. 19. His salary will be $250,000 a year and will include a car allowance of $400 a month and health insurance.

Nations was born and raised here; his father was mayor of Webster Groves in the '60s. "People say, 'You've spent your whole life in St. Louis?' And I say, 'Not yet, but I'm working on it.'"

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want this job?

Nations: I view Metro as being on the threshold of some great opportunities -- to make the transit agency really the best in the country, then to use quality transit to promote economic development throughout the region and to create the public and private and regional partnerships that will make that happen.

Most people view Metro as only a transit company. While that's about 80 percent of its business, it also controls St. Louis downtown airport, port facilities on the river, excursion boats, trams at the Arch, a lot of things. Like a lot of other people, I would like to use our regional assets to promote economic growth in the region. One of the keystones of the Prop A campaign was that we could use public transportation to help promote economic growth. That's what makes this position interesting to me.

Some people might wonder what qualifications a lawyer would bring to this position?

Nations: Most of the experience I've had in my life has prepared me for this opportunity. Not only my education but a huge part of my legal practice has been building public-private partnerships and building infrastructure. As mayor of one of our largest cities, I put together the partnerships that resulted in jobs and economic development in the Chesterfield Valley.

What specifically do you know about running a transit agency?

Nations: Well, I've never specifically run a transit agency. I have run different organizations of different sizes that provide diverse services. With regard to transit, I've been working on it for many years. In 2004 I established a transportation development district for Chesterfield Valley. Part of that district was funding for mass transit in the valley. Then, of course, that morphed in 2009 into building partnerships to continue bus service to west St. Louis County in the face of cuts by the transit agency. That, of course, led to my involvement in the Proposition A campaign.

How will you get up to speed on transit? There are no transit CEO schools.

Nations: I will approach this challenge the way I have approached every challenge in my life. I will work hard to acquire the technical knowledge that I may lack at this time. We're very fortunate to have in St. Louis some great transit professionals doing great work

What do you see as Metro's major problems at this point?

Nations: Everything we talked about in the campaign. First of all we need to fulfill the promise of the campaign by restoring service throughout the region. The second priority is to make sure we run an organization that is responsible and responsive in every sense of the word -- responsive to our constituents, responsive to the region, responsible in how we conduct ourselves.

Long-term we need to look at the 30-year plan adopted earlier this year. It lays a great blueprint for what the opportunities are. That will occupy much of our attention as we go forward.

As we talked about in the campaign, reaching out to all those who use the system, the employers, the constituent groups is going to be extremely important.

Do you foresee a MetroLink expansion on your watch?

Nations: We're going to have the opportunity to advance the entire system, which consists of MetroBus, MetroLink and Call-A-Ride.

It is certainly conceivable that there will be new MetroLink lines in the future, but it's also important to note some conditions we've laid on any expansion.

Priority No. 1 is that we demonstrate that we have the financial capacity to operate it.

No. 2 is that it would not be built without federal funds. The Cross County Line was built without federal funds and we said repeatedly during the campaign that you don't build a MetroLink line unless you have the finances to operate it. The financially responsible thing to do would be to build with federal funds.

The Cross County Line was built without federal funds.

Nations: My understanding -- and I didn't make the decision and I wasn't at the table at the time -- is that a decision was made not to pursue the federal match on the Cross County Line. I didn't make the decision. I can't explain the decision.

Going forward, when do you see the next MetroLink expansion?  What about bus rapid transit?

Nations: I don't have a timeframe for (either). Bus rapid transit can be a much less expensive alternative to light rail and has the potential to serve some high-interest corridors along the interstates. We're very interested because it gives us the ability to move people in an efficient manner.

How do you think you will change Metro?

Nations: What I hope to do with Metro -- the transportation portion of it -- is to turn it into the finest transportation system in the country with reliable, on-time, efficient (service).

What do you see as Metro's strengths at this point? How do you hope to build on them?

Nations: The greatest strength is that we're fortunate to have some wonderful people on the transit side. The transit restoration is going very, very well. Their on-time performance is very good. They are to be commended for that. Too few people realize what a tremendous job the transit operation is doing, as evidenced by the many awards they've won. When you realize their maintenance division is among the best -- if not the best -- in the world, that is quite an achievement, frankly. And I'm looking forward to being a part of the team and leading it into the future.

We look to have the financial resources so that we can serve more people and more employers and do an even better job of promoting economic growth. The regions around the country that are doing well are investing in infrastructure and mass transit. Metro will have to be a part of the region's future with regard to economic growth. Look at all the assets we have: We're perfectly situated in the center part of the country, we have four of the country's major interstates converging downtown, we had a major construction effort to fix Interstate 64, the river is a tremendous asset, we have capacity at our airports and good service by railroad. Public transportation is an essential component of our overall economic growth.

What do you see as your first major task when you take over?

Nations: Making sure we get the restoration completed. That's the one thing the region is really looking for. We want the region to know that the promises we made are going to be fulfilled. That's what the region expects, it's what it demands and it's what it deserves.

Do you ride Metro?

Nations: I do occasionally. I'm not an everyday rider, but I ride it occasionally, mostly if I want to go downtown, I have time and I do not need my car to get somewhere else. This actually came up last week. I represent a lot of St. Louis in that we would ride it more if it went more places and really served us. So I look forward to expanding the opportunities for people like me to ride public transportation.

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers transportation. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.