Riding the Bonus Bus

By J.F. McKenna

For public-transit boss Joe Calabrese, the buck stops with him — regardless of when or where the trains and buses stop.

In these lean economic times, the Sept. 27 Plain Dealer headline was sure to raise an eyebrow or two: RTA chief Joe Calabrese gets $20,000 bonus, pay hike for job well done, board says. Not surprisingly, a transit-union boss, slogging through a two-year-old contract dispute with Greater Cleveland’s public-transit system, called the board’s largesse “ridiculous.” He may have said some other things that the morning paper chose not to print. (If memory serves, union leaders come equipped with rather colorful vocabularies.)

What the newspaper did not include in its story was any reaction from customers. The reader is left to surmise general customer reaction, possibly relying on this quote from William Nix, president of ATU Local 268:

“This man has watched the level of RTA public service decline. I’m just sitting here baffled.”

Of course, the same reader can also avail himself of the Web site of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. On it he will find this: “The reason for RTA’s recent budget challenge is a significant drop in revenues and investments in public transit. RTA’s revenues come from three primary sources: Sales Tax, Government Subsidies and Grants, Passenger Fares.”

If said reader is even more ambitious, he can dig out last spring’s Brookings Institute study of public transportation. In that study, C-Town’s public people-mover ranked 41st among the country’s 100 largest metro-area systems. As reporter Tom Breckinridge wrote at that time, “Two of three workers in Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, Medina and Lorain counties live near a transit stop. But they can reach only three of 10 jobs via bus or train, the Brookings report says.”

Which bring that reader and the rest of us to wonder why a combination of hard times in general and RTA’s mediocre performance in particular warrants a bonus for Joe right now.

In the Sept. 27 article, the same reporter wrote: “RTA’s budget has its healthiest balance in years. But that came after several years of route cuts and fare increases that upset thousands of RTA riders.” Those deficiencies notwithstanding, Board President George Dixon told Breckinridge that “Joe is doing a great job. His leadership, his delegating with great people around him. … Morale is pretty high right now.”

RTA spokesperson Mary McCahon echoed that sentiment, telling CBR that Calabrese had received “many excellent ratings this year, as he did in the past.” However, she said, “in past years the board felt that in the wake of service cuts and layoffs it wouldn’t be appropriate to award Joe a bonus. 2010 ended with a $15 million balance and 2011 is looking like it will also end with the same or more of a balance to rollover to 2012. In the last few months our ridership has grown significantly on the rail. The HealthLine has grown monthly since its inception and continues to grow today, as our single largest bus line.”

Pretty positive assessments, not counting an unhappy union negotiator, Brookings Institute researchers and, most important, disgruntled passengers — some of whom may be standing literally at the side of the road.

The fact is that RTA is not a private enterprise, absolutely free to make whatever decisions it wishes and to bear the consequences of those decisions in the competitive marketplace. A trust such as RTA, like the kosher hotdog manufacturer, answers to a higher power — the customer who wholly funds and patronizes the service. For RTA, following the advice of Peter Drucker should be Job 1: “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two — and only these two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.”

As Drucker notes, innovation is defined as providing more and better economic satisfactions. Obviously, RTA has much work to do.

Marketing, Drucker continues, aims “to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.” Given RTA’s mixed success, adding a $20,000 bonus to the general manager’s $216,880 publicly funded salary fails to meet Drucker’s definition of a smart marketing tactic.

“RTA will continue to put customer needs first,” Greater Cleveland’s transit system proclaims online. The story beneath the eyebrow-raising headline says otherwise and reminds me of Frank Luntz’s third rule of effective language — Credibility is as important as philosophy.

“Credibility is established very simply,” Luntz writes in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. “Tell people who you are and what you do. Then be that person and do what you have said you would do. And finally, remind people that you are what you say you are. In a simple sentence: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. As an editor at Industry Week magazine in the early 1990s, he co-chaired Total Quality Government conferences in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .




  1. Update–The morning paper reports Oct. 15 that RTA “wants to expand efforts to cut the cost of bus-and-rail fares for college students.”

    “It’s a way to make college more affordable,” Calabrese reportedly said, pointing to last week’s launch of a compact between local governments and colleges to lift the county’s education levels.

    It might behoove the GM to lift current service and customer-satisfaction levels before tackling national education issues. — JFM

  2. Suprirsnigly well-written and informative for a free online article.

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