New Pierce Transit CEO started as bus driver in Oregon

Pierce Transit has chosen a new leader who built her career moving up the ranks of public transit agencies in Oregon.

The transit board voted 5-4 Wednesday night to offer the chief executive officer position to Susan Dreier. The board is expected to approve the new CEO’s contract at its next regular board meeting April 13, Pierce Transit spokesman Justin Leighton said.

Board members Marilyn Strickland, Pat McCarthy, Lauren Walker, Nancy Henderson and Rick Talbert voted in favor of Dreier. Fellow board members Daryl Eidinger, Steve Vermillion, Kent Keel and Don Anderson opposed the appointment.

Dreier, 55, will come to Pierce County after working as chief operating officer at Salem-Keizer Transit, a public transportation system based in Oregon’s capital.

She started as a bus operator before moving on to become a supervisor and manager in the Lane Transit District in Eugene.

Some board members weren’t worried about Dreier’s lack of CEO credentials. Her references made it clear she is ready to jump from the number two spot at a smaller agency to the head of a larger one, Strickland said.

“I think she’s ready to lead,” she said.

Talbert, the transit board’s chairman, said Dreier’s experience working her way through the ranks is a major perk.

“I think the fact that she spent nearly a decade as a bus driver can’t be overlooked,” said Talbert, a Pierce County councilman. “She’s going to have instant credibility with our employees.”

The two finalists for the top job fell on opposite ends of the professional spectrum.

Michael D. Griffus has spent his career to this point in the private sector. He’s the former chief executive of Keolis Transit America, a Los Angeles-based company that manages transit and rail operations across North America.

Both candidates touted decades of experience in transportation organizations and each stressed the importance of public transit service for local communities.

Many board members said choosing the new leader was difficult.

“We could make either one of them the CEO today and be successful,” said Vermillion, vice chairman and member of the committee tasked with narrowing down applicants for the job.

Earlier Wednesday, Dreier and Griffus toured Pierce Transit facilities and met with agency workers. They rode buses along some routes and capped the day with a public forum, answering questions from riders, taxpayers and representatives from transit groups.

Dreier used that time to talk about her experiences as both a blue-collar transit worker and an upper-level manager.

She said public transit organizations are “all about the people.”

During her time in Salem, Dreier said she faced similar funding challenges to what Pierce Transit has encountered over the past several years. Pierce Transit slashed its service area and saw two failed ballot measures that sought more revenue.

After wearing many hats in her previous jobs, Dreier said she’s equipped to collaborate with local and state government, transit associations and the public to maintain and improve the public’s trust.

“Public agencies sometimes forget they’re a business,” she said. She stressed that not everyone uses public transit, but she wants to inform people about the services available to them.

“It’s our job to educate people on transit,” Dreier said.

She hopes to help Pierce Transit build its rapport with riders, collaborate with other agencies to form a “collective message,” and prioritize innovation and service on the streets.

Many board members noted that Dreier’s charisma gave her an edge.

Strickland, mayor of Tacoma, said Dreier comes from a state that has a progressive approach to transportation planning.

Pierce County Executive McCarthy said Dreier’s demeanor will help revive public trust.

“We need the face of the agency to be out there communicating about the agency and what we’re doing,” McCarthy said. “I think Susan brings that skill set.”

Vermillion, a Puyallup city councilman, acknowledged that Dreier’s personality is an important asset, but he said Griffus’ more reserved demeanor wasn’t necessarily a problem. Griffus was best suited to build financial stability in the agency, Vermillion added.

“I think there’s a greater experience level,” Vermillion said.

Pierce Transit’s CEO oversees about 880 employees and more than 400,000 annual hours of transit service, ranging from traditional buses and van pools to experiments such as Gig Harbor trolleys and circulator routes in Fife and Puyallup. By comparison, Salem-Keizer Transit executives oversee 186 employees and more than 154,000 annual service hours for fixed bus routes, according to 2013 data.

The agency is seeking to replace former director Lynne Griffith, who led the agency for eight years and is now the state ferries chief. The interim director is Jim Walton, a former Tacoma city manager. His contract expires at the end of May, Leighton said.

Pierce Transit launched its CEO search last year, and a private recruiter sifted through 74 applications. Of those individuals, 24 were given interviews before the field was narrowed to three finalists.

The third finalist withdrew from the pool after taking another job last month.