Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: New Pierce Transit CEO Sue Dreier is full of optimism

Susan Dreier, then a candidate for the Pierce Transit CEO position, meets the public during an open forum in at the Pierce Transit Training Center in Lakewood on Wednesday, April 1, 2015.
Susan Dreier, then a candidate for the Pierce Transit CEO position, meets the public during an open forum in at the Pierce Transit Training Center in Lakewood on Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Staff photographer

Sue Dreier found out she would be Pierce Transit’s next CEO on April Fools’ Day.

But it was no joke. After a 5-4 vote of the Pierce Transit board that night to offer her the job, she officially started May 26.

Now nearly six months into the gig, Dreier has had time to settle in and get acclimated. And though the agency she’s taken over is one that’s been whacked with service cuts since 2008, and seen two ballot initiatives to help restore some of that service meet their demise at the hands of skeptical voters, Dreier exudes nothing but optimism when looking toward the future.

“We have gone through a time of cutbacks, and now we are just moving forward — moving forward into the future,” Dreier tells me, citing improved sales-tax revenue as a reason for her optimism. “I believe we have really weathered the storm.”

Let’s hope she’s right.

Dreier started her transit career as a bus driver in Oregon. It’s a blue-collar origin story that’s well known at this point. Dreier’s humble roots have helped endear her to local leaders and — perhaps most importantly — to folks actually on the bus.

She got up close and personal with some of those riders a few weeks ago, on Oct. 28, when Dreier participated in Downtown On the Go’s “Try the Bus” event, riding Pierce Transit’s 14/13 loop from downtown to Proctor and back. By all accounts, she grabbed a spot on the bus and fit right in.

Dreier also seems to be fitting in here in Tacoma. The CEO and her husband spent their first few months living downtown when they arrived here. She says they enjoyed the opportunity to walk to local restaurants and utilize local transit options. They’ve since relocated to the west side of the city, and have been impressed with things like the “vibrant” Metro Parks system.

“We’re outdoor people,” Dreier explains. “Rain doesn’t bother us.”

She must feel the same way about a challenge.

Because, if we’re being honest, Pierce Transit — which serves 292 square miles, and 70 percent of Pierce County — faces some big ones.

Like this week, when the public will get its first chance to weigh in on the agency’s proposed $153.5 million budget for 2016. As The News Tribune’s Kari Plog has reported, there’s also the matter of potentially contentious fare increases for youths, seniors, the disabled and paratransit shuttle riders, which the Pierce Transit board will be considering.

Dreier acknowledges the fare hikes would be “a tough thing to do for these populations,” but says a question of equity is at the root of the proposal. Currently, fixed-route riders are paying $2 a trip — thanks in part to regular fare increases in 2009 and 2010 — while fares for the disabled, youths, seniors and paratransit riders haven’t been raised in 10 years.

It’ll be the first of many hurdles for the new CEO.

Largely dependent on sales tax revenue, Pierce Transit was forced to reduce annual service hours by 222,000 between 2008 and 2013. Though the agency has restored some of those hours in recent years — 16,831 hours in 2014, and 14,000 this year — the machete approach certainly took its toll.

The cuts hit some of Pierce County’s most vulnerable riders the hardest. According to numbers provided by the agency, Pierce Transit has an average of 34,200 boardings each weekday, with 30 percent of those people going to work and 22 percent going to school or college. Of those fixed-route riders, 44 percent have a household income under $20,000 a year, and 39 percent have no access to a working car.

Rebuilding Pierce Transit, and meeting the demands of the future — which includes serving a large Baby Boom population potentially retiring their car keys soon and a millennial population that demands more from public transportation than previous generations — will require “outside the box thinking,” according to Dreier.

Taking a transit system apart is easy. Rebuilding it, smartly, takes careful consideration.

And that’s where we are. Dreier says Pierce Transit will soon undertake a comprehensive service analysis, with the help of an outside consultant. She tells me now is the “time to stand back and take a good look at the whole system.”

“It may be OK, but I don’t know that. I need to be able to see it,” Dreier says. “The way the transit works, when you build a system as we had … and you cut that back, it’s difficult to rebuild and restore services without taking a good look at it.”

Dreier says the goal is for a “pretty strong rollout of (new) service” by Sept. 2016, and a significant restoration of old service as well. What all of this will look like is to be determined.

In five years, Dreier hopes Pierce Transit services will be “completely restored.”

“I’m very optimistic,” she says. “It is who I am. In general, I’m kind of an optimistic person.”

Again, let’s hope Dreier is right.