Bus driver Abraham Picou, left, talks with Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority CEO Michael Ford on a downtown bus route recently. Ford is considering taking on the challenge of helping expand mass transit options in traditionally auto-centric Metro Detroit. (Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor— The man being heavily pursued to be the first chief executive of the Regional Transit Authority began his transportation career sweeping floors for Greyhound to help pay for college.
Being a janitor, however, wasn’t Michael Ford’s destiny. In less than a decade he rose to become a general manager for Greyhound in charge of eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana. Other significant transit roles in the Seattle area and Portland, Ore., came before he took over as CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority in 2009.
Ford, 52, has the reputation at the AAATA of being meticulous, relentless and customer friendly as he oversaw improved services and the agency’s first millage. He is contemplating taking on what could be an even bigger challenge to help grow mass transit in Metro Detroit that has for years resisted implementing transit options beyond the ubiquitous car.
His task, if he works out a contract that’s being negotiated, will be formidable: convincing a public leery of taxes to pay for a tax hike or increased vehicle fee to support the RTA, oversee the implementation of bus rapid transit routes and foster better coordination between a litany of service providers such as the Detroit Department of Transportation and its suburban siblings.
“You can’t just talk, but it’s what can you get done,” Ford said in a recent interview. “It’s got to be efficient, it’s got to be on time, it’s got to be quick. And if we can get that formula going, people will see the value. There are opportunities that I don’t think people have been able to appreciate.”
By all accounts, Ford has been successful as the CEO of a transit agency in a region where transportation is desired with a larger percentage of riders than its counterparts SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation. The AAATA, for example, has a bus stop within a quarter mile of every house in its service area, which is home to the University of Michigan.
Paul Toliver, who was the head of Seattle’s King County transportation system when Ford was No. 2 in nearby Everett, Wash., described his longtime friend as “a leader that’s not a showman and who is very personable.”
“His style is very thoughtful and there’s focus ... he zeroes in and quietly works to fill in the dots along the way to accomplish the mission as opposed to some people who talk very loud and very eloquently,” said Toliver, who is now the chief operating officer of DDOT.
Toliver said Ford is best suited for inspiring stakeholders to pass a tax hike to fund transit. “I think his style will be very successful in pulling together a majority of very talented individuals who can help convince the voters that we need a tax for transportation,” he said.
That’s the management style Mary Stasiak, the community relations manager for TheRide in Ann Arbor, described of Ford. She recalled his tenacity in bringing all sides together to implement a millage for the first time in TheRide’s history as well as his pursuit of bus service between Ann Arbor and Metro Airport.
“The man is determined ... it’s probably the best words for it,” Stasiak said. “We really needed someone who was able to work with the community and get people on the same page and to work together to make it happen.”
Under Ford’s leadership, usage of TheRide has climbed 6.6 percent from 2011-12 with a record 6.6 million riders.
Stasiak said The AirRide project was talked about for more than two decades but never completed — until Ford took it over. In 2013, the AirRide served 59,008 customers and made $740,799 in revenue. Although both agencies say growth is not comparable given the vastly different riders and demographic areas they cover, the suburban SMART bus system had 6,000 more riders between 2011 and 2012, with more than 10.4 million customers.
“ Michael put a team on it and just said: ‘We need to make this happen,’ ” she said. “He was at the airport every week, going and talking to them and making sure that things were always moving forward.”
RTA's empty driver's seat
Ford’s work at Greyhound shaped his perspective about transit service and his perceptions of the importance of communicating and engaging those riders. He said you can better connect with people by giving them transit options.
He also learned — harkening back to his days at Greyhound — that it’s best to glean something from everyone you come in contact with no matter how low on the totem pole they are. So it’s not unusual to see him talking with bus drivers and janitors and his loyal inner circle in the same affable style.
Ford, who is under contract with the Ann Arbor authority, was unanimously chosen by the RTA board last month. But he has been careful to say his priority is the Ann Arbor community and that the board there wants to keep him aboard. He makes $185,000 annually.
The pressure is on to fill the RTA job. The position was offered earlier to John Hertel, the general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, but he turned it down. Ford, who did not seek the job, was encouraged to apply this time.
RTA board chairman Paul Hillegonds, who has been negotiating with Ford, said he is “exactly what we need going forward.”
“I think he works very well with people, understands the importance of reaching out to policy makers but also the everyday customer of the transit system,” Hillegonds said. “He is very results focused. He’s patient and quietly relentless but all of that is focused on a specific goal and those goals are all about improving service to riders.”
Hillegonds said Ford brings a “pragmatic and at the same time visionary approach” to his work, adding, “I believe he is excited about the opportunity and the potential of the RTA.”
Getting where you need to
Transit has always been a part of Ford’s life. Growing up in a single-parent Seattle household and with an older brother with special needs, he and his family were dependent on public transportation.
“If you were going to get out of the house and go somewhere, you’re going to catch the bus,” Ford said. “That’s what we learned early on. It just became a vehicle to get where you needed to go.”
Several optometry school students who lived in the dorm with Ford at Pacific University in Oregon suggested he take a job at Greyhound in the summer of 1980.
“I was with these guys that had summer jobs and they said go to Greyhound because you get paid a lot and you could work your way through school,” Ford said. “I didn’t necessarily want to start out as a janitor, but you do what you’ve got to do.”
After graduating with a degree in sociology and philosophy in 1984, Ford went on to become an operations manager at Greyhound. He also worked as an operations chief for transit systems in Everett, Wash., and Portland and then went on to be the chief operating officer of another transit district in Stockton, Calif.
He admits that his philosophy and sociology background helps him to connect with riders and communicate with them early and often.
A tough decision
On a recent bus ride to thank riders for approving the millage, Ford ran into longtime bus drivers Chris Glenn and Abraham Picou.
“The thing I admire most about him is his tenacity,” Glenn said. “He’s about the community, he’s about drivers. When he first got here he had a vision. And basically he made it happen. We like him. We don’t want him to go. He’s in the trenches.”
Ford said he’s got a tough decision to make. But he likes challenges.
“You’ve got to listen to people,” Ford said. “I had a mechanic tell me once that we’ve had all these people tell us in management what they’re going to do. Don’t tell us, show us. And it stuck with me. You’ve got to believe.”