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08. Next stop for Scott Smith
Episode 831st March 2022 • Storylines • Valley Metro
00:00:00 00:19:20

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Big things are happening at Valley Metro with a change in leadership as a new CEO comes on board. Before the big change, Madeline and Brittany got a chance to talk to retiring CEO Scott Smith. Listen and learn about Smith’s favorite memories working for Valley Metro, as well as his retirement plans and thoughts on the future of transportation in the Valley.

Transcripts

Brittany:

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of your daily commute?

Madeline:

Or how transportation impacts the community you call home?

Brittany:

Maybe you want to explore outside your community and don't know where to start.

Madeline:

Well, you're in luck because this is where you hop on.

Brittany:

I'm Brittany Hoffman.

Madeline:

And I'm Madeline Phipps.

Brittany:

We work in communications for Valley Metro and together we'll discover all the ways that public transit enhances lives across the cities we serve.

Madeline:

And we might even make some new friends along the way.

Brittany:

Welcome to Storylines.

Madeline:

Well, if you read the newspaper or watch the news on TV, you've probably heard that Valley Metro's current CEO, Scott Smith, is retiring very soon.

Brittany:

Yes he is, Maddie. We have a new CEO joining us in the month of April, but in his final days as CEO, we got a chance to sit down with this transit legend to reflect back on his past here at the agency and look forward to what's in store for Valley Metro.

Scott:

I'm Scott Smith. I am currently the CEO of Valley Metro and I've been here a little over six years.

Brittany:

You’ve had many many accomplishments during those six years.

Scott:

I've survived. That's the biggest accomplishment. I've been here six years.

Brittany:

That's very true. And so, you have survived through many challenges as well as CEO. Can you tell us what you felt made the biggest impact on the Valley?

Scott:

Oh, that's hard to do because the thing about Valley Metro is its impact is so broad and so deep. And I would say that, you know, over six years there's been so many things and so many changes from the rail projects that we've either started or completed. The pandemic where our staff did an amazing job in forging through incredible challenges to continue to provide service uninterrupted. To dealing with receiving $750 million in federal grant money to help us invest in transit in the Valley. All those things together have created impacts that will last literally for generations. That I think is what been the funnest part is to realize that when you talk about legacy, anyone who works at Valley Metro has a legacy because whether you're my age and you're, you know, in the twilight of your career or you’re, your age starting out your career, we'll all be able to go around and take our friends, our family, our kids, our grandkids, and say I had a part of that. I played a role in making this happen and that's a legacy that I think everybody at Valley Metro should be proud of.

Madeline:

Well, obviously we're talking with you today because your time as CEO is coming to a close in a few weeks. So, when you think back on your job here, what are you going to miss the most?

Scott:

I will miss the people. Every job I've gone to and every career I've gone to, it's not the things, it's the people. I've never been around a group of people who are as passionate about what they do as the people at Valley Metro. That's also our riders in the public. They're very passionate about public transportation.

You know, I've been in some great jobs and great careers and worked with good people, but the level of commitment and a passion that almost runs to an obsession has been such a, a breath of fresh air to me because there are people who come to work every day with the goal of making lives better for others and they put their heart and soul into it. And I'm gonna miss that. I'm gonna miss being able to look with pride as to the work we do. And even if it's controversial or not everyone sees it the same way that we have, I know that I have a team and a group of people that is joined in that common labor of love.

And I'm going to miss that. That's going to be hard to leave.

Brittany:

Scott that's such a good answer. But now that you've told us, obviously you're going to miss the people, what are you not going to miss?

Scott:

Some people. No. I, you know, the politics. We're in a very, if you're in a public agency and you're in a public business, that means politics gets involved. And the reason why I say politics, it's not that I can't handle the politics. I've dealt with politics now, and I can make things happen. But in politics you have people who aren't committed to doing what's right. They're doing it for political reasons. And politics is about power and about self-advancement. And unfortunately, we deal with a lot of those people in trying to do what's better for the community. And I, I'm not a very patient person when it comes to people who appear to be motivated most by political issues, mainly self-interest. I love political people who are there to serve others and to create community interests, and there are good people like that. But I'm not going to miss the raw politics of things. Cause it’s just so frustrating for me because it keeps us from accomplishing the things that we really want to and need to accomplish. And that's connecting our communities and enhancing lives.

Madeline:

So, speaking of politics, you've held a number of different types of roles throughout your career, including as mayor of Mesa, but how did your time as Valley Metro CEO compare to some of the other jobs you've held in your career.

Scott:

My job as CEO has been so unique because I've never been, for lack of a better word, a bureaucrat. I've owned my own business, or I've reported to a board of directors with a certain incentive in a private world to make a profit. And as mayor you are political and the leader. And now I answered to a board of elected officials and frankly, that's been a very different experience for me, and I've tried to respect their position because I understand where they're coming from.

But I'm not a policymaker, I'm an implementer. And so that's created challenges for someone like me who's used to being the one that sets the policy. And I think I've done a really good job in some ways, and I've probably could have done better in other ways. Cause I'm sort of a "lead, follow or get out of the way" kind of a guy and that's how it's been very different. But in spite of those challenges, you know, we've accomplished a lot and there are people that have said they've really enjoyed working with someone like me, because I do have that different perspective.

I know what it's like to be an elected official. I know what it's like to be in CEO in a private world. And now I know what it's like to be head of a government agency that answers to a board of elected officials. And they're all very different experiences.

Brittany:

Speaking of experiences, that leads to memorable moments. I know that I've had many with you Scott, including one of my favorite stories is when you tell people how cold it was on the beginning of light rail.

Scott:

Yeah. You know, the great thing about being involved in a place like Valley Metro is there so many memorable moments that it's hard to identify one cause there's 20. Anytime you have projects, and you have milestone moments to look back on. A grand opening, the opening of a service, a group together like I, to me, I really loved our Railversary.

That was such a fun event and the good attention we got and seeing everybody in the community celebrating public transportation, light rail and Valley Metro. And this is literally less than two years after Valley Metro was at its lowest point. When I came and it was deep in controversy and scandal and Valley Metro name was not a good name and to see just two short years later, to be able to almost celebrate becoming part of the community, that was a very memorable moment.

And then just a few short months after that, there was a poll that was done as part of the light rail controversy in Phoenix in the election and Valley Metro was rated as the most trustworthy and positive public entity in the entire Valley. That to me was probably the highlight because what it meant is that we had overcome great adversity, would turn the corner, and would make things happen.

nd it made that experience in:

ed this agency in February of:

Madeline:

Well, I guess a freezing opening day for anything in Phoenix isn't going to be a surprise. But besides that, have there been any other things that have surprised you throughout the last six years here?

Scott:

verybody. It was in August of:

The voters of Phoenix were offered the option of continuing to invest in light rail or to take the money that had been set aside or earmarked on light rail and put it into streets. You know, that's a tough call for people, especially who aren't living next to light rail. And so, we were concerned and people across the country were concerned because they felt as though if the opponents of light rail were successful in basically killing the light rail program, that it would encourage them to expand their efforts and to take this argument nationwide.

And so, there was a real feeling that Phoenix was a bellweather event. And when the results came in and we found that not only did the Phoenicians reject the attempt to kill light rail, but they did it in overwhelming fashion. I mean, when you win an election 65-35, that's just amazing. That just doesn't happen that often.

And to be given that choice and for them to say we believe in public transportation, and we especially believe in light rail. That to me was sort of the highlight because it meant that we, as a group, had done things that the community liked, they respected and they believed was important and they were willing to give up something, meaning fixing the potholes in their street, because they said no it's too important and too good to not continue to invest in it.

And to me, that had to be one of the highlights of my time here and all the time, because as somebody said, the debate over light rail in Phoenix, Arizona is over and light rail wins. And I see the impact it's had on our communities and it's just, it's, to me it's pretty special.

Brittany:

Maddie and I were both definitely very excited when that vote came down. Very celebratory. I know we had kind of prepared for both routes. And so, it was very, as you said, uplifting to see the overwhelming support for public transportation and what we do here.

Scott:

Sometimes you wonder when you're in these jobs if the message is really being accepted, if it's getting through. And when you see the public basically, because they're voting about us in a lot of ways

and the job we're doing. And, you know, if they didn't believe in us and if they didn't think we were doing a good job and being wise and good stewards of the public trust, they would not support these projects. And for them to come out and do that, it's just satisfying and a feeling of achievement.

Brittany:

So Scott, obviously Prop 105, huge momentum swings in the way of Valley Metro, if you could have three wishes before retiring what would they be?

Scott:

I wish I could snap my fingers and all the projects we have under construction that would be done tomorrow. That's probably the one thing I'm going to miss. These are the third and fourth light rail projects that I got going. I designed, I was part of the team that got them going and we overcame lots of challenges and I left mid construction. And so, I didn't get to really fully experience completing the projects because these projects take a lot of years. And so, if I had my druthers, it would be first that South Central is done without any more delay, that Northwest is done, that we get Tempe Streetcar opened on time.

That's the first wish. The second wish is that the community continue to invest in transportation and especially public transportation. Which means Prop 400 gets extended another 25 years. I'm hoping that the residents fully appreciate how that now almost 40-year investment has changed their lives. And it's all too easy to take things for granted. And I hope that the residents don't take the investment of this half-cent sales tax for granted. I know we don't because we live it.

And then the third thing is that we continued to invest and do great things at Valley Metro because our community needs us. And if I can look back on five years and see Valley Metro is as successful as it is today, or even more successful I hope, then I will be satisfied and I wish my successor the best because she’s starting from a good place and has a good team and I just want her to succeed and build upon what we've started and take it to new levels. And those would be my three wishes.

Madeline:

So you mentioned investment in the future and prop 400 coming up and something else that I've often heard you say is that transit is a generational investment. So, we're looking ahead. What can people expect in future generations from our transit system? What's it going to look like in 10 or 20 years?

Scott:

Well, I think first of all, it's going to look very similar and yet have big changes.

The first thing is you're going to find that the things we rely on now, high-capacity transit, rail, buses, bus rapid transit, are going to be even more important. Because we're going to be adding people, it's going to be a denser population growth and we simply don't have enough asphalt to adequately move people and move goods. And so, I think we're going to find that while people are thinking that public transportation is becoming less important, I think it will become more important.

But I think it will look different in the sense that there'll be a lot of autonomous vehicles. There'll be a lot of micro transit. Maybe you won't see that bus route that runs on secondary streets and on less busy that maybe that'll be replaced by more ridesharing and autonomous vehicles and microtransit. And you'll find that buses and trains will be more for long haul, high-capacity type needs.

And I think that's how we will adapt to a changing landscape. Yes, Phoenix will always be spread out. We can't change that, but more and more people will live toward the center of the cities and will rely on public transportation to get to and from their jobs.

And I think, you know, jobs will be different. You'll have people like we are now. I don't see this changing where people will only be working in a place maybe two or three days a week and there'll be a lot of flexibility. And so, their transportation needs will change.

That's what I view is it'll be more crowded, more hectic, and yet, public transportation will be more essential and there'll be more ways that we'll work together to move people.

And there'll be multiple parties too. I don't see Valley Metro running all this microtransit. I think there'll be private companies. Just like you have Uber and Lyft now. And maybe cities will do things in their own place and companies like Waymo will offer things. And I just think it's pretty exciting.

Brittany:

Scott, we just asked you to look 10 to 20 years in the future and project what it could look like. And I think the pandemic has also made us realize that we have no idea what things can look like in the next couple of years and beyond.

So that being said, I want you to look into the future again and you have just retired. It's day one. What are you going to do the first day of retirement, the first month of retirement. and the first year?

Scott:

That's a great question. If you have an answer, please tell me.

My first day of retirement, I'm going to wake up and wonder why is my schedule empty, at least from work standpoint. But it's interesting that the pandemic has actually sort of prepared me for this because I've been working from home so much that I don't know that it's going to be a whole lot different because I've had so many WebEx meetings and Zoom meetings and not come into the office as often. That's probably helped me to ease into it.

I've got some projects. My wife and I bought an RV a little over a year ago. We got our first big trip planned in May. We’re going to head up to Glacier National Park and meet my sister and her family up there. And then we're going to just meander around.

Literally the greatest thing is that I have no schedule. We're going to go to Glacier, and we know when we need to be there. And I asked my wife, what do you want to do on the way home? She goes, “I don't know. We'll figure it out when we get there.” And you know, I'm looking forward to that. Saying, well hey, I don't have to be anywhere for what? And so, let's take our time. Let's explore. After a couple of months of travel and going with the grandkids over to California, to San Diego and places like that, I'd have nothing specific planned.

Although I have had talks with a lot of people about ways I can be involved. I still believe in the issues like transportation that are important to us. I have been in politics enough that I, I want to be involved because at the end of the day, you have to be involved in politics because you need the voters to support these things. So, I'm looking forward to doing that. And I'm hoping that there'll be somebody out there who will look at this old guy and say, hey, you know, the guy has been around for 40 years in business and in leadership positions, maybe he's learned something.

I hope I have. I hope if nothing else, I've learned what not to do, because that can be more important than the successes is tell me about your failures. And I won't have to go very far to think about those either. And I’m sure that I'll keep busy and get involved and engaged in something that'll help me to be involved in shaping public opinion or shaping policy. And I just don't know exactly what form that'll be in or what I'll do, but I'm looking forward to having that flexibility and that freedom. And checking up on you guys too.

Madeline:

Oh yeah, of course you can always listen to Storylines to get the latest on Valley Metro.

Scott:

I will.

Madeline:

Great. Well, thank you Scott so much for joining us today and also for your leadership the last several years at Valley Metro. It's been a pleasure working for you and for this agency. I'm sure Brittany can say the same.

Brittany:

Most definitely.

Scott:

Well, thanks. Thanks to you too. I look at you two and this sounds a little hokey, but it's not, I mean, literally I'm on my way out. You're the future, you know, your career is going to make these things happen. And, in many ways I'm a little bit envious of you because a lot of the challenges are coming, as Brittany said with the pandemic and what's the workforce going to look like, but with new technology and new commitment from the public, I think a lot of the fun stuff is coming up too. And part of me says, God, I wish I were younger so I could take advantage of being part of that fun time that's coming up.

It's really going to be exciting and rewarding, and I wish you the best.

Brittany:

Thank you Scott.

Scott:

Thank you.

Madeline:

Storylines is produced by Peter Corkery, Alex Tsotsos and Dane Ryals. Taylor Dunn is the executive producer. I'm Madeline Phipps with Brittany Hoffman. Thanks for listening.

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