Jessica Mefford-Miller, Valley Metro’s new CEO, joins the organization with 15 years of experience connecting people and places through transit. Listen in as she shares with Brittany and Madeline why she is so passionate about transit, her priorities for the agency and inspiration for women who aspire to leadership positions.
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, our last episode, we talked about something pretty big that's new in town.Brittany:
You got it! So today we're gonna keep that theme going and talk with someone who's pretty new in town.Brittany:
Who is that?Madeline:
Our CEO, Jessica Mefford-Miller! She joined us in April, and now that she's been here a few months and had the chance to get to know the Valley a little bit, we thought it'd be a great idea to talk with her about what's ahead for the agency and what she thinks of transit and Phoenix.Jessica:
I'm Jessica Mefford-Miller and I'm our CEO here at Valley Metro and I have been in my role for three months now.Brittany:
Jessica you came from a transit agency that was very different from Valley Metro. But what drives you and what makes you passionate about transit in general?Jessica:
Well, Brittany, what makes me passionate about transit and why I think I am working in transit for 16 years now, though that's not what I set out to do at the beginning of my career, is that I love the impact that we have on people, on individuals and on the communities we serve. And with the services that we provide and the decisions that we make, we can really directly see the impact that we have.
Public transit has tremendous opportunity, I think, to create access to opportunities and to level the playing field just a little bit, especially for individuals who have historically been marginalized. So I think of our minority communities, lower income communities, people who are working to maintain and sustain employment. I think transit is especially essential for them.
I'm also a passionate environmentalist and most of us here in the United States live in metropolitan areas, and shaping the way people travel and the decisions that we make about where we live, where we work, and where we play and how we get around, public transit has, I think, an essential role to play in reducing things like our greenhouse gas emissions and also our total household financial outlay for transportation, which can be pretty great, especially here in Phoenix. When you take total transportation cost against our really growing housing cost, I think transit is gonna be really central to conversations that we're gonna have as a region about how we can be more financially and environmentally sustainable.Madeline:
So you've just alluded to this a little bit, Jessica, in thinking through how transit does work in the community, but since you joined us a couple months ago, you've emphasized inclusivity and diversity. How do you plan to make that a key focus of Valley Metro?Jessica:
Sure. So, at Valley Metro, we have to recognize, I think first and foremost, we are this large public agency, but we're a transit agency. And again, transit, much of the value in delivering transit service is helping people who historically don't have access. And so one of the first courses of action for us as an organization to make sure that we're effectively serving all members of our community is to make sure that our team and our organization look like our community.
And that is who we employ, who we do business with. Valley Metro is a conduit for hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding for projects, things that we build and buy as well as for services that we deliver across the community.
So within Valley Metro, our diversity equity and inclusion program, which we're just at the very beginnings of developing, which is very exciting, is gonna focus on how and where we're delivering service and making sure we're doing so in a way that is equitable. We're gonna be looking with inside our team to make sure that we're structured and resourced and that we function in a way that allows us to place equity at the center of all of our decisions.
And then we have to look from the more business procurement side of things and think about who we do business with and how we do business with them, because one of the many great ancillary functions of Valley Metro is focusing on business support within our community, especially our small women and minority-owned businesses.Brittany:
You touched on it a little bit in your first question. Climate. It's a big deal, especially here in the Valley. We see those summer temperatures going up. How do electric buses factor into the future of Valley Metro? And how do you see our fleet evolving over the next few years?Jessica:
So, Brittany, you're right. It is getting hot around here. And transit has, I think, a critical role to play in combating climate change and creating more sustainable cities. We do that in two ways. Number one, we get more people out of single occupancy vehicles and onto buses, trains, vans, and vanpools.
And then number two, and I think the piece that you wanna talk about now, is what we're doing with our actual fleet, and pursuing zero tailpipe emissions vehicles is going to be a critical priority for Valley Metro now and in the years ahead.
So what we're working on now is creating what we call a fleet transition plan. So that takes a look at all of the vehicles that Valley Metro owns and operates across Maricopa County and contemplates a really comprehensive strategy for transitioning those away from fossil fuel vehicles towards zero emission vehicles.
By the way, most of our buses today run on compressed natural gas and some of them run on diesel. Our light rail vehicles are powered by electricity.
So I look at this problem as twofold. One is what we're doing at the tailpipe or with our propulsion system. So we could contemplate a shift from compressed natural gas to battery-electric or even hydrogen fuel cell. And then the other side of that challenge is working with our utility suppliers to make sure that when we're plugging in, if you will, at our facilities, that we're plugging into an energy source that is renewable.
In my prior role, where I was executive director of the transit system in St. Louis, we began to transition that fleet of diesel buses to battery electric buses, and also worked with the utility supplier to shift away from coal powered energy to solar powered energy for our operating facilities. And I think we can do the same thing here.
This will be a big push for us. And you know, some of the great things about those zero emissions vehicles is that they tend to provide an excellent rider experience. It's a smooth, clean, quiet ride. For the people who are in the community around those transit buses, there aren't those tailpipe emissions. And then we have to really look at this through a long view because we tend to purchase transit vehicles like buses and keep 'em for about 12 years. So it has to make financial sense for us over the entire life cycle of that vehicle.Madeline:
So I know we've talked about a few of your goals and things that you really want the agency to focus on, but what other priorities do you have over the next year or so at Valley Metro?Jessica:
Sure. So we are going to be kicking off, in the month probably of September, our strategic plan. And that will be a process where staff is gonna be engaging with our member cities, and by the way, we serve 18 member cities across Maricopa County plus Maricopa County itself, and working with our other partners to really focus in on our strategic goals so that we can make some strong progress on those goals over the next five years.o be renewed as it expires in:
We will also be working with our partners in the Federal Transit Administration to secure funding for our existing and future capital programs. We have two major light rail projects under construction right now, we are so excited about the South Central Corridor and Downtown Hub and the Northwest Extension Phase Two.
It is no secret that Maricopa County is growing and changing very rapidly. So Valley Metro has to grow and change along with it. That includes where and how we provide service, but we'll also be making big pushes on technology and tools to make taking transit easier for our customers.
This includes everything from fare payment that is more streamlined and accessible, a little bit less reliant on cash for those of us who choose not to pay cash on making our transit trip. Planning and booking your trip should be easier and a little more seamless for our customers because we wanna really reduce the barriers to using transit. And we wanna make transit, and spontaneous use of transit, more accessible to people.
So in other words, you get up in the morning and decide, you know, I think I wanna take the bus today. And it shouldn't take that much advanced planning and advanced work to plan and pay for that trip. Right now, it does require a little more foresight. And so we're aiming to shift a little bit of that by availing ourselves of some of the great tools and technology that have emerged within our industry in the last five years or so.
So in the real present and an immediate future, we are working to grapple with a workforce shortage, like so many industries right now, and we are struggling to fill our most critical positions at Valley Metro.
And we have many different types of professionals at Valley Metro. Some of us are planners or work in IT or communications, but most of the folks at Valley Metro actually drive a bus, a train, or a van, or they work on those systems behind the scenes to keep Maricopa County moving every single day.
Right now we're experiencing a workforce shortage like we've never seen before. And so we are making a full court press to try and recruit team members, especially operators, to our team so that we can deliver our service as scheduled, as promised, to our customers each and every day. So we're working with our contractors that operate the service on our behalf to develop and deliver comprehensive strategies for retaining those talented professionals that are with us today and to recruit and train more.-: Brittany:
So you have plans for the next decade, the next 12 months… You've been here for three months now. What are some things that Valley Metro's doing right? What are our greatest strengths that we're already excelling at?Jessica:
I have found in the Phoenix region a city, a region, and a people that have already made the decision to invest in infrastructure, including public transit. And I think that is fantastic. I think that we recognize whether we are here in the dense part of our region like we are right now in downtown Phoenix or some of our lower density, suburban communities, we recognize that we have to invest in transit, also infrastructure like roads, bridges, highways, and, schools.
But we've gotta make those investments so that we can continue to be an economically, a vibrant thriving community. And so what I love is I don't feel like I have to make the case for transit to exist here in Phoenix. We get it. We've bought in. But now we've gotta deliver. And the onus on us is to deliver the transit system that the Phoenix region expects.
I've also found a team here within Valley Metro of people who are so passionate about the important work that we do and are committed to serving our communities. And that's that essential framework that we need to do really big, exciting, and sometimes difficult things.Madeline:
So switching gears a little bit into learning a little bit more about you, you’re Valley Metro's first female CEO. So what would you say to women who are starting out in their careers and are aspiring to leadership positions?Jessica:
To women and, and also young people more broadly, however you identify, I think early in our careers, what we need to remember is to build in a little bit of flexibility and exploration. It becomes more difficult to do that later in your career as you become entrenched.
But this isn't part how I discovered transit. I sought out internships through my undergraduate and my graduate studies and it was actually through my master's thesis work and work I did working for a research center while I was in Texas that I really discovered transit and became passionate about it.
And I reached out for opportunities. I was constantly looking for that right project or program or internship to really help me dive in. I didn't often shy away from doors that seemed closed. You know, transit has historically been a pretty male-dominated industry. To an extent it still is, though I am so encouraged that many of my peer CEOs and transit agencies who have assumed their role in the last five years or so are women and/or minorities.
And so I think that's important. And for transit in particular, if we take a step back and look at who rides transit across the United States, transit customers are more likely to be women and/or minorities.
And so, it is so essential that our teams from the operators all the way up think about the experiences of the people that we serve. Because at the end of the day, that's why we're here. We exist to serve the people that we carry and the communities around us.
Of course, I am a woman, so I'm a little bit biased. I'm a woman, I'm also a mother of daughters, but I think that women in particular bring a bit of a different perspective when we tend to look at problems a bit more holistically.
I'm also a geographer by training. So this is kind of native for my discipline to look at a complicated problem and think not just of a route and needing to get from point A to point B, but thinking about how that route, its design, its construction, is gonna impact the community at large.
And I think for me, the most exciting about being the first CEO at Valley Metro is being the last first female CEO in Valley Metro. So we've ripped off that Band-Aid, right? And I'm hopeful that we can begin to see our team and our organization as being more diverse and more reflective of the rich communities that I see around us across Maricopa County.Brittany:
Like you said, there's more leaders of minority and women groups out there now, but you don't just fall into these positions. So who have you admired or taken skills from along the way to be where you are today?Jessica:
I've built diverse teams behind me. So a lot of the inspiration I take has been from the people who surround me. Within the transit industry, more recently, I've had the opportunity to see and model the behaviors and the careers of distinguished leaders like Nuria Fernandez, who was recently a transit CEO for many years, who is now the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. And that is so incredibly exciting.
And representation matters. You know, seeing in recent years, seeing more females rise to the ranks of the executive director or CEO or general manager level has been very compelling for me. I think it has also been part of, my desire to raise my hand and say in my last role, hey, I'm ready to be executive director, tap me or to reach out and compete at the national stage as I did in the Valley Metro recruiting process.
So I think that seeing those women succeed and excel is gonna be really important to us. And when I look at the Valley Metro team, we are fairly diverse in terms of gender diversity right now. And at the leadership team level, we have a critical mass of women and I hope that in so doing, we can engage and inspire our future women leaders.
We have to really invest in it because I have seen that engagement of women and minorities, whether we're talking about engaging the community and conversations about how we should grow or in building our teams, it doesn't happen accidentally. It happens too slow, organically. So we've got a really carve out those opportunities, and you do so, I think, from the ground up.Madeline:
So just a couple more questions. Will you tell us a little bit about you? Some of your hobbies where you grew up…Jessica:
Sure. So I grew up in a town in southwestern Illinois called Granite City, and it is in the shadow of the Mississippi River, just outside St. Louis. I am the daughter of a steel worker and a school teacher. And I come from a very kind of hardscrabble blue collar town. And I think that experience, though it's been many years since I lived there, that experience has informed the way I go about my life and especially the way I serve our community.
I am focused. I'm a hardworking person who is focused on serving and supporting hardworking people. You know, I come from a background where people had to work together to cobble the resources together to support transportation and childcare and everything that we needed as a family.
And so that informs my understanding of the lived experience of our customers and our communities. Within our team here at Valley Metro, I am a servant leader. I am aware and engaged and I'm deliberate about keeping in touch with the needs of our team. I serve them so that they can serve our customers.
My husband and I have been married now 16 years. We have three daughters. So my daughters are now aged 11 and I have twins who are almost nine years old. And they actually just joined me here in Arizona in the month of June, they finished up their school year in Illinois, and then moved out. So it's been a little bit of a switch.
We are really loving Arizona life. When we are not working, we are outside playing. Our family model is work hard, play hard. So we like to camp and hike and swim and snowboard and do all things outdoors. My daughters are also soccer players and dancers, so they keep us very busy.
But one of the things I love about Arizona is the abundant outdoor recreation opportunities. When I was here in the spring, I did a lot of hiking. We had our first Sedona camping trip last weekend, which was super exciting. I look forward to heading north in the winter when the snow starts to fall for snowboarding. So I think Arizona is a great fit, but right now, we are keeping cool by the pool in the hot summer months.Brittany:
You touched on it. You have a plethora of education in your background, and you're continuing to learn now. Can you tell us about your PhD in geography and how that fits into public transit?Jessica:
Sure. So I continue to learn everyday, and hope I do every day I breathe.
So I'm a geographer by training and I did a great deal of travel demand modeling. I think a lot about the interaction between people and places and how we can design transportation systems to successfully allow people to navigate our built up environments.
But I've also spent a lot of time working at the nexus between transportation and land use. And this is a really important part of Valley Metro’s present and future, as we are developing and kind of spreading out across the region, as we have more and more new people come to Maricopa County, we've gotta find places to house them and ways to move them.
So some of the things I'm excited about include a lot of the transit oriented development that is happening around the existing, but also the planned, light rail system. We've also got the streetcar system onboard now within the city of Tempe, and we're working on plans to expand that further into Tempe and into Mesa.
So the more we can move people quickly and to the places they need to go, the better off we are in terms of quality of life for households across Maricopa County. So it's that systems approach that I bring to transportation. I think that I gained throughout my not only my career, but also my education.Madeline:
Is there anything else you'd like to add?Jessica:
I would say, I think that the Valley is such an exciting place to be right now. We are rapidly growing, but there are also a lot of opportunities for innovation and ways for us to shape how Maricopa County develops and how we travel and move about.
We are working, as we mentioned earlier, we're kind of working at the fore of innovation, like zero emissions vehicles, clean energy at the utility scale. Also we'll be working in the autonomous vehicles space a little more deeply soon. And we're also looking at microtransit and other transportation options that are gonna service well maybe in our lower density areas.
So we are about moving people, and sometimes that's a whole lot of people on a Valley Metro light rail train and sometimes that is a handful of people on a vanpool or a microtransit bus. So diversifying our products and the way we do business is going to be essential for creating the sustainable transportation system that Maricopa County needs now and into the future.Brittany:
As a native Phoenician, Maddie, I think I forget how cool Arizona is all the time. But our new CEO reminded me how exciting our Valley is as a whole and things that we can continue to explore.Madeline:
You're definitely right, Brittany. And I think Jessica's fresh perspective is gonna be really great for us and for the communities that we serve as we think about how we can innovate in the future and keep providing great service in new ways.Brittany:
Big things are on the horizon for Valley Metro. And I'm excited a rider, as an employee, I think that now is the time to shake things up a little and get changes happening that are better serving our communities.Madeline:
Thanks again for joining us for episode 12 of Storylines. If you have any thoughts about the episode, questions, or maybe a topic you'd like us to pursue, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.Brittany:
Don't miss an episode of Storylines. Subscribe to wherever you listen to your podcast. And don't forget to rate us too! For Valley Metro, I'm Brittany.Madeline:
And I'm Madeline.Brittany:
Thanks for riding with us.Madeline:
We'll meet you at the next stop.
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.