By Sheri Parr
Four years ago, Linda Watson was hired as CEO of Austin’s Capital Metro transit system to tackle the onerous problems of the city’s then floundering transit agency. At that time the Sunset Commission Report identified numerous issues within the business operations that included, but was not limited to, governance, finance, labor and community relations.
To tackle these tough challenges, Watson first had to rally senior management. She clearly laid out her expectations to change the internal culture of the organization ensuring everyone was in alignment with their strategic goals moving forward. “Raise the bar internally,” became her mantra.
Additionally, her staff developed a new website designed to make the financial operations completely transparent to the public. “If we were spending taxpayers’ money to operate the service, the citizens deserved to know how we were spending money and that we were serious about tackling the tough business issues.” As a result, “Capital Metro was the first transit system in Texas to earn the state comptroller’s highest level recognition for online financial transparency. As Watson likes to say, “You can see every dollar we spend online.”
Showing her commitment to her employees, she held small “Linda is Listening” group events to let them know she was available to hear their concerns. From experience, Watson also understood that she had to develop strategic alliances within the community and make her plans transparent to the press.
She began to collaborate and coordinate with partner agencies such as the City of Austin and the Chamber of Commerce “paving the way for developing a regional high-capacity transit plan.” She hosted press tours when new services launched, like MetroRail and Metro Rapid, inviting the press to ride along to see for themselves how they worked. These efforts, along with reaching out to more media outlets and making herself available for interviews, have generated hundreds of positive news stories about Capital Metro’s progress. She also delivered her message at luncheons and community events throughout the city to help spread the news of their new successes, generating sound bites that echoed throughout the community, an example being that the ridership on the rail system had more than quadrupled since service began.
Today, approximately 110 people per day are moving to Central Texas, making it the fourth-most congested city in the country. Linda Watson said working with other transportation leaders to build a fully integrated, high-capacity transit system in Central Texas is her new challenge, and it is just as impactful as the internal one she was brought in to fix—an underperforming organization that was also mismanaging its reserve funds. She fixed the inside, now she’s leading the Capital Metro charge, with support from the City of Austin, to find solutions to the traffic problems all of us in Austin face daily. Our hats are off to her!