Courtesy of Pierce Transit

Pierce Transit CEO Sue Dreier started her three-decade transit career at the ground floor. In her 20s, Dreier worked as a regional manager for Supercuts Hair Salons, traveling the country opening franchises during the company’s early years.

In 1990, after settling in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband and two young children, Dreier began work as a part-time bus operator for Lane Transit, a job she said felt conducive to raising a family. As a bus operator, Dreier said she quickly came to understand the way that transit is interwoven into the fabric of the community, both through the daily lives of riders and the economic future of a region.

“When I started driving, it really became apparent to me how influential and important transit is to communities,” Dreier said. “You get to know people and see how transit provides opportunity. I found it so valuable.”

A decade later, Dreier started to ascend the ranks at Lane Transit — first as a supervisor, then manager of transit operations. While there, Dreier wrote the operations plan for Eugene’s first Bus Rapid Transit line and later went on to serve as chief operating officer at Salem-Keizer Transit from 2010-15.

Since being appointed CEO of Pierce Transit in May 2015, one of Dreier’s most significant undertakings has been spearheading a comprehensive review of the agency’s bus systems and routes. After an almost yearlong analysis, Pierce Transit implemented a new system in March 2017 that included faster service between locations, more direct routes, and later weekday evening service. The restructured system also led to the largest single service enhancement in the agency’s history: adding 35,000 bus service hours in March 2017 and 10,000 additional hours that September. From 2015 to 2017, the agency logged a total of 71,000 service hours — a 16 percent boost.

While COVID-19 has brought swings in usage and a measure of economic uncertainty to the transit agency — 85 percent of the agency’s operating budget relies on local sales tax — Dreier is optimistic about the projects Pierce Transit has underway. Among them is the South Sound’s first Bus Rapid Transit line, or “Stream,” which will connect Spanaway to downtown Tacoma along the area currently served by Pierce Transit’s Route 1. We recently met with Dreier to learn more about COVID’s impacts on transit, what that means for the community, and transit sustainability.

During the pandemic, the transit industry has been tasked with caring for the essential workforce — both its ridership and its employees. How has your agency approached that responsibility?

We put safety as a top priority here at Pierce Transit. When the pandemic hit, we immediately hired a local firm to disinfect our buses. So, our buses are disinfected every two hours, and they still are today. We really tried to send the message, “Let’s just use transit for essential services right now.” This was back in March, when everybody was asked to “Stay Home, Stay Healthy.” Our ridership dropped significantly, but never dropped more than 68 percent. It’s a big number, but other transit agencies have experienced between 70 and 90 percent decrease in ridership. We encouraged everyone to wear masks when the mandate came out. We went fare-free for a little while, so people were entering through the back door. We have limited the amount of people that can ride on a bus. We procured with a small company out of Sequim to do some plexiglass doors that open and close on all of our buses. And when we had all of those back up, that’s when we reimplemented fares onto our system.

Many of our administrative employees, of course, can work from home. We have 940 employees, and I would say 600 of them are still reporting to work here. But when we dropped our service down a little bit, we had a lot of people that were in those high categories for the virus. We offered leaves of absences for our operators. We offered furloughs so people could protect themselves and not report. … We acted quickly, and we have continued to act, working with the Pierce County Health Department.

Safety has been an ongoing priority for your agency prior to the onset of COVID. Pierce Transit was recently recognized by the American Public Transportation Association for its Bus Safety program — what made the agency stand out?

We reduced preventable accidents 24 percent since 2018. So, we were really happy to be awarded this recognition this year. We just feel like as a transit agency, we can set the standard for safety. We were given the award because of some of our innovative practices that we’ve done over the last few years. … We have what’s called DriveCam. What (it) does is, if a bus does certain things — let’s say, stop suddenly — it will trigger a camera that will look at what’s happened. That data goes to the vendor, and they look at it. And if there’s something that our operator could have done better, then it comes to us. We have somebody whose sole job is in coaching, and we don’t look at it as a disciplinary measure. We also implemented a recognition program called the “Million Mile Club,” which (is awarded to) operators who have driven a consecutive million miles without a preventable accident. We inducted 45 drivers into that last year.

Pierce Transit is in the middle of planning its “Stream” Bus Rapid Transit expansion. What is the status of that project?

It’s a 14.4-mile Bus Rapid Transit project, and we’re in between 30 and 60 percent design. It was held up a little bit due to COVID, but we should hit 60 percent design by the end of the year and start construction in 2022. We’re expecting to open the line early 2024. So, we still have a way to go.

What long-term economic impact do you envision the project will have along that route?

We believe it will attract businesses. More and more, our society is going toward car-free. People are getting their driver’s licenses later. It used to be at 16, you had your driver’s licenses; many people are delaying that. There are reports that say that every dollar spent investing in transit will return $4 in economic development. A wide range of different transit models have provided those statistics. But when you’re really looking at family wage jobs, we provide that, because we’re a good union shop. So that would be more employees for us, but also just getting people to the jobs. And we think it’s a real tool for employers to attract employees. It has been shown in Eugene, as an example, the corridor that the first Bus Rapid Transit went on is now transformed, including the University of Oregon built a basketball stadium right on the line. That was some of the reason they built it.

Under your leadership, Pierce Transit introduced zero-emission electric buses and hybrid electric vanpools. What commitment has Pierce Transit made to sustainable transport, and what’s next in that arena? Pierce Transit was one of the first transit agencies in the nation to run the majority of our fleet on clean, compressed, natural gas. It (was) the cleanest propulsion for a long time, before electric buses came in. Now we have a new technology, which is electric buses. We’re very fortunate in the Pacific Northwest that we can get electricity at a pretty good price.

(In 2011), we had a compressed natural gas fire where our compressor went down. So we wanted to diversify our fleet. We don’t have the intention of going all electric. Some people do. Our board is looking at a 70-30 split. Seventy percent will continue to be compressed natural gas, and then 30 percent could be electric. We are still doing our cost analysis on that. We have three electric buses now, and we have six in our budget to order. They’ve all been purchased through grants, very little local dollars. And then, of course, we have our eight plug-in hybrid electric vanpools that we’re doing.

Additionally, we wash our buses on-site almost every day (using) reclaimed water. We put in all LED lighting through our system, all those transit centers that we updated. It’s a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption. So, we have committed through the American Public Transportation Association to a sustainability pledge.

Why is sustainability in transit so important to the community?

Transit is about sustainability. Whether that’s a vanpool, whether it’s one of our on-demand services, or whether it’s our big bus, it is a viable alternative to a single-occupancy car. Just riding the bus makes it so the roads are lasting longer. So even folks that don’t use public transit are positively impacted by it.