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Coast RTA’s new chief looking to build track record of trust

jlee@thesunnews.com

There’s been one phrase that new Coast RTA Chief Executive Officer Brian Piascik has used time and time again in the last two weeks he has been on the job.

“We’ll get there,” Piascik said with a smile. “That’s what I keep telling people. I’ve said that a thousand times in the last 10 days. We’ll get there. So we’ll see how effective we are getting there.”

Developing a track record

The former nationwide consultant with URS Corp., who has most recently worked directly with the planning department at Dallas Area Rapid Transit, is now in charge of turning around the image and operations of Coast RTA, which has had a bumpy several years prompting strained relationships with state and local agencies. Piascik knows there are some fences to mend.

“First, it’s developing a track record so that the powers that be trust us to spend their money wisely and then we start working on the funding stream,” Piascik said. “It’ll be small moves. It’s not going to be a two-, three-year solution. It’s going to take longer than that.”

Certainly accepting the challenge of leading the transit, which operates on a $5 million budget annually, will mean some difficult conversations and decisions to be made.

“I’m not one for telling them what they want to hear, necessarily,” Piascik said. “I’m OK with being a straight shooter and giving you the hard answers. … It’s gotten me into trouble a few times, but it is what it is.”

Piascik steps into the role without a chief financial officer, Julie Norton-Dew, and chief operating officer, Felicia Beaty – both of whom had spent years in their positions. Within a month of Piascik taking the lead, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said Coast’s board or Piascik had to “clean house” of management at the agency. Norton-Dew, who served as interim CEO since the April 2014 firing of Myers Rollins, stepped down from her role shortly after Lazarus made his comments. Coast has not explained Beaty’s departure from the company.

Michelle Cantey, spokeswoman for Coast, would only say Tuesday that Beaty is “no longer with the organization.”

“It’s a huge challenge,” Piascik said of not having continuity from the previous administration. “I still have a lot of work to do on both a revision for 2015 budget as well as a new budget for [20]16. We’re going to hopefully have a finance committee meeting sometime in early June to address that, and then we’ll have a budget ready for June.”

Piascik is not only working on closing out a fiscal year he is just familiarizing himself with, but he has also made time to meet with each of Coast’s board members, city of Myrtle Beach officials, Grand Strand Area Transportation Study officials, as well as representatives from Horry and Georgetown counties. Coast receives funding from Horry and Georgetown counties, Myrtle Beach and Conway, as well as state and federal funds.

“All of the conversations have been very positive,” Piascik said. “They all have the same take on things that [Horry County] has and that is we’re giving you guys all this money every year and are you spending this money wisely. Are we getting the best bang for our buck? Questions I can’t answer quite yet.”

Improving relationships and Coast’s brand

Coast and Horry County have an annual funding agreement where certain reporting policies and accountability measures must be met for the county to issue quarterly payments that total $1.05 million annually. Piascik said he plans to be as transparent as possible to build the trust needed in the transit’s relationship with its funders.

“This system is funded based on a region of 300,000 people between Horry and Georgetown counties, but in the dead of summer, it’s a region of 600,000 to 800,000 people, so we have the transportation issues of a much bigger place,” Piascik said. “So, inherently, the system is under funded. We’ve got to figure a way to close that gap. Getting that at the federal level is not going to happen. … I would love to, and I’m sure Mark Lazarus would agree with me, I would love to get off their discretionary budget, because you can’t really do anything or look to the future if you don’t really know what your funding is going to look like for next year.”

Lazarus said he agrees with Piascik that Coast needs dedicated funding to obtain grant money.

“It’s so they’re not always scrambling to know if they’ve got funding coming in,” Lazarus said. “That’s something that if we get more confidence in what they’re doing, and we see that they’re going in the right direction, we could certainly start looking toward.”

Lazarus met with Piascik on Tuesday and liked the short- and long-range plans he has for the transit, and the fact that he is willing to explore changing the fiscal year for Coast to allow for better management of its budget. Currently, the fiscal year ends in June, which is when the transit relies heavily on local funds and is near the peak of tourist season.

“A new philosophy is he has been asking the employees there, ‘What do you see? What are your thoughts and concerns?’ and opening up that line of communication, which I don’t think has been happening in the past,” Lazarus said. “I think he understands transportation. That’s the first thing. That background is there. He’s a planner, which, I think, is going to be very important for us. I’m impressed with him so far.”

Piascik said his job will include keeping promises made to riders and to funders.

“To me, the small moves are let’s get really good at what we promised to date,” Piascik said. “I’m not really interested in expanding services until we have a really good handle on that, and we have vehicles we can depend on and we have a prospect for expanding the fleet concurrently with expanding our services. We need to start developing that track record and show people we can do what we’re promising we can do... I don’t think we’re really there yet and I think it really does boil down to the fleet, and having some reliable equipment to operate.”

Piascik said he’s asked the staff to rank the fleet from worst to best and the worst ones will be disposed of.

““We’ve got to get them out of here because I think that’s certainly going to help us from a public image perspective,” he said. “I think we’re kind of restricted to the fact that we’re going to have to get more used equipment. It would be really nice to replace two or three with new buses very year, and hopefully we’ll get there at some point, but in the meantime, we just have to get some things in here that we can trust.”

Piascik’s strong connections in Dallas have opened his eyes to 10 used buses that Coast RTA could begin saving for, but obtaining those would mean introducing a new engine model to the already diverse fleet and could provide more challenges as Coast tries to cut down on the variety of buses it already has. Another issue is the buses are built with Detroit diesel engines in them, which are not made anymore.

“It’s really kind of a double-edged sword because the more vehicles you introduce into the fleet, the harder it is to keep inventory,” Piascik said. “We have 12 different models out there and we have to work at reducing that.”

Piascik said he will not accept the new buses unless they come with spare parts Coast could store until repairs are needed.

“What we’ll do in two years is put a different engine and transmission package in them and be able to get another five years out of them because the shell of the bus is going to be in pretty good shape. It’s been in a relatively easy part of the country to operate. No snow and not a lot of potholes.”

Why Coast?

With a plate so full of issues and a company reputation that need to be resolved coupled with present and future challenges, Piascik said he has questioned taking the role a few times before arriving.

“There’ve been several days in the last two or three months where I’ve definitely gone, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Piascik said, adding the location closer to family and the Myrtle Beach area sold him and his family. “This place has a soft place in my heart. I’ve always been a big Myrtle Beach fan. I love this area. Partly because of the golf, but I’ve spent a lot of family time here off the North Carolina coast. I needed to find some place that was back east. Everybody else in my family is either in North Carolina or Virginia.”

He has said several times he looks forward to getting off the road as a consultant and focusing his knowledge and effort on one place, which ended up being the only place he applied to.

“Personally, it’s been a real big desire to get off the road,” Piascik said. “Even though my day job in Texas was running the [Dallas Area Rapid Transit] planning program under contract, I spent a lot of time going to Salt Lake [City, Utah], going to Topeka, Kansas or Austin [Texas]. … I spent a lot of my time in airplanes. I wanted to apply my wares in one place. I think this place can use that kind of look. I’ve been all over the place and seen different problems. A lot of them are similar to the problems here …

“I kind of had my eye on this place for a long time. I think I would have applied for this job two years ago if it ever came available. And, it’s the only job I applied for.”

And if there’s one person who is really glad he applied for it, it’s Bernie Silverman, chairman of Coast’s board.

“I think he has done what I hoped he would do,” Silverman said. “He came with a lot of transit experience, and experience from all over the place. He knew our agency a little bit, and he hit the ground planning.”

Piascik worked with Coast in 2010 on a transit development plan.

Silverman said he was impressed with Piascik’s first board meeting in May, which outlined a 30-day, 60-day and 90-day plan of action and goals.

“I think that’s what we need,” Silverman said. “That’s the critical thing we’re missing. … We just couldn’t get to the next step. We have good days, we have bad days. … we get back on track, we lose it and then we have no plan. I think that’s what he has brought to us.”

The future for Coast

Piascik is looking ahead to the summer when the Federal Transit Administration will come in and perform a financial management oversight report, which he thinks will address Horry County’s request for a forensic audit.

“That is going to be hopefully the final piece to help the county have a comfort level that we’re doing what we need to be doing,” Piascik said.

As days go by, the lists of requests get longer for Piascik. Funding, as it has been for a while for Coast, seems to consistently be part of the solution to many issues.

“I’ve been joking with people where somebody will bring up an issue and I’ll say, ‘On the 200 things I need to do here to start off with, that’s like No. 148,’” Piascik said. “The priority list is still in process. … That whole idea of being funded on the basis of 300,000 people versus the 600,000 to 800,000 people depending on what weekend it is screams to me that we have to get the tourists to help pay for service. And with that, we will want to design some services that they could take advantage of.

“We’ve got to think of transit as being infrastructure rather than a public service to get there and that’s going to be a big sell for us.”

Initial reviews by Piascik show Coast RTA is running efficiently, but it can work on its effectiveness.

“Sitting in the room there with the county talking about is our service efficient, and there are a lot of things that go into the efficiency category …” Piascik said. “I would say from what I know now, the system is run about efficiently as you can run the system given what we have. It’s a matter of effectiveness. … You’re not going to be really effective when you’re running around and have 15 things you’re trying to do or be and you’re not effective at any of them. To me, that’s got to be the focus. We’re going to try and improve our effectiveness.

“We’re going to start small. We’re going to get a fleet that we’re proud of and we’re going to do what we do on the street really, really well. It’s not going to be overnight.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.

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