On Board With... Karen King, Retiring CEO, Golden Empire Transit District

Transit California sat down with Karen King, retiring Chief Executive Officer of the Golden Empire Transit District (GET) in Bakersfield. Karen King has dedicated many years of her career to providing transit throughout California’s Central Valley and has served in a variety of leadership roles at the Association, including Chair of the Executive Committee (2021-2023).

Transit California: You served as the Association’s Chair of the Executive Committee from 2021-23, as Vice Chair from 2019-21, and as a Committee Member for many years before that. What sparked your interest in serving on the Association’s primary decision-making committee, and what are some of the ways that your longtime service benefited your agency and other agencies like yours? What were some of the most memorable actions that the committee took during your service? 

During my long career, I have always tried to grow my knowledge and competency and then apply that learning to my work. I was naturally attracted to the strategic and political elements of our business. When I was at Long Beach Transit (LBT), I would attend the Association’s Executive Committee meetings with Larry Jackson, LBT’s GM at the time, and became excited about the work of the Association, which is highly strategic and political. That led me to be more involved with the Association and eventually elected to the Executive Committee myself while I was Executive Director of North County Transit District (NCTD). 

The achievements of the Association during my time have been many and very impactful to the ability of transit agencies to continue to provide the important services that we provide to our communities. To no one’s surprise, the primary issue has always been funding for transit service and related capital projects. Probably the most memorable thing that happened not during my term as Chair, but while I was on the Executive Committee was when the state “borrowed” STA funds, then refused to pay them back. Ultimately, the Executive Committee made the hard decision to sue the state, and after nerve-wracking months, we prevailed. Specifically for my agency, the relaxing of the TDA fare box recovery requirements has made a significant difference as Kern County is not a self-help county. Most recently the population based TIRCP funding and the Zero-Emission Transit Capital Program. The Association’s ability to bring all interests together to send a clear and unified message to the Governor and the Legislature was phenomenal.  

Transit California: For several years, you also served on the Association’s Small Operators Committee, which provides opportunities for small operators to influence the Association’s positions and policy, as well as a forum for small operator issues. What were some of the issues you worked on as a member of this committee, and how can the Association’s small operator members get the most benefit out of this committee’s work? 

The Small Operators Committee is a great place to network and garner support from other agencies that are experiencing similar problems. Sometimes as a small operator you feel isolated and like no one else could possibly be having the issues you are having. That is the strength of the committee, however. Through the committee, matters of importance are dealt with directly with the help of Association staff or bumped up to the Executive Committee for action if there is a broader bearing. The small operators have been able to identify issues such as working with Caltrans to get funding approved and disbursed in a more timely fashion. The Association staff facilitated meetings that hopefully have improved that process.  Participation in the committee is a great place to dialogue about budgetary and legislative matters as they affect the small operators. Because the CEO of a small agency often wears many hats, they do not have the luxury of time for keeping up on the latest developments, especially if they do not have an advocate in Sacramento. While it might seem unimportant, the Small Operators Committee sponsors an awards program that shines the spotlight on the unique achievements of small agencies and their employees. Small agencies cannot compete with larger agencies for such accolades, but some of our brightest and most dedicated folks work at small agencies and are deserving of recognition. 

Transit California: As Chair of the COVID-19 Transit Crisis Relief Task Force, you helped prepare the Association’s 2020 report Transit is Essential: Recommendations for the Future of Transit. Now that we’re a few years past the acute crisis, what do you see as some of the greatest policy successes that arose from this report, and what recommendations do you think should be further considered or implemented by policymakers? 

For the first year, the task force met weekly to try to stay on top of ever-changing issues related to COVID-19. The most disconcerting challenge came from dealing with the California Department of Public Health. In an effort to be responsive to public health crisis they mandated policies and procedures that made it very difficult to provide the essential transit services our communities needed. The 2020 report did an excellent job of detailing a series of best practices and policy recommendations intended to improve the safety, efficiency, and viability of transit operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond driving home the need for transportation for essential workers and others. It clearly outlined the impact the pandemic had on transit agencies and the coming “fiscal cliff” that many of us are still struggling to overcome.  It was an important document to set the stage for the follow-on legislation and budget actions enacted in the past three years. It also informed the development of the Association’s 2023-2028 Strategic Plan during my term.

Transit California: For member agencies who want to get more involved with the Association, where do you recommend they get started? How can they best interact with committees and participate in conferences?

I think a great place to start engaging with the Association is attending the Annual Fall Conference & Expo and Spring Legislative Conference. Both are excellent educational opportunities as well as great networking opportunities. I think it is important that transit agencies send younger lower-level people to participate in the conferences, as there are unlimited development opportunities just by attending these two conferences. Then volunteering to be a presenter brings a whole other appreciation for the Association. Finding your niche where you feel most passionate is a good place to start volunteering to be on a committee.  Active participation in a committee leads to more opportunities to serve the Association. 

Transit California:  At GET, you’ve headed a small operator that serves six million passengers annually with a mix of compressed natural gas buses and hydrogen fuel cell buses in the Bakersfield Urbanized Area, a mid-size city and suburbs surrounded by rural areas. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities you’ve responded to while serving this region?

Leading Golden Empire Transit (GET) has been a great privilege. At a small agency, you do not have the luxury of a large staff with specialized knowledge and skills. You rely heavily on consultants to augment your staff. You rely on your staff to tackle matters outside their area of expertise. Because we are the only urban transit system over 200,000 in population within a 110-mile radius, we receive all of the federal and state money that is allocated to our urbanized area. We do not have to fight over who gets what portion of the funds and we make our own policy decisions. The GET Board consists of citizen volunteers who are advocates for public transit, not elected officials who have to worry about their constituent’s vote. Everyone is our constituent. All these things are both challenges and opportunities. Under my leadership, we have focused first, and foremost, on providing the best and the most transit service we can to a needy community. Where we can, we innovate and strive for excellence, keeping in mind it is always about our customers not our egos. In addition, we do not take ourselves too seriously – you must have a sense of humor.

Transit California: You’ve served GET for over 15 years as CEO, and before that you served San Diego County’s North County Transit District in several leadership roles. What have you observed as the greatest changes or transitions in public transit during your career? What are your greatest hopes for the future of transit in California?

As I have gotten older, I realize that things are ever changing yet stay the same. People today want the same things that people a hundred years ago wanted; we just get those needs and desires met in new and challenging ways. Our communities still expect us to provide more and better service. Today we look to technology to help us do this. Whether it is fare payment systems or ZEB technology, we are innovators like never before.  

When I started my career in transit, I almost always was the only woman in the room. Today there a many female transit leaders and professionals. I hope the future brings the same opportunities I have had to grow my career to people of all genders and races.

Transit California: You are retiring from GET. What’s next for you?

I plan to do the usual things people do in retirement; spend more time with the grandkids and travel. What I am most excited about though is going back to school. I plan to get a PhD in strategic leadership, not because it will help me get a better job or better salary, but because I always wanted to. 

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