It was serendipity that led James B. Perez into the realm of mass transit, but a love of public service has kept him there for more than 20 years.
Perez, 59, has followed this calling from the sunny roads of San Diego to the windy plains of Kansas and now to the rapidly changing — and congested — highways of Central Maryland.
He took over as CEO of Central Maryland Regional Transit in Laurel last summer and has spent the past months strengthening the public transit service management organization’s staff and communications.
The nonprofit manages public transit services for about 2 million passengers along 17 routes in Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. Among its bus services are Connect-A-Ride, operating throughout northern Prince George’s and western Anne Arundel; Howard Transit, operating throughout eastern Howard County; and the Subscription Bus, operating on two routes: along the I-95 corridor from Northern Virginia to Fort Meade, and between Carroll and Howard counties and the National Security Agency campus at Fort Meade. The organization has 72 vehicles.
“A lot of things needed to be improved,” Perez said of joining the organization. He focused on developing the employees into an “exceptional” staff of 32 and working with his communications director to improve how its service reports and daily updates on interruptions and breakdowns are distributed to service providers and the Maryland Transit Administration.
The organization was launched in 1987 by the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce as the Corridor Transportation Corp., a public-private demonstration transit project. About three years ago, it became independent and changed its name. Its offices are still in the same building as the chamber’s.
Recently, the organization has been exploring opportunities to manage private services, Perez said. Part of the new interest has to do with the tight financial situation within the transit community.
“I believe the federal and state government will quit giving transit as much money, so partnerships are going to be really important to staying productive and reliable,” he said. “We’re looking to work with the private sector. That will take away some of the budget challenges.”
The nonprofit receives funds for its $15.9 million operating budget from the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Transit Administration, Anne Arundel County, Howard County and the city of Laurel.
In the first four months under Perez’ leadership, the organization has improved its buses’ performance times, said Janet S. Owens, a board member and former Anne Arundel county executive.
“Jim knows buses and routes, and he’s comfortable with procurement procedures. He understands how to juggle things,” she said, adding that Perez gets everyone excited about the mission and can help bring the organization to a new level.
“Public transit is something easy and yet hard and can help so many people,” Perez said. “It’s hard because of the politics. But you get to help a lot of people, and that’s the fun part.”
Growing up in Milwaukee with an electrician father and stay-at-home mother of eight, Perez said he quickly learned the value of serving others. He tried to pursue that service through work as a police officer, like his brother-in-law, but a surprise offer of a marketing position at the San Diego Transit Corp. changed all that.
Perez started out counting the advertising cards that go on buses each night, and after about six months was about to look for other work when a position opened up at the transit store. He later moved into the maintenance department and then analyzed service breakdowns before shifting to the regional telephone information division. Perez developed a training manual for the 17-member staff responsible for scheduling 26 routes for 32 million passengers.
He later was promoted to transit operations specialist, where he was in charge of curb-to-curb services for the elderly and people with disabilities and later to the East County division, which oversaw an operating budget of $10 million.
One of his favorite experiences in San Diego involved procuring 250, 40-foot vehicles and seeing them roll into the parking bay. He also was there when his agency was folded into the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, which allowed it to create a universal bus fee structure for the area instead of a different one every few blocks, Perez said.
But the state’s decision to shift funds from the transit system led to the layoffs of Perez and about 140 others in 2008. Perez spent time taking care of his ill father before joining the Kansas Department of Transportation in 2011.
It was a big jurisdiction.
He recalled having to leave the night before a meeting with a county official, just to get there on time. The department was responsible for transit in 105 counties.
“It was exciting, but I knew I wouldn’t do it for long,” Perez said.
Mark Aesch, owner of Transpro, a consulting firm in Tampa, Fla., worked with Perez as a consultant during this time.
“Jim is one of those rare folks in the public sector that is focused on results instead of being consumed by the process,” Aesch said. “He identifies what success looks like and builds a performance management system to reach that.”
The two worked on a performance measurement system that would award more money to communities that met performance goals, he said.
Perez said he is especially fond of Aesch’s book, “Driving Excellence,” because it is the first book he picked up about something he likes to do, adding there are not many books on public transit.
Perez decided it was time to move on when the department changed secretaries. He was intrigued by the Laurel nonprofit’s offer of a “small, successful” organization that was not a government agency.
“I’d never been on the Eastern Seaboard,” Perez said. “I liked that (the Laurel organization) was small enough that it could be developed into something more. I think we’re in a place now that we’ll be able to demonstrate to the public that we provide great service.”
Perez’s group now is working with Montgomery County to expand services and has a $2.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to support its pilot electric bus program. The program is devoted to reducing greenhouse gases from vehicles, using a drive-over pad to charge the three vehicles.
Staying on top of technology is a constant challenge for transit, Perez said.