Q&A with John Nations, president and CEO, Bi-State Development Agency
IBJ: What’s your background?
Nations: I was a lawyer with Armstrong Teasdale and mayor of Chesterfield. Started out practicing law with my dad in the ‘80s. Ended up with my own firm. Joined Armstrong Teasdale in 2006. There I did a lot of land use, development, corporate work, economic development work, and the whole nine yards. Great firm, great people, I really enjoyed it. I came to the Bi-State Development Agency in October of 2010.
IBJ: Someone told me that when you were asked to come to Bi-State you said that you would if the intent was to exercise the agency’s full charter. If the intent was to just be a transit agency, you weren’t interested. Is that true?
Nations: That’s exactly what happened. Actually, I was approached about a year before I accepted the position. They were looking for a CEO. We had a good conversation but Bi-State was viewed as a transit company. And what you heard was exactly what happened. I liked Chesterfield and Armstrong Teasdale very, very much. I wasn’t looking for a job and I certainly wasn’t looking for the wrong job. But my background was economic development. I admired this place. In fact, someone found a quote in the Post-Dispatch in ’02 or ’03 where I said that the Bi-State Development Agency is an economic development company. The emphasis gradually shifted to transit, but Bi-State is one of the best-known, least-understood companies in the region.
People knew that Bi-State did transit, but they didn’t know anything else, from the Gateway Arch to the third-busiest airport in the state of Illinois. So, when they approached me I thought it was a tremendous opportunity, but the question was, what emphasis did the board have and what direction did the company want to go? If they wanted to be an economic development company and were really interested in using Bi-State for what it was formed to do, I was interested in that. But, if they wanted an expert for a transit agency, I didn’t think I was a good fit. To me transit is an important element of an economic development strategy, which is something I articulated through the 2010 sales tax initiative campaign before I was here. The reason they wanted me to run that campaign was because they knew I was an economic development guy and they knew I had a different view of economic development. I see transit as an essential component of your economic development and job strategy, which is the same focus I brought here.
So, when the board approached me about being the new CEO, I had a long conversation about what the board’s priorities were. Where did they see the company going? I viewed Bi-State as a regional economic development implementer. They’ve been doing a great job with transit for decades and that was fine, but my view is that Bi-State is a regional economic development facilitator — a place for this region to invest and rely on for truly regional challenges and priorities. We are not in the business of rushing out to take things. We let the region come to us and say we need a truly regional solution to some of these issues. That’s where we fit in; that’s what we are delighted to do; and that’s how I view the role of this company. We take regional challenges and we provide regional solutions for them.
IBJ: As the only organization of its kind in St. Louis metro area I would think there is a lot you can do to bridge the gap between the two states.
Nations: I totally agree. That’s what we were formed to do. We exist by an act of Congress. We exist by virtue of an agreement between Missouri and Illinois known as the Compact and it was incorporated by an act of Congress. Interstate Compact Law is the only place in the United States Constitution where states can agree to join forces or to cede some of their authority to a regional bi-state entity like us. The New York Port Authority is probably the best-known example. It is the same type of deal. What do the states need to join together to work on a regional basis that crosses jurisdictional boundaries? That’s where we fit in.
IBJ: What do you see as Bi-State’s major accomplishments in recent years?
Nations: First and foremost, I am very proud of our transit division. We run the MetroLink, the Metrobus and the Call a Ride. Our metro transit division leads the country in efficiency and reliability. Our team is the best at what they do. You can compare our team to peer cities around the country. The United States Transportation Department specifically wrote about us in the Federal Register as a case study on what’s possible in this country on managing transit assets.
In St. Louis, we have public sector accountability with private sector efficiencies. St. Clair County, the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County don’t have to buy transit service from us. We are a contractor for them. We go through an appropriation process in each county. They determine their resources and what services they can afford or would like to have. We put together a plan for each county individually and then try to turn it into a regionwide transportation system. It’s an incredibly challenging managerial environment.
We have to have industry leading efficiencies because truthfully the jurisdictions don’t have to buy from us. Madison County runs a separate system. There’s some public transit out in St. Charles County. We make sure we are a good reliable system for those jurisdictions that want to invest in our services. We will put our record up against anyone. We’ve proven by the numbers our industry leading efficiencies and reliabilities.
The key statistic on reliability is mean distance between failures — how far you go before you have a problem. That doesn’t mean you towed something in. It could be as simple as a light went out, a door or an air conditioning unit failed. If you look at the industry as a whole, the average on the bus side is about 4,000 miles. Ours is 28,000 miles. There isn’t anyone else above 20,000. We are in a league by ourselves. At the same time, we have been able to bring our overall maintenance cost down. So, what we have going on in St. Louis with Metro Transit is very commendable.
IBJ: You’re also involved in the Arch and the Mississippi River excursion boats — correct?
Nations: When they built the Arch in the 1960s they came to us; we financed the tram system. We are the only company that has ever operated the tram system in the Arch. Our partnership with the national park service is one of the best national park partnerships in the country. I’m told it is a big part of what makes the Arch the most visited monument west of Washington, D.C.
We built the parking garage on the north end of the Arch grounds in the 1980s. About 15 years ago they came to us because the excursion boats at the foot of the Arch — the Becky Thatcher and the Tom Sawyer — were about to go out of business, so we stepped in and bought those as well. The Arch is a great civic partnership and a tremendous national partnership that we are proud to say has become an example around the country.
In 2014, there was a story on the front page of USA Today about how the future of the Parks Service is about partnerships. We are a textbook example. We are involved up to our ears in the City/Arch/River project. We are going to be closing the Arch down this winter to replace the motor generator that powers the trams to the top. We handle marketing and ticketing. The partnership has produced a lot of revenue for the region.
IBJ: Bi-State also operates St. Louis Downtown Airport.
Nations: Yes. The reason we were asked to save what was then Parks Airport 52 years ago is that it is the closest to downtown. It is the closest you can get an airplane to businesses. You are nominally less than 10 minutes to us here at the Metropolitan One Building. St. Louis Downtown Airport is already the third-busiest in the state of Illinois and it serves a very key niche. It’s not a cargo airport. It is a business aviation airport.
IBJ: And a year ago you established the new St. Louis Regional Freight District.
Nations: We’re very proud of that. St. Louis has key transportation assets. This is the northernmost point you can go on the Mississippi completely unrestricted by locks and dams. There is tremendous highway capacity and airport capacity. Six of the seven Class 1 railroads come into St. Louis. Whether you measure by total tonnage or by value, the St. Louis Port District ranks as the second- or third-busiest port in the country. We have a lot of good infrastructure in place.
The East West Gateway Council of Governments did a freight study that pointed out that we have all these assets in an ideal location. So, why were we not more of a logistics center? While there were multiple people involved in freight, it became clear that there was no one person or organization marketing for the region, advocating for the region in logistics and the freight economy. We put a business plan together for East-West Gateway and, in September of 2014, we were unanimously selected to be the freight district for St. Louis.
IBJ: Where does Bi-State go next?
Nations: There are tremendous technical improvements in transportation from autonomous vehicles to Uber and Lift. We are looking at what the future of transportation looks like. Is there a place to partner or ways we could develop some if those platforms on our own to give us a better reach at a lower cost that what we are doing now with buses?
The other thing we are looking at on transit is how to better serve the transit riders. For instance, technology allows us to do a lot of things. If you are a transit rider in St. Louis, your day can be kind of long in many instances. Some people go from bus to train to bus. If you are transit dependent, going to a full-time job makes a full day. Technology is offering ways we can help them. In South Korea, if you walk into a subway station you will see a wall that looks like a shelf in a grocery store. People can pull out their smart phone and click on bread, milk, eggs, etc. They pay just like on Amazon and the food is waiting for them when they come through the station on their way home.
On the freight side the sky’s the limit. We spent the first year identifying opportunities and prioritizing public infrastructure improvements, looking at what investments would be necessary to truly grow the economy. Number one is a new Merchants Bridge. It is 128 years old. It needs to be rebuilt. Everyone agrees. We will be moving aggressively on assembling the funding.
When it comes to the Arch, it’s pretty obvious. Finishing the project and the exhibit and the grounds in 2017 is a priority. That will be a new experience. That will open other opportunities for the central business district. One of the main priorities of the Arch project is to get people to spend more time in downtown St. Louis. It used to be you parked, saw the Arch and left. One study said if you redo the arch grounds so that everyone who visits the arch spends half a day more in downtown, it would be the economic equivalent a having a second St. Louis Cardinals baseball team in downtown. Getting that finished; seeing what the new business plan on the Arch grounds and what the tourism opportunities are will determine next steps there.
Two communities chosen as Progressive Cities
The city of Fairview Heights and the village of Shiloh have each been selected by Ameren Illinois as a 2016 Progressive City for implementing forward-looking initiatives to better the quality of life for residents and businesses.
Ameren Illinois is providing each community with a $2,500 grant toward a community-related project and road signs that can be displayed around town.
Fairview Heights will utilize its grant for upgrades to Moody Park. Shiloh will utilize its money to repair a community-owned pole and transformers that fell on a local golf course.
Frazier receives RCE designation
SHILOH — Deb Treat Frazier, chief executive officer of the Realtor Association of Southwestern Illinois, is being honored by the National Association of Realtors with the Realtor Certified Executive designation, which recognizes exceptional efforts made by the association executives.
She is one of more than 450 Realtor association executives who have achieved the RCE mark of excellence.