Steve Spade didn’t grow up with a particular affinity for buses, nor did he dream of a career in transportation.
The Indiana University political science major fell into a transit job, though, and it’s been his career of choice ever since.
That includes his first transit job in Fort Wayne, Ind., a stop in Burlington, Iowa, followed by more than three decades in Des Moines, where he had an opportunity to work with Wichita City Manager Robert Layton while he was manager of Urbandale.
Following his “retirement” as general manager of the transit system in Des Moines, Spade restarted his career as director of the transit system in Chapel Hill, N.C., before coming to Wichita as transit director late last year.
What did you think you were going to do after graduating college?
Back in my day, you didn’t give that stuff much thought. I had no idea. I think at one time I aspired to go to law school, but I didn’t take that very seriously.
Then a professor who was on the Fort Wayne transit board suggested you apply for a position there?
The next thing I knew, (the general manager) hired me as … an administrative assistant doing kind of gopher work around the office. He taught me the operating system.
And you thought you could teach him something?
As a college student coming out of school, I thought I knew it all, so I was kind of critical of some of the things they were doing. … My manager said in order to make sure, why don’t you walk a mile in their shoes?
Which resulted in the 4 a.m. to noon shift?
I continued to have to work the rest of the day till 5 or 6 o’clock at night. I learned not only operations, but I learned what they had to do to put the service on the street and so became much more sensitive to the job they were doing.
What else did you learn?
What I learned is it’s a challenge to … provide a service to the public. Your job … is somewhere between a facilitator, a cheerleader and a disciplinarian trying to get it all done.
What do you like about the business?
You feel like you’re accomplishing something. We have a product that we’re trying to put out on the street, and there’s a great sense of satisfaction when everything comes together, and the buses roll down the street on time. … You know you’re helping people.
What don’t you like about it?
The fact that there are so many needs that we have and so many things we could do in the community, and we just don’t have the funding to get it done.
There are needs to expand our service here in the community. … There are needs for night service. … We know people want the service to operate more frequently. Our routes need to extend farther into the community. There’s an opportunity to establish partnerships. The list is almost endless of potential things that we could be doing based on what we hear. To not have the financial means to meet those is frustrating because you know you could do a lot more good.
After 32 years in Des Moines, why did you quit?
I had no intention of quitting work, but I had gotten to the point in Iowa that I qualified for my pension, and it just made good sense to do it. My wife and I were interested in exploring someplace else. It was kind of a new adventure for us.
You then went to Chapel Hill. Why did you leave there?
The opportunity of Wichita. I was happy in Chapel Hill. We had done a lot of work to improve that operation.
And Bob Layton was a factor?
When this opportunity came up to work with him again, I just jumped at it. I thought that this would be a really fun opportunity to grow this system into something that is a real star in the community.
What’s the state of the Wichita transit system?
It’s a little rough. … The other thing that attracted me here was that this is a system that had some issues and needed somebody to come in that has fixed and helped improve transit systems, and that’s the kind of thing I like to do. I saw this as a real opportunity to test those skills again.
This system has had long-term financial problems. We’ve got an aging fleet … and we’ve got a significant amount of need.
Anything keep you up at night?
There’s a lot of things we need to work on here in terms of making sure we can improve the fleet and our services. I don’t know if it keeps me up at night, but it sure energizes me during the day. It’s a trick to try to improve service, which usually means some kind of investment, yet hold the line on a budget that’s extremely tight.
Did anything surprise you about the transit system here?
The folks here have an incredible work ethic. … We didn’t have to motivate our drivers to show up when we had 14 inches of snow. … They made the effort as did our maintenance staff and our administrative staff.