Varga Is Driving Force

June 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Peter Varga really, really likes his job. A lot.

And the more challenging it becomes, the better he likes it.

As executive director of the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), Varga oversees a workforce of 276 and the metro transit system called The Rapid, which has a fleet of 110 buses and 68 vans that cover roughly 452 square miles.

Varga is responsible for all the activities of the transit authority, including strategic development, long- and short-range planning, marketing, administrative and financial oversight.

“I love my job and I really have a lot of fun at work. It keeps me healthy. It’s busy and sometimes chaotic — sometimes really chaotic — but I thrive on that. Having a really good staff really helps.”

Born in Ethiopia, Varga moved to New York City with his parents, who were Hungarian exiles, when he was 13. He became an American citizen when he was 18.

Varga earned a B.A. in History and Political Science and an M.A. in Political Science from New York University, and worked as a cab driver in New York City to pay his way through school. He earned a second M.A. in Public Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles.

His original career goal was to become a professor but the market for political science professors at the time was “terrible,” he recalled. Most grad students were getting one-year lectureships as opposed to tenure-track positions.

He realized it wasn’t a good career move for him, so he went into survey research methodology instead. From 1977 to 1979 he served as area coordinator for Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, where, under contract, he administered a northwest California study for national evaluation of the Migrant Education Program by the U.S. Department of Education.

Varga was offered a couple of other positions when the contract ended, but turned them down. Then his career path changed “totally by accident.”

“I was out of a job, my car engine blew up and I had to borrow $2,000 from my dad. I needed to do something immediately.”

He heard Santa Cruz was hiring bus drivers and that the pay was good, so he applied. With his experience as a New York City cab driver, he was a shoo-in for the job.

In 1980 he hired on with the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District in California, serving first as an operator/line instructor, then as transit supervisor before being promoted to the position of safety and training coordinator. As coordinator, he oversaw training programs for more than 200 employees, including bus operators, supervisors, staff and management.

He received an Outstanding Contribution award from the Santa Cruz Transportation Commission in 1987 for the City of Watsonville route redesign.

He came to Michigan in 1991 as transit systems manager for the Muskegon Area Transit System, which at that time had a 21-bus fleet, 32 employees and a $1.6 million annual budget.

“I always liked the challenges,” Varga said. “I took Muskegon Area Transit to where it could possibly go. We modernized it, computerized it, replaced all the buses and worked with the union people. We did a lot of things, and then that was the end to the challenges for me a little bit.”

He saw new and expanded challenges in transit in Grand Rapids and came on board here in late 1993 when he accepted the position of chief operating officer for the former GRATA and took on responsibility for directing operations of the transit authority’s transportation, maintenance and paratransit departments.

Varga was promoted to his present position in 1997.

When he started with GRATA, the transit system had 52 busses that were 22-year-old “clunkers,” he said. Now the transit system has very modern busses equipped with a lot of modern technology, he said.

The creation of ITP and pulling off the success of the new authority this year was one of his biggest challenges to date. ITP, which is a partnership among the cities of Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming, took over authority for the transit system from GRATA on Oct. 1. 2000. In its first year, ITP brought six major public transit improvements to the six-city metro area.

“The result has been a dramatic increase in the use of transit by the public. ITP’s performance has exceeded what I thought we would achieve in the first year.”

ITP Chairman George Heartwell attributes ITP’s first-year success to Varga’s “incredible leadership.”

“I like the work I do because I have a lot a passion about helping people in their lives,” Varga said. “That’s what we do. We open up opportunities for people — for the disabled, the disadvantaged, for seniors and students. In this community there have been some fun challenges. And there has been a openness to being innovative about public transit.”

Transit can either be very innovative, adaptive and market driven and, therefore, ready to serve the community, or it can be narrow minded, Varga said. In the Grand Rapids area, there is a lot of receptivity to public transit as a “business with social values” that wants improvement, accepts risk and innovation, and recognizes potential niche markets, he added.

He said the ITP board and the business community, especially, have been very supportive. He recalled that when he took over the agency, there were a lot of negative feelings from the business community about what public transit could do for them.

“But as we built dialogue and communication with the business community they rapidly started to understand that though we were a public agency much like a government agency, that we operate very much like a business.”

Varga works closely with business leaders on area transit needs. For instance, Fred Keller, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, needed transportation for plant employees. He worked with Varga and led the charge to extend Route 5 to serve businesses in the industrial park area between 33rd and 36th streets and Kraft and Patterson avenues in Cascade Township. The newly extended route went into service earlier this month.

“Opening up the lines of communication is what really helped,” Varga said.

To relieve the squeeze at its current administrative headquarters at 333 Wealthy St. SW, ITP will be moving into a new building a block away from its current site and is negotiating the purchase of property to start construction of a new surface transportation center, which Varga expects will be operational by the spring of 2003.

With the recent approval of the 2002 Transportation Appropriations Bill, Kent County is in line to receive $5 million in federal funds for the transportation center. ITP now has more than $13 million set aside for the first three phases of the project. The fourth phase, a train station, will hinge on the investment the Midwest is willing to make in high-speed rail.

“We don’t want to be excluded from that opportunity,” Varga noted.

The county also will receive $750,000 for a major corridor study that will look at all kinds of mass transportation investment improvements for the area, including bus routes, high-frequency express service on highway corridors and light rail, he said.

Varga doesn’t regret having traded California sunshine for Michigan winters because he enjoys the seasons. His hobbies include sailing and photography, so that fits in well here.

He also likes the quality of life in Michigan — its blend of small town atmosphere and big city opportunities.

“I’m happy in my life and I’m happy in my job, and there’s a very good balance there,” he says.           

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