On the credenza next to his desk, Maurice Bell has toys: a San Francisco cable car—he lived there for a while; a double-decker London bus—his boyhood home of Davis, Calif., was among the first to import and use them; and a heavy-rail commuter train car bearing the DART logo of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system where he used to work.
Next to the two computer monitors on his desk, Bell has an even larger toy, a radio-controlled city bus, with lights, sounds and doors that open/close. But now as chief operations officer for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the self-proclaimed “transit geek” gets to play with even bigger toys—the system’s 700 buses, multiple light rail lines, two inclines and scores of paratransit vehicles serving 200,000 riders a day.
Since coming to Pittsburgh from Texas two months ago, he is still getting the lay of the land—and he has an interesting way of going about it.
“Whenever I come to a new place, I like to get lost. So I can find my way around using landmarks,” he said during a March 6 interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Roads can change, but landmarks, those reference points don’t.”
So far, Bell has picked up a few things—like when people say Harmar, they mean Harmarville, where one of the authority’s maintenance garages is located. It took him a bit to figure out it was the same place. He said he’s also figured out something about the authority’s employees.
“They like what they do, and they want to improve,” he said. “People in transit—you have to have a love for it. They like it here.”
He likes it here, too. It’s a far cry from Dallas. He lives on the North Side within walking distance of the Allegheny “T” station—three stops from his office. Bell spent five years as assistant VP of bus operations there, before a two-year stint as VP of mobility solutions with Keolis North America, an autonomous bus and shuttle manufacturer. It was in Texas that he first met Port Authority CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman, who convinced him to come here.
He likes the area from an operational standpoint, too, because despite the topographical challenges of hills, rivers and valleys, its size and density are assets.
“Concentration is good, because the ridership is more condensed. Our ridership is increasing. In other areas where (people) are more spread out, that’s not the case,” he said. “And we want to grow. Right now I’m still getting an understanding of what’s being implemented, and what’s been in place for a long time. My focus is on-time performance, efficiency, and innovating—but always with an eye to costs.”
Technically, Bell “oversees Fixed Route Operations, Rail Operations, and Fleet Maintenance, encompassing approximately 2,150 employees and over 730 square miles of service area. But saying what he actually does isn’t that easy—because “operations” involves the interaction, ideally seamlessly, of multiple things.
“That’s why I call it a water ballet, it’s meshing planning, maintenance, scheduling, construction— and each one has to know what the other is doing for it to work smoothly,” he said. “But I love it. I’m a transit geek. I love the inclines. You know how other people like to watch planes taking off? I could watch the incline all night.”
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