Alumnus travel from Cal State L.A. to big wheel at Metro
Art Leahy ’74 stands at the Cal State L.A. Metro station. Leahy began his career at Metro more than 35 years ago, when working as a bus driver in college.
Art Leahy ’74 likes to be in the driver’s seat.
Whether maneuvering an overloaded bus down Broadway Avenue during the morning commute, or calling the shots from 25 floors above as the chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Authority (Metro), Leahy keeps his cool, thinks quickly and reacts. He is not one to stand still—probably a good thing when you are responsible for moving more than 10 million people around daily, and everyone is on a schedule.
Leahy and Metro bus driver Rodolfo Sanchez show off their syncronized watches, which are standard issue for all drivers.
“The work we do is very important,” said Leahy, who recently celebrated his one year anniversary as the chief executive at Metro. “There are a lot of people who depend on our services, who take busses and trains to work, to school, who drive on the highways.”
Metro manages the city’s subway trains and bus fleets, and is considered to be the city’s lead regional planning agency for transportation, overseeing highways, toll roads and expansion projects. All of the projects to be funded through Measure R—the half-cent sales tax passed by voters to support transportation improvement projects in Los Angeles last fall—must pass over Leahy’s desk.
Leahy takes that responsibility seriously, and is not the least bit bashful about what he expects or wants to accomplish: a better bus service, from the inside out; improved customer service; a stronger management team; and the completion of big construction projects, such as the Exposition Light Rail, extension of the Metro Gold Line to Azusa, and 710 freeway, among other goals.
“I want the Metro to be the best in the country,” he says bluntly, noting that he was being modest at his previous post as the head of Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) when he said he wanted to “be the best in the state.” In 2005, after Leahy had been there for four years, OCTA was named best in the nation, praised for its service and record growth in bus trips and ridership.
In his short time back at Metro, Leahy has already shown that he is willing to do things differently. One of his first tasks for his management team was that they learn how to drive a bus.
“I wanted them to get a little idea of what it’s like when you sit in the seat of a bus. You realize it’s a big piece of equipment,” Leahy recounts. “And I would stand over them and yell things like: ‘Why are you late? How long ‘til we get to Broadway?’… When you have a schedule and are carrying a whole bunch of people, it’s intense.”
Art Leahy’s father pictured above, was a bus operator also, and trained Leahy in the field.
Leahy knows firsthand what those situations are like, having started his transportation career as bus driver. At the time, he was 22 and a student at Cal State L.A., pursuing a degree in political science, and in need of a job.
“The bus driver training course and career was my equivalent of boot camp,” he said, “My time was so limited, working the 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. route and racing over to Cal State L.A. to make my evening class, that I’d actually read ahead of the assignment. I realized then that I knew more of what was going on and was better prepared for class.”
Still, Leahy didn’t plan on making a career out of transportation until after he graduated and the fuel crisis hit. Suddenly, he said, there was a significant public investment in transit, and ridership was increasing.
“I saw the potential for a bright future,” he said.
In the years that followed, Leahy was on the go: from working in marketing and government relations to operations, eventually becoming the chief operating officer for Metro. While serving in operations, Leahy oversaw service through the 1984 Olympics, 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake—and he met his wife, Leila, who was the first female director of transportation for Metro.
In 1997, he left Los Angeles to become the general manger of Metro Transit in Minneapolis, staying there until returning to Southern California in 2001.
“As I began to move up in management, the purpose of my job, as I saw it, was to make management look rational,” he said. “Now that I am up at the top, my job is to actually make management rational.”
Having a leader who understands the business on so many different levels makes all the difference, Metro employees have said. Rodolfo Sanchez, a bus driver the last 23 years, for instance, lit up with awe on a recent morning when Leahy walked onto his bus at the Cal State L.A. station.
“It’s very nice to see him out here, checking out the station and the service,” Sanchez said. “In my 23 years, it’s the first time that someone from the top management has gotten on my bus.”