RTD Board Picks Transit Exec Debra Johnson As New CEO

August 25, 2020
RTD Buses Trains Central Park Station CoronavirusRTD Buses Trains Central Park Station CoronavirusHart Van Denburg/CPR News
RTD’s Central Park Station had few riders early Thursday morning April 9, 2020.

The Regional Transportation District has chosen Debra Johnson, a transit executive with decades of experience across the country, to be its next leader.

If she accepts RTD’s offer, Johnson will become the first female CEO and general manager of Denver’s transit agency.

“We are excited to start this new adventure,” said board chair Angie Rivera Malpiede. The board voted 14-1 to extend the offer. The lone dissenting vote was from board member Natalie Menten.

Johnson has held top-level positions at transit agencies in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She is currently the deputy CEO of the transit agency in Long Beach, California. 

Courtesy of RTD
Debra Johnson, deputy CEO of the transit agency in Long Beach, California, is one of the finalists for the top job at RTD.

“I am ready to take on a new challenge and lead the RTD,” she wrote in her cover letter. 

That job will surely be a challenge. Her predecessor, Paul Ballard, who took over on an interim basis earlier this year, faced a crippling driver shortage, delays in opening the N Line, and a shaky budget. Then the pandemic hit, crushing RTD’s ridership and finances

Now, to stave off any more service reductions, RTD must reduce its 2021 budget by about $166 million and by more than $800 million through 2026. That might necessitate dipping into reserves for long-promised capital projects, including a $1.5 billion train to Boulder and Longmont that Gov. Jared Polis is impatiently waiting for. And a contractor is currently suing the agency, seeking $111 million in damages. 

Pay cuts for staff are also on the table, which could complicate Johnson’s own contract. Ballard’s annual salary is $350,000, and his predecessor Dave Genova made $295,000 plus benefits including a hefty pension contribution. Ballard and Genova are both white males, while Johnson is a Black woman. 

The board will negotiate salary terms with Johnson over the coming weeks. But a board discussion from July shows they are in a difficult position: A reduction in the CEO’s salary would help the agency financially, but some directors are concerned about creating a perception of inequality. 

“I think that has been the elephant in the room for a while,” board member Peggy Catlin said in July.

Board member Natalie Menten said Ballard’s relatively high salary, which a board majority approved, put them in this position now. 

“I'm very frustrated with where we are sitting,” she said.

On Tuesday, Menten said RTD should lower executive salaries across the board — including at the top.

"My vote tonight is in opposition to what is going to be another bloated, executive salary at RTD," she said. "Looking at our budget problems, we do need to address these things."

Board member Shontel Lewis disagreed with Menten.

"I am hesitant to have a conversation about a reduction in salary when we are literally making history in bringing in the first woman to lead our agency," she said.

Respondents to an RTD public survey gave Johnson the highest rating among the three finalists. 

“She seems experienced and prepared to guide the organization to make the difficult changes required to become a strong and efficient transit agency again,” one person wrote. “I would select her as the right candidate to maintain a strong and accountable leadership team at our RTD.”

The other two finalists were Adelee Le Grand, an executive with decades of experience in the private side of public transportation, and Tina Quigley, who recently led the Las Vegas-area public transit agency.