40 Years and Counting: CATA Honors its Past, Celebrates the Future
It’s been 40 years since the Capital Area Transportation Authority was founded in 1972. Sandy Draggoo, CEO/Executive Director of the Authority, along with a few long-time administrators, bus operators and mechanics, have seen a lot of change since CATA’s early years.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Draggoo said. “We’ve worked hard and come a long way. Looking back, you could say that we have a lot to cherish — memories of days long gone and all the people we’ve worked with and served, many of whom, to this day, remain our good friends. We don’t want to forget our humble beginnings, the friends we’ve made, the challenges we survived together, and all the hard work and fun we’ve had. One day, those of us who built this organization from the ground up — from the sweat of our brows — we’ll be long gone. For those left to carry the torch, our stories will serve as a guiding light and keep their feet anchored to the ground. The past is tied to the future. These days, we do a lot of things differently. We didn’t have computers. We did everything manually. We crunched our numbers by hand, and we worried more about keeping our buses on the streets than about carbon emissions. Today’s technology, hybrid vehicles and data-driven decision-making — those all changed how we do things. Yet, in the end, CATA is still about connecting people and giving them access to services that improve quality of life for those within our community. It’s about the freedom of mobility. Our “old timers” paved the road that made possible all that we’re able to do today; all that will be possible tomorrow. In the truest sense of the word, we were pioneers.”
For public transportation in the Capital City, that pioneering spirit dates back to 1922 when the Michigan United Railway introduced the first-ever bus route to more than 57,000 Lansing residents. Over the next several decades, public transit would reorganize repeatedly until finally, in January of 1972, CATA was incorporated to acquire, establish, own, operate and maintain the city’s mass-transit system.
“In 1974, CATA’s first CEO, Clare Loudenslager, hired me to be his secretary,” Draggoo recalls. “I arrived at this old run-down, condemned house on Mill Street for my interview. ‘Did I have the right address?’ I wondered. I couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind wanting to work here. I interviewed with Clare. He shared his vision for CATA, and although I didn’t think we were a good fit, he convinced me to give it a try.”
The rare female in what is today still a male-dominated industry, Draggoo had a tough-as-nails demeanor and exceeded expectations with every task thrown her way. In 1984, when Loudenslager retired, the Board asked Draggoo to “run the place” while they conducted a national search for an interim director. The search firm, however, “felt that a woman could not do this job.” With the support of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Draggoo interviewed with the Board of Directors in January 1985 and was awarded the job. She celebrated her 38th anniversary with CATA — 27 as its executive director.
Draggoo’s commitment to innovation and excellence in service is evident, garnering national and statewide recognition for CATA. The list of accolades is long, including the highly coveted National General Manager of the Year award from the American Public Transit Association, as well as the Transportation Leader of the Year award. Draggoo also received an ATHENA award and is an inductee of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, an honor she shares with many other outstanding Michigan women. The agency itself has received two national “America’s Best” awards under her leadership and has been named by Metro Magazine as “one of the Top 10 places to work in transit.”
Indeed, longevity at CATA speaks to its positive culture with 48 percent of a 300-plus work force having dedicated 10 or more years to the provision of public transportation services to Greater Lansing. Even more noteworthy, however, is that nearly 50 employees have devoted 20-39 years to the organization, and one — Mark Hamilton — has been an employee since CATA’s inception.
“I had a choice between CATA and working at Jet Dye, which is Jet Engineering today,” says Hamilton. I’ve been here since I was a teenager — 19 years old — so this is all I’ve ever known. I take a lot of pride in my work. I like working on MSU’s campus routes. The students are positive. They’re climbing the ladder of life and you can see that for them, life is full of possibilities — they’re going places. It’s pretty cool knowing that in some small way, what I do helps them accomplish their goals.”
For Mike Cullimore, CATA represented a new beginning. “In 1975, after the housing market crashed in Indiana, I lost my construction job. I moved back to Lansing with a couple of dimes in my pocket and two kids, and we moved in with my mother. A friend convinced me to come and work at CATA. I wasn’t doing anything else at the time so I decided to try it out. About six or seven months later, I was hired full-time, and I thought to myself, ‘I may have just found a new life.’” Cullimore retired this year after 36 years with CATA. Looking back, he has no regrets. “I enjoyed the challenges and the opportunities CATA gave me. I worked in dispatch for 10 years, and I was on the union executive committee for 34 years. It was extremely fun, and I was able to make a difference. It was a very rewarding career.”
Sandy Haff, who was hired as a bus operator in 1988 and retired in 2001, says, “There’s a saying that goes, ‘Don’t tell me how much you know until you show me how much you care. Both are important, but in the right order. My experience at CATA has just been, really, such a good experience. I was just thankful for the opportunity to have this job and … how much people have cared for me and helped me. I have some really good memories of CATA.”
Asked why he remained at CATA for 36 years, Mechanic Ray Doty said, “We’ve always had good people to work with. We’re like a family.”
Pat Hendricks was a law school student when she interviewed for a bus operator position in 1978. She recently celebrated her 34th anniversary with the agency. “CATA was still operating out of the Mill Street garage, which was off of Michigan Avenue where the R.E. Olds Museum is now,” she said. “All the drivers were helpful. No one wanted to see someone else fail at the job. We took a lot of pride in our work and in making CATA shine. I’m proud of what I see. From the beginning, CATA was made up of ordinary American working people doing an extraordinary job. Each driver’s smile or wave is evidence of our continued commitment to providing quality public transportation to our Capital City, one mile and one rider at a time.”
Today, as long-term employees begin to consider retirement, CATA is preparing younger professionals for a career in public transportation.
“It’s important that they honor the past,” Draggoo said. “They can’t forget all the lessons we’ve learned over the past 40 years, or fail to understand our purpose and value to the public. When they climb aboard here at CATA, we want to make sure they’re able to carry their own water and continue to pave the road for all that public transportation can and should be in the future. We are proud of where we have been in the past forty years, and we are proud of where we are going in the next forty years.”
To read more about CATA’s history and plans for the future through the eyes of its employees, customers, and the public, visit cata.org.
Laurie Robison is CATA’s director of marketing and exuberant supporter of all things local, with hordes of assistance from the authority’s always-smiling marketing aide Michelle Barber.
| ||Laurie Robison is CATA’s director of marketing and exuberant supporter of all things local, with hordes of assistance from the authority’s always-smiling marketing aide Michelle Barber.|