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'It's about helping people': New GM takes place atop DTA

Philip O. Pumphrey is the new general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

Phil Pumphrey pulled into town last week and immediately went to work at the helm of the Duluth Transit Authority — taking over as only the second permanent general manager in the past 39 years.

House hunting was in the hands of a local real estate agent and the moving van would have to come later. There were planners to fill and employees to meet.

"I started out as a bus driver," Pumphrey said. "I've always liked meeting people."

The DTA is tight-knit place where it's common for employees to build long careers. Everybody wanted to get to know the new person at the top. On Pumphrey's first day, there was a meet-and-greet with employees, followed by an evening spent getting to know better the members of the board of directors who hired him in April.

"It's an exciting time," said 26-year bus driver Jon Chapinski after introducing himself to Pumphrey on Friday inside the DTA bus garage and business office located on West Michigan Street in Lincoln Park.

Like the passengers served by the DTA, Pumphrey took a transfer to get to Duluth. He moved from Connecticut where he was the assistant GM working with Connecticut Transit operations in Hartford, Stamford and New Haven — a triangle of cities on or near the Atlantic Coast. Having started as a driver in Austin, Texas, Pumphrey spent 21 years with First Transit, a transit giant and longtime management company contracted to operate the DTA.

Pumphrey comes with an easy charm to go with the requisite love for the work and deep understanding of what it means to be the primary mode of transportation for the DTA's 6,000 riders a day and three million riders annually.

"I think it's about serving and helping people," Pumphrey said. "Your main job is to give people access to things like education, health care, employment, friends and a social life. They're bettering themselves, their lives and their families and we're helping them do it."

Pumphrey is taking over for Dennis Jensen, who retired last fall after 38 years atop the DTA. Both men met several times throughout their careers with First Transit.

"I've known Dennis a long time," Pumphrey said, admiring the work of his predecessor by highlighting the still like-new hub downtown, the Duluth Transportation Center.

Pumphrey and Jensen share a passion for implementing projects. Jensen was known for succeeding at one project or bundle of projects and moving on to the next project or new bundle. When he left the DTA, he and his staff were tinkering with new applications for paying fares by phone.

Pumphrey appears to be of a similar mindset, with eyes set on the horizon and thoughts on how to get there.

"Electronic fareboxes, automatic passenger counters — the technology has changed so much in the last 30 years," Pumphrey said. "Electronic buses might be the future, or maybe autonomous vehicles since they're making a lot of progress."

He recalled a mother once telling him how pleased she was with a summer busing program for kids which Pumphrey had a hand in implementing.

"She didn't have to buy her son a motorcycle to ride and get around with while she was at work," he said. "The bus was safer and it put her mind at ease."

Like a lot of the business office staff at the DTA, Pumphrey climbed the ladder after a stint in the driver's seat. Even after taking over as a supervisor following five years as a bus driver in Austin, he stayed on as a backup driver.

DTA employees were already responding well to Pumphrey's arrival.

"Phil is new here, but he's just new here," said the DTA's director of maintenance Jim Caywood. "He brings a wealth of experience with him."

Later this summer, Pumphrey has planned a retreat with board members to talk about priorities and goals. Until it happens, he wasn't quite ready to name his first project, saying with a wink, "Today's only day two."

Meet the GM

The DTA will host a free open house for riders to meet new general manager Phil Pumphrey

  • What: Open house with light refreshments
  • When: Tuesday from 3-4 p.m.
  • Where: Duluth Transportation Center at 228 W. Michigan St.