Getting people out of their cars and into public transportation is a tough sell in any sprawling city. In car-obsessed Los Angeles, it can feel like an impossible task.
But Stephanie Wiggins EMBA ’07 thinks the time is right. “This region’s population is forecasted to increase by a million in the next 15 years, and there is very little space or funds to expand existing freeways,” she says. “Public transportation will have to play a bigger part in the future, but that means we have to change this region’s car-loving culture.”
Wiggins is wrapping up her first year as CEO of Metrolink, L.A.’s 26-year-old commuter railway. Its seven lines covered 400 million passenger miles across six counties in Southern California last year. She believes the agency has an enormous role — and opportunity — to make commuters’ lives better. “We’re taking people out of traffic congestion and giving them a better option,” she says.
Pushing public transit in Los Angeles is not without its challenges. Metrolink needs to grow ridership, while also dealing with an aging fleet of trains. The population is increasing. And the Olympics — and its millions of visitors— will arrive in eight years. “It’s a humbling experience,” says Wiggins, the first African American — and the first woman — to serve as Metrolink CEO.
A native of Oakland, California, Wiggins got started in transportation by chance. After graduating from Whittier College, she took a temporary job with a transportation commission in San Bernardino County while she studied for graduate school entrance exams. “I’d never heard of a transportation agency,” she admits, but she quickly came to see its value. “They dealt with hundreds of millions of dollars and set transportation policies that impacted people’s lives,” she says. “When I thought of my friends and family and the opportunities they’d been connected to because of public transportation, it was fundamental.”
From Marshall Student to Metrolink CEO
She went on to earn an Executive MBA at the USC Marshall School of Business. After graduation, she took on a project that was, in essence, a startup in the public sector: launching toll-based express lanes on the 110 and 10 freeways in Los Angeles County. “I had to leverage everything I learned at USC,” she says, “not only to turn that project around, but also to get it deployed and operational and marketed.”
After successfully convincing Angelenos to pay for using the fast lane, the Metrolink CEO is ready to coax them out of their cars entirely. Metrolink has embarked on a 10-year, $10 billion program called the Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion. It substantially boosts the regional rail system by improving grade crossings, adding tracks and enhancing signal coordination.
I had to leverage everything I learned at USC, not only to turn that project around, but also to get it deployed and operational and marketed.
“Studies on new technologies that will guide us toward a zero-emissions fleet in the future are already underway,” she adds. Reducing the use of cars in L.A. won’t happen overnight. She looks at her job through a long-term lens, though. “The investments being made now will long outlive the 2028 Olympics,” she says, “and generations of Southern California residents will benefit from them for decades.”