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The steady hand at GTC’s wheel

James Stack’s office looks a little like a tornado blew through it. But you’ll have to excuse the piles of papers everywhere because, in addition to transitioning to his new role as executive director of the Genesee Transportation Council, he also is in the midst of a perfect storm of transportation planning projects.

“We’re required by the federal government to prepare an annual work program; a long-range plan that looks out 25 to 30 years; and a multiyear capital program, which is the projects that are going to get funded over the next four years: the bridges, the highways, the buses,” Stack explains.

All three projects are due by June.

“We’re responsible for setting the course for how to invest federal funds into the transportation system,” Stack says. “This includes funding for roads, for bridges, for buses, for multiuse trails, and even things like operating the traffic control center out on Scottsville Road that controls the signals and cameras. Funding for those things gets allocated through this office.”

GTC is a function of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which requires metro areas with more than 50,000 people to have a metropolitan planning organization to qualify for federal highway and transportation funds.

The council oversees transportation funding for Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties through its downtown Rochester office. The organization has six staffers and is looking to fill two empty positions, including Stack’s recently vacated assistant director position.

Additionally, GTC has 27 board members consisting of local elected officials from the nine-county region, the city of Rochester and state and regional agencies. The organization’s annual operating budget for the year ending March 31 was $1.8 million; that will increase slightly to $1.9 million in the next year.

Those funds come from the federal government and amount to 80 percent of GTC’s total budget. The remainder comes from the state, with a small amount of local funding.

Because GTC operates with a lean staff, the organization is able to assist communities with its own budget.

“Keeping that staff lean and bringing in different expertise when we need it, we’re able to share about 45 percent of our budget with local communities to do transportation planning,” Stack says. “They can bring on consultants to look at issues in their community and not have to pay for it all out of their local budget.

“Everybody’s budget is strained, but why not bring in some federal money to do that?” Stack adds. “That’s something I’m really proud of, as far as a service to the community. Instead of hiring staff, we’re sharing those funds with communities to take care of some of their needs.”

Planning mandate
GTC was founded in the late 1960s when the Rochester Metropolitan Transportation Study was formed to develop the region’s first long-range transportation plan.

In addition to the three projects the organization has responsibility for, GTC also is required to have the capacity for travel demand modeling in order to understand the expected impacts of land use and employment on the transportation system.

“We are in a transition period with new federal requirements to look at the resiliency of the transportation system with regard to climate impacts and to more fully incorporate performance measurement into planning decisions,” Stack notes. “I’m proud to say we are at the forefront of these issues and well-positioned to address the final requirements when they are released.”

Stack joined the organization in 1999 following a seven-year stint at a similar agency in Bristol, Conn.

“I joined GTC to focus on transit and corridor planning but eventually took on responsibilities related to the finances of the organization and programming funds for capital projects,” Stack, 45, says. “In January of 2002 I was promoted to assistant director and continued to learn various aspects of agency operations.”

As assistant director, Stack worked closely with former executive director Steve Gleason, whom he considers his mentor and the individual who encouraged him to pursue his master’s degree.

“He was the one who drew me to GTC in the first place,” Stack says. “Professionally, I learned a lot from him.”

Stack also worked closely with Gleason’s replacement, Richard Perrin, who left the organization in January for a position with engineering firm T.Y. Lin International Group. Perrin had been with GTC more than a decade.

“From the standpoint of regional transportation and how transportation can impact economic and community development, Jim clearly has the best perspective, having been with the organization for a number of years and having over 20 years of experience in the field of regional and metropolitan transportation planning,” Perrin says of his replacement. “He understands the needs of the region and how transportation can take advantage of opportunities and minimize any weaknesses.”

Assistant program manager Jody Binnix says the search committee looked for what was best for the region and for the organization, and correctly landed at Stack as GTC’s leader.

“He has a lot of experience. I feel like Jim really knows a little bit of everyone’s job. He really knows what he’s doing, so it’s been nice,” she adds.

Perrin says working for GTC is really about being able to understand how all of the pieces fit together and what role all of the actors have to play.

“Because it’s very important, regardless of whether it’s the state DOT, the city of Rochester, Monroe County or the transit authority, every one of them is very important to ensuring you have a seamless transportation system that fully benefits everybody from an economic opportunity and quality of life standpoint,” Perrin explains.

Stack brings a unique set of skills to the table as GTC’s executive director, Perrin says.

“There is no one more committed to that organization than Jim Stack,” he says. “(He has) a full understanding of all forms of transportation. He’s really seen all parts of it within this region. I think he’s going to do wonderful.”

Stack describes himself as collaborative in that he seeks staff input on various issues.

“Everyone is good at what they do so I would miss out on some potentially key advice if I didn’t seek it,” Stack says, noting that the shortest tenure of GTC’s employees is six years. “At the same time, I like to share my knowledge and experience with younger staff and offer up suggestions on how to approach different things.”

Stack’s strengths lie on the operations side of the organization, he says.

“I have a knack for numbers and the financial management comes naturally to me,” he explains. “I try to focus on solutions rather than the problems and can come up with ideas to address immediate needs. I am not a big-picture thinker so I need to surround myself with people that can do that.”

Stack likes to help employees reach the right decision, Binnix adds.

“He really wants to make sure you understand what you need to do to do your job better,” she explains. “If you have a question for him, he looks at it from all angles and tries to give you the tools to make the best decision, the best outcome.”

Ethics and integrity play a large role in Stack’s philosophy. Roughly 15 years ago Stack came across this quote: “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”

“That pretty much summed up how I wanted to conduct myself, and that quote has been next to my desk ever since,” he says.

Challenges and opportunities
GTC does not own, maintain or operate any facilities, so its operational challenges are manageable, Stack says. The bigger issue for the organization and the industry is the lack of adequate funding to address infrastructure needs.

“Last year we published an analysis that shows the region needs to double the amount of annual investment on bridges to get the system to a state of good repair by 2025,” Stack says. “If we spread that out to 2040, we still need to increase the investment by 60 percent.”

That analysis, he points out, is just for bridges and does not take into account the region’s roads.

“At the same time, the federal Highway Trust Fund is just not adequate to satisfy the nation’s needs,” he adds. “The primary source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund is the tax on gasoline and diesel. This amount has not changed since 1993. What can you buy today for the same cost as 1993?”

Perrin echoes that sentiment, noting that one of the biggest challenges the organization faces is that people fail to understand that the transportation infrastructure—roads, bridges, buses and public transportation facilities—is deteriorating.

“To them, they look fine because we’ve done an excellent job of keeping things together, very cost effectively, for a very long time,” Perrin explains. “But ultimately things need to be fixed. That’s an issue that’s playing out across the country, and it’s something that’s definitely playing out in New York State.”

Despite funding challenges, the job is both interesting and exciting, staffers say.

“The whole goal of planning is to make the place you live a better place,” Binnix says. “I love Rochester. I love the Finger Lakes. I think everyone who works here loves the region and is passionate about it.”

What keeps Stack coming back for more is the fact that the job is never done.

“There is always something that can be improved. There is always something more we can do to help communities with their transportation system,” he adds. “There is always something more we can do to help the residents of the region.”

What makes the organization a success is an engaged board and a staff of talented people, Stack says.

“This allows people to know their areas of responsibility very well, and they can be a resource to stakeholders throughout the region,” he says, adding that teamwork is essential to the success of GTC. “As an organization, we are always looking to improve what we do. Generally speaking, I think the employees have a certain comfort level as to what they can and cannot commit to when dealing with different groups.”

The pride Stack has in both his employees and the organization is evident when he speaks, and he says being named executive director is the accomplishment he is most proud of.

“That’s sort of the pinnacle of working in an MPO (metropolitan planning organization) environment,” Stack says, grinning. “I’ve been doing this since 1992 and to be executive director, that’s a pretty big deal.”

At home
Stack, who was born and raised in Waterbury, Conn., says his biggest personal accomplishment is being the first person in his family to finish college and go on to a successful career.

“I hope that I am a role model for the next generation in my family,” he says.

Stack lives with his wife, Margaret DelPlato, and their son, Garrett, and daughter, Teagan, in Irondequoit. When he is not working Stack enjoys spending time with his kids; he dabbles in cooking and he enjoys watching sports, especially the University of Connecticut Huskies and Boston Red Sox.

A trip to China—where he walked on the Great Wall of China and visited Tiananmen Square—is something he thought he would never do, and it was the trip of a lifetime, Stack says.

Longtime friend and former neighbor Matthew Robinson describes Stack as easygoing and personable.

“You can talk to Jim about anything,” Robinson says. “He’s a very even-keeled, mild-mannered person.”

Stack’s No. 1 priority is his family, Robinson adds.

“He’s very close with his immediate family and also close with his siblings,” he says. “He always puts his family first.”

Stack’s parents were his role models, and although his mother worked in banking, he got his math ability from his father. His father also shaped the man he is today, Stack says.

“He showed what it was to persevere and give all you have to your family,” Stack explains. “He was perhaps the most unselfish person I have ever known. He instilled in me a great work ethic. And praise was never his motivation for conducting himself the right way.”

Stack speaks highly of his parents, despite a real-life “Home Alone” experience when he was a youngster.

“I grew up in a big family and one day my parents and their six kids were going to a state park with my aunt and uncle and their four kids,” Stack recalls with a smile. “When we were loading up the vehicle I must have needed something in the house. Well, they left without me.”

As all the kids piled out of the car at the park, Stack’s mother realized they had one extra jacket. His father returned to the house to find him sitting on the stairs inside.

“We had a great day hiking through the woods and having a cookout,” Stack adds. “When it was time to go home somehow I got separated again and they left without me. My father came back and I was waiting on a big rock.

“Boy, life was different in the ’70s,” Stack adds. “I would be in big trouble if I did that with my kids.”

James Stack
Title: Executive director, Genesee Transportation Council
Age: 45
Education: Master’s of public administration, 2006, SUNY College at Brockport; B.A., geography, 1992, University of Connecticut
Home: Irondequoit
Family: Wife, Margaret DelPlato; son, Garrett, 12; daughter, Teagan, 8
Activities: Family, cooking, watching the UConn Huskies and Boston Red Sox
Quote: “Everyone is good at what they do so I would miss out on some potentially key advice if I didn’t seek it. At the same time, I like to share my knowledge and experience with younger staff.”

3/25/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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