Peter Varga is somewhat of an exotic guy in a high-profile job that is anything but exotic. It’s basic: mainly about getting people from point A to point B.
As a school kid, Varga had the opportunity to meet the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie — and the emperor’s lions, too.
He worked his way through college by driving a cab at night in New York.
“I’ve seen a few things,” he said, cryptically.
He’s fluent in French and Hungarian.
Today, Varga is the CEO of the Interurban Transit Partnership, also known less formally as The Rapid. It is the Grand Rapids region’s transit authority, a $52 million operation with 307 employees, 119 city busses and 56 smaller busses, which last year provided 9.3 million rides to people in Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming and portions of Alpine, Byron, Cascade and Gaines Townships.
“Although we are a public agency, we think like a business. We operate like a business. That is why we are sound,” he said.
That is not true of the majority of public transit systems in the United States. More than 80 percent of them are being forced to raise fares or cut services due to widespread state and local revenue declines, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Varga was born in 1949 in Addis Abeba, the capital city of Ethiopia, the son of a Hungarian couple who had been forced to flee their homeland as a result of World War II. Usually spelled “Ababa,” Varga spells the city’s name with an “e,” as does the official Ethiopian Mapping Authority.
Varga’s father managed a stationery and printing business for the Ethiopian government. It was a fascinating place for a young boy to grow up. Emperor Haile Selassie had pet lions, and the Varga family didn’t live far from the palace. Varga remembers hearing the lions roar every morning. Several times he saw the famous lions riding on the hood of the emperor’s Land Rover as his motorcade rolled through the city.
Varga met the royal lions — and the emperor — face to face when he was in the first grade. He was one of the top students in his school, and the emperor liked to honor those students each year by inviting them to the palace. Varga said Selassie gave him an orange, a piece of cornbread and a sweater.
“I ate the cornbread. The sweater was too big,” said Varga, smiling at the memory.
When Varga was 13, his family moved to New York. After high school, he attended New York University, earning a joint degree in history and political science. Then he earned a master’s degree in political science from NYU.
“I worked my way through college as a cab driver,” he said. “It was good pay for a college student, and I could drive at night.”
He learned first-hand about running a small business; for two of the three years that he drove a cab, he leased the cab and operated it independently.
He also noticed how important public transit is in a large metropolitan area. He commuted to college every day from his parents’ home in Queens via the subway.
“Public transit was part of life for a high school or college student in New York,” he said.
Then he went out West to California — to UCLA — to do post-graduate work in public administration. He thought for a while he might pursue a career as a college professor, “but it didn’t resonate with me,” he said.
In 1980, Varga went to work for the Santa Cruz Metro, a public transit system, where he began as “an operator” of a bus. With his skills and education, however, he eventually became an instructor for other operators. Then he became a supervisor.
When he finally left the Santa Cruz Metro after 11 years, he was the safety training coordinator, a management position.
Varga left the Santa Cruz Metro and California for the top job at the Muskegon Area Transit System, or MATS, a county entity.
Muskegon, he said, “was the opportunity to run a transit system. I had hoped that I would eventually be the executive director or CEO of a larger system.”
Despite his cosmopolitan life up to that point, Varga discovered that the small, industrial city of Muskegon was very much to his liking. He was an avid sailor then with a catamaran, and he ended up living in North Muskegon on Muskegon Lake. Muskegon Lake is a large and now very-clean place for inland sailing, and also provides direct access to Lake Michigan for more adventurous sailors.
After serving as manager of MATS for three years, Varga was presented with a nearby opportunity for advancement in a larger system. In 1994, he accepted a position as the director of operations for the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority.
In 1997, Varga was named executive director of GRATA, at a time when the transit system was operating at a deficit due to funding problems. It was “an agency that wasn’t functioning well,” he said.
There were other problems, including the distinctive lack of a transit center in Grand Rapids. Key supporters of GRATA realized a regional authority was needed, despite Kent County government resistance in 1997.
Finally, in 2000, a tax millage was passed that allowed the establishment of the Interurban Transit Partnership. The GRATA name disappeared, The Rapid took its place, and significant improvements in public transportation were implemented: evening service; Sunday service; routes that supported large concentrations of people going to and from work; and increased frequency of service.
There was also a long-range plan established for The Rapid, which included a new transit center at 250 Grandville Ave. SW — a $19 million complex completed in 2004. It was the first LEED-NC-certified transit center in the country.
Now, 10 years after the Interurban Transit Partnership was established, “We need a new plan,” said Varga.
To that end, The Rapid board created the Mobile Metro 2030 Task Force, which has drafted a plan looking 20 years out, in terms of anticipated changes and public transportation needs. Once approved by the board, which is considering it now, it will be implemented in stages.
It’s really not just a bus company anymore.
“We broker things,” said Varga. For example, The Rapid is a key partner with Hope Network in providing transportation that supports community mental health programs. The Rapid also operates van pools and a six-county ride-share program, among other things.
“We create different ways for people to get around — a broader view of transit than people usually think of,” said Varga.
The latest idea is the Silver Line, a proposed BRT (bus rapid transit) line several miles long, following South Division Avenue from downtown Grand Rapids to 60th Street in Gaines Township. An individual who gets on the Silver Line at 60th Street for the commute to a job on the Medical Mile downtown would be there in 27 minutes — with no parking hassles.
A second BRT line called the Laker Line is envisioned by the master plan, and would run on Lake Michigan Drive from Grand Valley State University in Allendale to downtown Grand Rapids.
But these things take time. Stops and starts are dictated by ever-changing political and economic considerations. Voters turned down a millage request a little over a year ago to fund the Silver Line, but the idea is still alive, said Varga, who is not discouraged.
“We think there is growing sentiment for it,” he said, regarding the Silver Line.
It has been approved for potential funding by the federal government, he noted, “and the state says it will match it.”
Of course, Varga understands only too well that right now the state of Michigan has its hands full with a major transportation crisis that has to be solved in Lansing: The state’s highway infrastructure is decaying due to lack of funding.
Ultimately, though, transportation is essential for getting people to work and back, so the state will have to resolve the funding crisis.
“How competitive is Michigan going to be in the national (business) environment, when its transportation infrastructure is falling apart?” he said.