Ben Franklin Transit riders and employees got to hear Wednesday afternoon from two diverse candidates seeking to be the agency's next leader.
Bill Forsythe, who has owned and sold private school and transit bus contractors, and Dennis Solensky, who led the transit agency in Erie, Pa., for 12 years, spoke for more than an hour to an overflow audience of 60 people at the Three Rivers Transit Center in Kennewick.
The two were chosen as finalists from a pool of 86 applicants to replace Tim Fredrickson, who resigned as Ben Franklin Transit general manager in December. Fredrickson earned $121,092 annually.
Another meeting was planned Wednesday evening at Ben Franklin Transit's Richland office.
Both candidates said they want to stay in the area for years, with Forsythe saying he wanted to make Ben Franklin Transit the last job he has before retiring, and Solensky committing to stay at least nine years, until his children are out of school.
Forsythe has had an eye on moving to the area since 2007, he said. He called himself a "high-tech person" who would like to provide up-to-the-minute schedules for transit users' smartphones.
"I love to use technology to benefit people riding the bus," he said.
Solensky said he took the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority from an agency that lost 3 percent of its riders each year for 30 years to one that grew to provide 4 million rides per year, up from about 2.5 million, he said.
He said the authority contracted to provide service to five regional universities and built partnerships with the city's convention center and the port authority.
"We basically turned that system into a financial powerhouse in the region," he said.
The Erie transit agency has similar numbers of employees and buses as Ben Franklin, though Ben Franklin's budget is 40 percent higher.
The candidates were asked if they would provide services for events at local wineries. Forsythe said transit agencies should look into such new services, adding that his company's buses have provided amenities like shoulder massages for customers.
Solensky cautioned that Ben Franklin Transit will have to make sure it doesn't offer services that could jeopardize federal funding.
"As an organization, our first obligation should be to those people who have no other means of transportation," he said.
Forsythe sold Forsythe Transportation Inc. to National Express Transit in 2012. He said he still wants to keep working.
"The economy hasn't been great for investments and, obviously, I need a job," he told the Herald after the meeting. "This is what I love to do. This is the ideal location for me, my skills, my experience. I bring some excellent ideas."
Forsythe doesn't have a preference as to whether Ben Franklin Transit continues to hire its own drivers or bring in a private operator, despite his nearly 20 yearsworking with contractors, he said. He said he hasn't gotten any indication from officials with the transit in his early interviews that it wants to privatize.
He also blasted 2011 claims from the localAmerican Federation of State, County and Municipal employees representing transit workers in Arlington County, Va., where Forsythe's company was the contractor for transit services. According to the area news media, bus drivers complained that the contractor would not let them take bathroom breaks.
Some workers then walked out on what Forsythe called an illegal strike. He denied the union claims Wednesday, saying it was "all rhetoric."
"That was simply a strong-armed tactic," he said.
The Erie transit authority's board opted not to renew Solensky's contract in October. Solensky told the Herald it was a mutual decision to move on, adding that the board hired his trained successor to replace him.
"I chose to pursue other opportunities," he said. "The relationship when I left was affable, and it was a joint decision."
The Ben Franklin Transit board will interview the finalists in closed session this afternoon and could make a final decision on a new general manager as early as tonight's regular meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. at 1000 Columbia Park Trail in Richland.
Board members will have a chance to see cards that attendees Wednesday afternoon were asked to fill out, giving their opinions of the finalists.
Bobbie Jenkins, 65, of Pasco, a regular Ben Franklin Transit user, made no secret of who she was endorsing. She said Forsythe was "awesome" after the meeting.
"He's concerned for people, he's willing to answer questions," said Jenkins. "He not only cares about himself, he cares about his community."
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom