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Transit Chief Drives System With Insight, Colleagues Say

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you have ridden a bus in this county or dialed the emergency number from a roadside phone or taken Metrolink to Los Angeles, you have felt the influence of Ginger Gherardi.

Gherardi, the first woman in the state to head up a transportation commission when she was hired 11 years ago, quickly established herself as a likable but hard-edged administrator. As executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, she has earned the respect of colleagues for a quick grasp of complicated public policy, a firm opinion and an uncanny knowledge of arcane funding laws.

“You couldn’t find a person who understands federal funding better than she does,” said Supervisor John Flynn, a former transportation commissioner. “It’s complicated and she’s got it down. But you can’t deal with her diplomatically. You have to be tough, because she’s strong-willed.”

During Gherardi’s tenure, California 126 was widened, California 118 and 23 were connected, Metrolink was launched, roadside phones were redesigned to accommodate the hearing-impaired and several large interchanges on the Ventura Freeway were improved.

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Five years ago, she persuaded Southern Pacific Railroad to sell the commission 32 miles of railroad track, stretching from Ventura to east of Piru, for $8.5 million. That swath of land will someday become a mountains-to-the-sea bike and pedestrian path.

“Once she sets her eyes on an objective, she’ll pursue it with bulldog tenacity,” Commissioner Brian Humphrey said. “Because she’s so well-known in the area and nationally, she can open doors that others would have trouble navigating.”

Gherardi oversees a budget of $100 million a year, some of it allocated before it gets to the county. With a salary of $116,000 a year, Gherardi serves as the expert for a board that was mostly elected to office for reasons that have nothing to do with transportation.

The Transportation Commission--made up of eight members, seven of them voting--oversees all transit in the county, including bike lanes, highways, airports and trains. It sets the priorities for transportation improvements, such as renovating freeway intersections and increasing public transportation.

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As the only director the agency has ever had, the 5-foot-1 Santa Paula resident is described as a “tiger,” an “autocrat” and an “unparalleled dynamo” by those on the board. Ask her and she admits: “I am very impatient. I have a low tolerance. And I can be abrupt.” But those qualities make the New York native effective, observers say.

Every month, she explains to board members what they need to care about and why. For instance, the county Transportation Commission has become the lead agency on the massive Rice Avenue extension project at Gherardi’s behest, because too many squabbling agencies led to inaction.

In another instance, she chastised the west county’s bus agency, SCAT, for accounting inconsistencies, threatening to withhold monthly payments until the problems were cleared up.

“I’ll take managers on,” she said. “They don’t like it, but sometimes you need to do that to make a point.”

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Gherardi, 57, moved to Simi Valley with her husband in 1968 after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York with a master’s degree in art education.

She taught art at Moorpark High School and Cal State Northridge for many years. And although she enjoyed it, she always had public service in the back of her mind.

From 1972 to 1979, Gherardi served on the Simi Valley City Council, once taking a turn at mayor. She and her husband were divorced after 11 years of marriage, and their sons, now 31 and 32, both live in the county.

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In 1979, Gherardi answered a newspaper ad to run a technical program with the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which makes regional planning recommendations. Four years later, she went to work for the predecessor to the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, running its highway program.

In 1989, she was recruited to head up the newly emerging Ventura County Transportation Commission.

Although she describes herself as a workaholic, Gherardi points out that she has myriad other interests outside her job, including crocheting, painting, cooking and reading. “I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I sometimes read five books in a week,” she said.

Her spacious office is homey--complete with a fireplace, plants, pictures of her family and a comfortable couch. She has invited her staff to hold her accountable for her occasional swear word. If she does swear, she must deposit coins in a jar. “There are some things that aren’t nice to say, and now that I have a grandchild around, I need to clean up my language,” she said.

Gherardi hopes to stay with the Transportation Commission for at least five more years. “I like where I live and I have a very interesting job where there is still a lot to be done.”

When she leaves, she said, she might work outside the transportation field, but probably not in the private sector. “The bottom line isn’t what motivates me,” she said from behind her desk at an office complex near the Ventura County Government Center. “I’ve always been more interested in the policy side.”

Public transportation has long been considered a tough sell in this sprawling Southern California county, where residents are virtually wedded to their cars. Many praise Gherardi for doing so much with limited amounts of money.

Ventura is the only county in the Greater Los Angeles region that doesn’t have a transportation tax, something that brings other counties millions of dollars every year. In 1994, voters rejected a sales tax that would have brought the county $500 million over 20 years for road and public transit projects.

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Still, since Gherardi’s arrival, the commission has funded four bus routes that crisscross the county and has financially supported the Metrolink commuter train, which carries riders from four county stations into the San Fernando Valley and beyond.

Although Gherardi is respected by all on the board, when pressed to name a weakness, some say her efforts at persuasion and her desire for efficiency can alienate people.

“She is very professional and she has done a really good job in getting money,” said commissioner and county Supervisor Frank Schillo. "[But] sometimes she makes decisions before coming to the Transportation Commission instead of afterward, and that is something I dislike. Those things are disquieting and make people feel like they are only there to have a finger to put on a voting machine.”

Schillo also said he would like to see a different mix of transportation in the county. He touted buses, saying Gherardi puts too much emphasis on trains, which are only useful for people who live near the tracks. He said the commission should focus on bus service aimed at working people, with a heavy focus on commute times, instead of spreading service throughout the day.

Others say Gherardi focuses too much on roads.

Brett Tibbitts, a Somis resident and member of an activist group that is working to stop the widening of California 118 from Moorpark to Ventura, said Gherardi is committed to building and widening roads instead of investing more heavily in public transportation. And the board doesn’t do anything to stop her, he said.

“It seems that Ginger really does whatever she wants,” Tibbitts said. Furthermore, he said, “I don’t think she does a good job of balancing what’s going on in this county in other ways, like SOAR [an anti-growth measure], with road building.”

Other commissioners disagree, saying Gherardi works hard to better every part of the county’s transportation system, including public transit.

“I’ve been active in transportation for over 20 years, and it wasn’t until Ginger came on board that we could get decent funding to do anything around here,” said commission member Nancy Grasmehr.

Her only complaint is that Gherardi sometimes leaves others behind. “I think she is so bright that sometimes the staff or elected commission can’t keep up with her,” she said. “We pull her back and tell her, ‘Wait, we have to understand this.’ People think she is abrasive, and maybe sometimes she is, but she’s a heck of a lot smarter than I am.”

Gherardi herself said she follows the board’s direction and that she believes in a mix of transportation options. She said people often misunderstand the process of funding a bus line, which has to draw a certain number of riders in order to qualify for continued funding. In the future, she hopes to bring more minibuses to the county, both for curb-to-curb service and as feeders for larger buses.

Gherardi’s fans extend outside Ventura County.

William Millar, president of the trade group American Public Transportation Assn. based in Washington, D.C., worked with Gherardi on the Women’s Transportation Seminar, a networking and educational group that promotes women in transportation. Gherardi was president of the 25-year-old seminar several years ago.

Millar said he was impressed with Gherardi’s knowledge and her approach to her job. “She would come up with ideas on her own, but she is also the kind of person who takes kindly to your ideas,” he said. “So she would build on someone else and say, ‘You know what, we can do this too.’ She was a catalyst.”

Millar said Gherardi has an extensive national network of contacts. “People are successful when they build relationships,” he said. “Ginger can build really good relationships.”

Gherardi says she has worked hard for the contacts she has made in an environment traditionally dominated by men.

She said there are more women in the field than there were 20 years ago, but obstacles remain. “I can say that you have to be careful about making mistakes, because people tend to be less forgiving,” she said. “If a man makes a mistake, they won’t condemn his whole sex.”

But she maintains her sense of humor, bemoaning her lack of expertise in one crucial area. “I don’t play golf.”

Does she plan to learn?

“Absolutely not,” she said. “One has to know one’s limitations.”


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