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Louisville’s bus system is in crisis. City leaders hope he’s the man to save it

Ozzy Gibson, center, speaks at a lectern
Louisville Metro Animal Services
Over the last six years, Ozzy Gibson has stepped in to run a few city departments when they faced trouble.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg recently tapped veteran city leader Ozzy Gibson to be the new permanent director of TARC.

Before Ozzy Gibson took over as the executive director of Louisville’s flailing public transit agency last month, he had more responsibilities than just about anyone else in city government.

Gibson had been leading the Parks and Recreation Department and TARC on an interim basis, all the while serving as president of the Louisville Riverport Authority, which manages the 2,000-acre industrial and commercial center in southwest Jefferson County. Over the last three decades, Gibson has developed a reputation for being a competent manager and someone who could turn around a department in crisis.

“I’m the type of guy who will get down in the weeds, from the nuts and bolts, and work my way up to see how this place is built, how it operates,” Gibson said in a recent interview with LPM News. “One of the [Metro] Council people recently said to me, ‘Man, you’re like a forensic guy, you come in and you’re going to look in every corner.’”

That’s exactly what Gibson is now tasked to do at TARC.

Louisville’s bus system is currently facing a $30 million budget deficit and cratering ridership. In order to stem the bleeding, TARC’s board proposed a budget earlier this year that would cut more than 80 bus drivers positions. A deal with Jefferson County Public Schools, which is facing its own transportation crisis, has allowed TARC to avoid layoffs for now.

Gibson is optimistic that an upcoming network redesign will put TARC on the path to financial sustainability, but he’s also realistic about what that new system could look like. He said 'it’s likely public transit in Louisville will be contracting, rather than expanding, without big changes to how the service is funded.

'I ask the questions no one’s ever asked’

When Gibson retired from the Louisville Metro Police Department in 2016 after 26 years, he didn’t imagine life as a retiree would entail running multiple public agencies.

He said he definitely didn’t see himself managing more than one at the same time.

“You never know what life’s going to throw at you,” Gibson said.

Less than six months after retiring from LMPD as a deputy police chief, Gibson was back in city government managing Louisville Metro Animal Services. At the time, LMAS had issues with overcrowding and had to resort to euthanizing some animals.

By 2018, LMAS had received “no kill” shelter status for the first time. The next year, LMAS opened a new $11.5 million shelter in Newburg.

Gibson has also had a hand in overseeing Public Works, the Public Health and Wellness Department and a handful of other city agencies since 2020. He attributes the demand for his leadership to being dependable and willing to take on any task.

“I’ve always been the person that if I work for you and you’re asking me to go do something, and it’s legal, I’m old school, I go do it,” Gibson said. “I was kidding with the mayor one day, I said if you tell me, ‘Hey Ozz, I need you to go over to Churchill Downs and clean out stall no. 1,’ I’m going to do that.”

Mayor Craig Greenberg asked Gibson to be the interim director of TARC late last year, after its executive director Carrie Butler resigned. Gibson didn’t have any formal education or experience with public transit, but he said he thinks that’s been an asset.

“The other places I’ve gone where I didn’t have the experience, it’s paid off because I ask the questions no one’s ever asked before,” he said. “A lot of the times when you ask a question, ‘Why do you do that?’ it’s, ‘Well, we’ve always done it that way.’ That’s the worst thing I want to hear.”

Gibson is honest about the fact that there’s a lot he doesn’t know much about running a bus system in a midsized American city, but he said that’s why he relies on the “great people here” at TARC for their expertise in planning and maintenance.

TARC isn’t Gibson’s regular way of getting around. He said the amount he’s ridden the bus since taking the reins of the agency is “Not enough.” He said he’s working on restructuring leadership roles so he can get out of the agency’s office in the historic Union Station on Broadway more often.

“Get out more, listen and see what people’s needs are,” he said.

TARC’s next five years

The most important initiative Gibson is expected to spearhead at TARC is the ongoing network redesign.

TARC hired consultants Jarrett Walker + Associates and engineering firm Schmidt Associates to overhaul TARC’s bus routes. While the full study won’t be done until next year, TARC officials say they’ll have draft “concepts” available for the public to look at by late July or early August.

These will show three scenarios for what a new bus network could look like. The first concept will show a map that has increased frequency on the most popular bus routes but a smaller area of coverage. The second scenario would be a system that has less frequency, but covers a larger swath of Jefferson County.

Residents will also be able to see what an expanded bus network would look like, with decent frequency and coverage, and what the price tag for that would be.

Gibson said the goal is to use the concepts as the basis for public feedback meetings that will be held as part of the redesign study. He said they’ll also help kickstart a conversation among public officials about “what do we want to be in the next five years.”

“I’m going to get in front of every politician in Jefferson County and say ‘Here’s the plans we have. Here’s what it costs. What do you want to plan for?’”

Any expanded bus network would likely require more funding, either from Louisville Metro or the state or federal governments. Currently, TARC’s main source of funding is the city’s 2.2% occupational license tax, also known as the paycheck tax.

Gibson’s predecessors have talked about the need to increase TARC’s portion of the occupational tax rate, which hasn’t changed since 1974. But doing so would require the Metro Council to approve a ballot referendum, which would ultimately leave it up to voters.

Asked whether he plans to push for a referendum, Gibson said it’s clear Louisville will need to put more money toward public transportation if it wants to keep up with peer cities like Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Voters in both cities have approved additional taxes to fund public transportation: Indianapolis in 2016 and Cincinnati in 2020.

“My gut would tell me that there’s many projects that we need to do in our community that would support some type of referendum,” he said. “TARC’s not the only needy quasi-governmental or city agency that needs help.”

Gibson said community members will have to decide what kind of support and funding they want to put toward public transit.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated which entity hired consultants to review bus routes.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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