Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ritz supports transportation for rural residents

Ian Ritz

Alum Ian Ritz helps rural communities in Wisconsin provide transportation services.

As a program manager with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's Transit Section, Ritz fields questions from transportation managers about federal and state regulations, analyzes the effects of budget changes on services and helps coordinate building projects and inter-city travel.

Researching answers to questions from transit coordinators in rural communities means Ritz often doesn't know what he will learn each day at his job. "I provide technical assistance — answering questions about laws, regulations and finances that come in from staff at transit systems around Wisconsin," says Ritz, who completed his Master of Public Affairs degree in 2010. "One day I might get a question about transit bus specifications, the next about Americans with Disabilities Act regulations or environmental controls for building construction projects."

Ritz will research the topic and interpret regulations and policies. "Small rural communities have few employees devoted to transportation, and a lot of the funding comes from the federal government, so we at the Transit Section can serve as intermediaries and help people interact with the federal government," Ritz says.

Ritz and his colleagues run a lot of budget analyses to estimate the impact of various policy proposals and changes. "The state or the federal government will make changes to their budget allocations for transportation, and we help figure out how those will affect local services," Ritz says.

The Transit Section is also working with four Wisconsin communities that won grants from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build administrative facilities and transit centers. "These kinds of projects are new for the Transit Section at the DOT," Ritz says, "so we've all done a lot of learning and figuring out what is involved in designing and building the facilities. The projects are collaborative efforts of the DOT and the staff of the local transit systems."

One project is a new transfer center in Manitowoc where people can change from one bus to another. The old center was a former bank building that was too small and insufficient to meet people's needs. "The new transfer center should help with downtown revitalization in addition to better transit services," Ritz says.

In addition to transportation within communities, Ritz and others on the team work on the state's inter-city bus program. One of his first projects upon joining DOT after he graduated was to help complete the expansion of bus service across the state. "With five new routes, from Madison to La Crosse, for example, it was a pretty significant expansion of service," Ritz says.

As different administrative and managerial questions and projects arise, Ritz finds his La Follette training useful. "I apply my skills from La Follette on a daily basis," he says. "The foundations of policy analysis — accounting for equity, cost-effectiveness, ease of implementation and political feasibility — inform all of our decisions, even if we don't do a full-blown policy analysis. We apply that thought process to make decisions and respond to issues that arise through a deliberative approach."

The Transit Section's work is very collaborative, Ritz emphasizes, and the La Follette School's emphasis on working in groups was excellent training. "It's important to have experience at creating with a group an end project that is the best possible," he says.

Ritz also values the management and budgeting skills he learned at La Follette. "I gained a good perspective on how to interact with other state agencies, federal agencies and municipal entities," he says. "A lot of the approach is similar to good customer service, being responsive and respectful, as we learned in the public management courses. I don't manage a staff, but I feel responsible for all the transit coordinators around the state that I work with."

Ritz came to La Follette after graduating from Macalester College. He held a project assistantship as a loaned executive at United Way of Dane County, did some data collection for the campus Value-Added Research Center within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and served as social coordinator for the La Follette School Student Association.

He notes he had zero background in transit and transportation when he applied for the initial job at DOT, a temporary gig funded with ARRA money. He learned about the job from 1994 alum Monique Currie, who spread the word about the opportunity at the annual alumni reception in Madison. "I was originally interested in social policy, immigration in particular," Ritz says, "but as opportunities presented themselves, I pursued them."

"The La Follette School provides students a skill set that is broadly applicable so that you have an array of knowledge and tools that you can apply to a variety of jobs," he adds. "The degree makes you marketable."

— article last update September 25, 2012