A bit over two decades ago, Shirley DeLibero saw an ad for a shift supervisor at one of Boston's streetcar barns. She had spent 19 years in the electronics industry and wanted a change. So she applied, and was turned down. She did, however, manage to snag an interview with the next higher-up, the superintendent of the Green Line, the streetcar route that runs out to Boston’s western suburbs. There was another job open, he told her, overseeing the refurbishing of old streetcars, but she couldn’t have that one either—after all, he pointed out, she had no experience with streetcars. So DeLibero moved on to HIS boss, who, after she’d pestered him enough, told her that it was no use, the Green Line superintendent just didn’t want her. “Give it to me anyway,” she insisted. “I’ll have him eating out of my hand.”
She got the job, but she was wrong: The two never did get along. Yet within a year, dealing with a tough group of craft unions in a workplace where being a pushy black woman was not generally seen as a ticket to career advancement, she had turned around a project that was over budget and behind schedule. And when it was done, she got promoted—to Green Line superintendent.
In a way, the rest of her career has been much like its beginning: Supremely confident of her ability to get what she wants, Shirley DeLibero does not take no for an answer. From her start with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, through jobs in greater Washington, D.C., Dallas, New Jersey and now Houston, she has made her mark by pushing relentlessly for efficient operations, a well-maintained fleet, budgets that put service first and, above all, a clean, reliable transit system. Doing the job well demands a street-level understanding of what makes buses and trains—and the people who fix and operate them—work, and a politician’s ability to build a constituency among a lot of demanding players.
All of this was on display during DeLibero’s eight-year tenure at New Jersey Transit. She took an agency that was seeing rising fares and declines in ridership—“a revolting development for a transit agency,” as DeLibero puts it—and ended the first while reversing the second: Ridership grew 17 percent during her time there, with no fare increase, and NJ Transit repeatedly won the American Public Transit Association’s award for outstanding achievement.
DeLibero was basically ready to retire into a consultancy when Houston came calling. She was eventually won over by Mayor Lee Brown’s hopes for a light rail line that could reinforce the revitalization of the city’s downtown. “Transit is the economic engine of any community,” she says. “And I’ve always worked for white males, so I thought it was a great way to wrap up a career, by giving back to my own race. And everyone told me they’ll never build rail in Houston, and I love a challenge.”
A challenge it will be. Although Houston’s Metro board has approved a seven-mile starter line that has a fair bit of political support, it will depend on federal money, and at least one notable member of the U.S. House—Houston-area Republican Tom DeLay, perhaps the most powerful member of the GOP leadership—is no fan of rail projects. Moreover, the Houston area is growing once again, which over the next few years will make the politics of congestion relief fairly thorny.
But DeLibero is confident of her ability to pick her way through that political thicket. When the Houston Business Journal recently ran a profile of her, it called her “Her Own Biggest Fan.” “You’re damn right I am,” DeLibero says. “If I’m not, who will be?”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Rocky Kneten