By Lynn Jones – 1961 was a pivotal year in American history. Civil Rights icons Martin Luther King. Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Joseph Lowry, Andrew Young and many others were on the front line for justice for African Americans. It was also the year that Nathanial P. Ford, Sr. was born in in South Carolina and moved to New York City ate the age of one. The move to New York proved to be the visual start of Ford’s transportation career. He watched as his father’s legacy began with his climb up the corporate ladder and his rise to Chief Operating Officer for New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), “I wanted to be like him,” said Ford. “At a young age I saw how vital public transportation is and I wanted to be part of that.
Expounding on his father’s legacy, at the age of 39, Ford became Chief Executive Officer of Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta presented Ford with the task of working directly with Atlanta icons, “I was amongst giants,” said Ford. “In Atlanta my team and I were bridging community gaps with working on projects expanding the rail system, navigating investment issues with former Mayor Maynard Jackson, of Jackson Securities, and developing programs with Atlanta Hartsfield airport.”
In addition to Atlanta being the cradle of the civil rights movement, Ford had an opportunity to work closely with and learn from leaders such as Juanita Abernathy, wife of the late Ralph David Abernathy, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rev. Walter Kimbrough. “They were members of the Board and while I worked at MARTA while I was CEO and we formed a close professional relationship that has helped guide my decisions over the years as I’ve worked to make transportation equitable for everyone.”
Being under the cocoon of giants Ford speaks with authority, “My career has made its mark because of being relentless, the desire to be the best, perseverance, emulating my mentors and always striving to be the best.” While in Atlanta, Ford also established some solid long lasting relationships and friendships. Atlanta Communications Public Relations Specialist, Jeff Dickerson, praised Ford’s work ethic, “Nat is a good listener. He basically had a kitchen cabinet and an external brain trust on his team. He brought people together with various skill sets to ensure Marta’s success,” said Dickerson.
Ford’s career also took him to San Francisco, twice. First, in the early 1990s, Ford spent five-years as the Assistant Chief Transportation Officer for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) before heading back to the east coast at MARTA. After leaving Atlanta in 2006, Ford returned to the Bay Area to become the Chief Executive Officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. During his time in the Bay area, Ford had the opportunity to meet and work closely with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Democratic Party nominee for Vice President Sen. Kamala Harris, solidifying that he is always in the right position at the right time.
While successful on the west coast, he was anxious to return east where his family’s roots were planted. After an extensive job search, Ford arrived in Jacksonville in 2012 to accept the Chief Executive Officer of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA).
Ford is known for industry-leading insights and thought leadership on international transportation issues from trade and study missions around the world. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) recently named Ford their Outstanding Public Transportation Manager for 2020. He has received numerous awards for his transformational programs and initiatives, including the White House Champion of Change. He was named “Ultimate CEO” by the Jacksonville Business Journal, inducted into the First Coast Business Hall of Fame and was honored with the 2019 “Thought Leader” Award by The Eno Center for Transportation. Ford serves on the boards of several nonprofits, including vice chair of the Board of Directors for Goodwill Industries. He is a past member of the United Way Board of Directors and the Board of Trustees for Daniel Kids.
His presence has not gone unnoticed. In the eight years he has been in the city, recognitions have ranged from chairing the city 2015 “Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes” campaign to feeding the homeless at the Sulzbacher Village. The Authority has also started an internship program to prepare college students for careers in transportation. Ford’s impressive resume includes an MBA from the Davis School of Business at Jacksonville University and a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in organizational leadership from Mercer University amonsgt others.. He is a graduate of both Leadership Florida and Leadership Jacksonville.
When speaking with Ford you feel his passion for the transportation industry. During the interview Ford also responded to the following questions on his transportation goals and next steps at Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA):
Why is public transportation so important to Black and Brown people?
Public transportation is a civil right. Without access to buses and trains, many people of color would not have a way to get to work or go to school to further their education, or go to the doctor – three things that are critical to realizing the dream Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1960s.
Transportation played a vital role in the civil rights movement around the country beyond having a seat on the bus. In fact, in 1960, three years before King’s famed “I have a Dream” speech – when the JTA was the Jacksonville Expressway Authority – the agency was one of the first transit authorities in Florida to hire African American bus drivers. The first three hires were Amos Ealey, Vander Lee James and Charlie McRoy Jr. I understand some customers refused to board when they saw them, but the buses took off anyway with the drivers behind the wheel. We are also the first to respond in hurricanes and other emergencies by transporting people to safety. While we’ve crossed racial barriers, our industry needs to continue to expand transportation options to make bus service accessible, affordable and reliable, and to implement programs and initiatives that will make transportation sustainable for people of all colors for generations to come.
After working for large transit authorities in big cities like New York, Atlanta and San Francisco, why did you want to come to Jacksonville?
I was eager to come to an organization that had so much potential, one that had room to grow and expand and become more than it had been in years past. When I joined the JTA in 2012, the possibilities were endless. I envisioned from the start how it could be transformed into a best-in-class transportation authority that did more than just operate fixed route buses and community shuttles and make sure roads, bridges and streets were built. I believe we’ve accomplished that with our Blueprint 2020 initiatives that included the new Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JRTC) at LaVilla, a hub that I believe is now the epicenter for renewed development in the LaVilla community and Downtown Jacksonville while providing regional connectivity.
In the last seven years with you at the helm, the JTA has made significant improvements to the system. What role have Black and Brown people played in that transformation?
Black and Brown people have played a major role in the JTA’s transformation. Of the Authority’s 800 employees, 74% are people of color and more than 50% of JTA executives, managers and engineers are women or people of color. The staff has been key in improving customer service, expanding our scope from Duval County to the suburban counties of Clay, St. Johns, Nassau and Baker counties, and in operating many of the new services we’re providing. Ensuring diversity and inclusiveness in contracting is as important to me as a diverse workforce. Through the JTA’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, the Authority exceeded its goal to include at least 16% participation of qualified firms owned, operated and controlled by economically disadvantaged individuals in the award and administration of JTA contracts. Each year from 2013-2016, the JTA consistently reached an impressive 25% DBE participation rate. In addition, I launched the first series of DBE training academies for contractors in Northeast Florida to help prepare professional, technical and construction consultants and vendors to compete for JTA business.
How does your staff reflect the diversity in Jacksonville?
My staff is comprised of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Caucasians, making it as diverse as the communities we serve.
What’s on the agenda for the JTA in the near future?
The JTA’s bold vision to modernize and expand Jacksonville’s iconic Skyway with Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology with the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C) is a top priority. The JTA wants to enhance the system now and in the future by building a network that grows with Downtown and offers trips from home to the office and to restaurants, shopping, sporting events, entertainment and more, with high frequency. We’re completing the last leg of the First Coast Flyer, our 59-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) system that covers the largest distance in the Southeastern United States. The Authority will continue to design and build roads and corridors under the $167 million JTAMobiIityWorks program that is on schedule and on budget to be completed by the end of this year.
We’ve heard a lot of talk about the Ultimate Urban Circulator that will drive itself. When will the vehicles be on the street?
The JTA continues to advance our testing and planning for the U2C program. On August 28, the official Request for Qualifications, or RFQ, closed for Phase I – the Bay Street Innovation Corridor. We plan to take the next step this fall with the issue of the official Request for Proposals (RFP). We anticipate construction on Phase 1 to begin by year-end 2021. The U2C is going to be developed in four main phases over the next 5-10 years. That includes the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, Autonomous Avenue, which is the first leg of the Skyway to be converted for Autonomous Vehicles, the full conversion of the Skyway and our neighborhood extensions to expand the entire footprint from 2.5 miles to 10 miles.
What role did people of color have in building the JRTC at LaVilla? Did they reap any economic benefits from the $57 million construction project?
The LaVilla community thrived in its heyday with successful businesses owned by its diverse residents. The JTA continued the legacy by contracting with diverse business owners to build the JRTC at LaVilla.
During the four years of construction, we contracted with highly-qualified women and minority owned/operated multi-disciplinary consulting firms and companies that provided engineering, construction, project management, geotechnical, landscape/maintenance, public outreach and experiential graphic design services. Fully 33 DBE firms worked on the JRTC where more than 1000 jobs were created in this community.
How long do you think it will take for LaVilla to be revitalized – 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years?
LaVilla’s resurgence has already begun. Hundreds of new residents now call LaVilla home, and more are planned in the next few years. The Emerald Trail is making substantial progress, and development continues in neighboring Brooklyn. With the JRTC at LaVilla serving as a central hub and catalyst for LaVilla, Brooklyn, Downtown and the nearby Rail Yard District, we are excited about the continued growth and forward momentum happening in this historic neighborhood. Over the next 5-10 years, this will become one of the most desirable places to live, work and play in Jacksonville. It’s why we are so proud to call LaVilla home and to continue sharing its deep history with the rest of our region.
What is being done to prevent the community from being gentrified so working people can afford to live there?
In marketing LaVilla as an area ripe for transit-oriented development, the JTA informs potential investors of our commitment to affordable housing. Vestcor Companies has invested heavily in LaVilla by building three loft communities in the area. Some of the units are workforce housing reserved for people earning less than 60 percent of the median income, while others are reserved for folks who are low income. Townhomes, senior living communities and other dwellings that don’t qualify as luxury housing are also part of the LaVilla development plan that the JTA created with the Downtown Investment Authority and the community.
With all the new services the JTA is offering, the opening of the JRTC and expansion to the suburbs, is the JTA hiring and how do people apply?
The JTA is always looking for employees to work in all aspects of the organization, from operations, maintenance and customer service to the management and executive levels. Please visit our website at jtafla.com for career opportunities.
What is the JTA’s commitment to upward mobility for employees?
Two years ago, we started JTA University to provide training and development opportunities for employees. Staff is also actively involved in professional development through seminars and online courses that will help them advance to the next rungs of the leadership ladder. After spending more than three decades in the transportation industry, I realize that one day it will be time for me to turn the wheel over to the next generation. I’m preparing for that now by mentoring emerging leaders through Leadership APTA, the National Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) and the Eno Center for Transportation. The JTA also partners with local schools and universities to offer internships and summer jobs for minority youth to encourage them to consider careers in transportation.
As Ford reminisces on his career and the lessons he learned along the way, “What resonates with me most is the golden rule I learned in kindergarten: Treat others like you’d like to be treated. That has been my guiding force for everything I do. To create a public transportation system for others that I would like to ride myself that is safe, efficient and affordable for people from all walks of life. Regardless of color, income or social-economic status. That has been my goal, my driving force, in all that I do,” said Ford as he smiles through the phone, contemplating his team’s next move which is always the right move for the citizens of northeast Florida.