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— by Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
The champion of the underdog. That's what Linda Bauer Darr has aspired to be throughout much of her 25-year transportation career.
And her latest dark horse among thoroughbreds is the short line. Darr, 52, late last year was named president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). The first female president in ASLRRA's 101-year history, she succeeded Richard Timmons, who retired at 2014's end after leading the association for 12 years.
After working to raise the profile of bus companies as a senior vice president at the American Bus Association (ABA) and of moving firms as president and chief executive officer of the American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA), Darr now is striving to carry the torch for regionals and short lines.
Whether that means stumping in Congress, networking with state officials, interacting with shippers or strategizing with small railroad owners, her main objective is the same as it was twice before: to promote and advance an industry that's under-appreciated or not well known to the general public.
"We want to get the story out about the magnitude of the contributions we make. Short lines are another industry with a good story to tell, and one I can help create," says Darr.
But she didn't always envision herself as an advocate for transportation's smallest constituents. A transportation career wasn't on Darr's radar when she graduated from the University of Maryland in 1985 with a Bachelor of Science degree. Her vocation of choice was criminal law.
Yet, fate intervened. The University of Maryland didn't offer a pre-law major at the time and a year spent as an intern in the state's department of corrections convinced Darr she wasn't cut out to be a criminal lawyer. A neighbor then suggested she consider a job in defense contracting.
Darr joined national defense contractor Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier Inc. and spent four years as a program and budget analyst.
"But the job didn't have meaning to me. It was just shuffling papers," she says.
A more inspiring career opportunity presented itself in 1989, when Darr latched on with the American Trucking Associations (ATA). In progressively responsible roles over a nine-year period — culminating as vice president of international affairs and executive director of ATA's North American Transportation Alliance — she served as an advocate for the U.S. trucking industry in relations with Congress, government agencies and international markets, such as Mexico.
"The trucking industry was opening up and going more international," says Darr. "I was 26 years old and meeting with ambassadors and senators, and with [trucking legends] J.B. Hunt and Don Schneider."
Darr worked closely with ATA CEO Tom Donohue, who she considers a mentor.
"He's a go-getter and change agent, and I liked his management style. He's an energizing boss who left you room to grow," says Darr. "He invested in you if he thought you were talented."
Donohue helped her learn how vital transportation is to commerce, Darr says.
"It's an essential service that's meaningful to everybody," she says. "Transportation is not partisan or part of political extremes."
Darr came to the ATA with a high amount of energy and learned the ropes very fast, said Donohue — who led the ATA for 13 years and now serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — in an email.
"She has a remarkable set of experiences and accomplishments in and out of government, and is a passionate advocate for transportation," he said.
Experiences with intermodal and mode crossovers at the ATA provided her some rail orientation. Darr got a bit more oriented to the mode in her next post. In 1999, she was named deputy assistant secretary for budget and programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Clinton administration.
Darr oversaw the development of an annual $60 billion budget covering rail, highway, aviation, maritime and Coast Guard funding. She also worked with senior administration officials and congressional members on a wide range of transportation policy issues.
"Here I am in my early 30s and meeting with the Coast Guard commandant talking about eliminating part of his budget," says Darr. "Obviously, the bulk of spending was on highway infrastructure. But the state of rail as an industry is that it has a lot of sway over its own future."
In 2001, Darr seized an opportunity to further the interests of operators in the bus industry, which typically is dwarfed by the truck industry. She joined the ABA as senior vice president of policy and communications, and executive director of the association's educational and research foundation.
During her nearly six-year stint, Darr secured the first federal security grant available for any surface transportation mode post-9/11; crafted lobbying plans and policy arguments that resulted in the motor coach industry being exempted from hours-of-service rule changes; created grant funding programs for rural bus companies; and advanced other initiatives that prompted an infusion of millions of dollars for an industry that typically hadn't received much federal funding assistance.
"We got the word out that buses log 774 million passenger trips per year, while airlines are at 250 million," says Darr. "We did more trips in two weeks than Amtrak did all year."
She was able to mold the bus industry into a "pufferfish" of sorts that could become something bigger than how it generally was perceived, Darr says. That approach later helped her champion small moving and storage companies.
When she became president and CEO of AMSA in 2007, the moving and storage industry — which is a subset of the trucking industry — was in self-preservation mode, says Darr. There were rogue operators because companies didn't need to be certified and independent operators struggled with the difficult job of being both the driver and manager of crews and equipment.
Darr created an industry certification program that resulted in 200 undesirable members being kicked out of AMSA — even though it wasn't an ideal move for dues collection — and worked with several stakeholders to enhance the association's strategic and operational plans.
After she led AMSA through a difficult transformative period, the association's board issued the following commendation on Darr: "Linda has consistently demonstrated the courage to make tough decisions, the compassion to listen to the needs of others, the charisma to instill confidence in her staff and the unwavering conviction to improve the moving and storage industry."
Darr in part was attracted to the AMSA post because she could serve as a CEO for the first time and "test my wings," she says. Now at the ASLRRA, she figures to further stretch those wings. In addition to again leading an underappreciated yet growing industry, Darr has rounded out her transportation career by transitioning to another mode.
Darr first tried to land the association's top post in 2002, when she was one of three finalists for the job eventually filled by Timmons. Since he was well-respected as an industry leader and accomplished many short-line-furthering objectives during his tenure as president — such as the creation of the Section 45G tax credit — she won't need to focus on fixing things, says Darr.
Instead, her marching orders essentially are "don't screw it up," especially when it comes to the tax credit, she says.
"Section 45G is critical to the industry. But to tell our story, we need to have data," says Darr. "We need Section 45G facts and figures for Congress, and to look at how we work with the administration."
She also plans to help nurture the creation of the Short Line Safety Institute, which resulted from an ASLRRA proposal to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in January 2014 as a step toward improving the safety culture for short lines that transport crude oil. The institute — which obtained a $2 million appropriation from the federal government — eventually will help bolster safety for all short lines and regionals.
Currently, safety culture assessments are being performed at a number of short lines, and those efforts will continue until June, says Darr.
"Safety is a critical focus. We need to help create a culture in this diverse industry, and a level of understanding and compliance," she says. "We also need to provide outreach."
So far, Darr has taken the outreach route. During her first few months on the job, she has traveled extensively, meeting with members and key partners, and establishing several new relationships, said ASLRRA Chairman Ed McKechnie in an email.
"I think this has been a steep learning curve, but one Linda has enjoyed," said McKechnie, Watco Cos. LLC's executive vice president and chief commercial officer. "She is very observant and has quickly identified key areas of our member services, programs and meeting that need updating, and we are delighted with her energy and eagerness."
Although the ASLRRA now is offering services it hadn't in the past, it can do more, Darr believes. For example, the industry's buying power hasn't been harvested and the association could provide more support to the smallest of railroads, such as in the back office, she says.
"We want the organization to be more inclusive and supportive of small railroads, develop a strong safety product and be recognized by Class Is as an essential part of their networks," says Darr.