New Intercity Transit General Manager Emily Bergkamp Shares about Transit Pandemic Experiences

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Many people depend on Intercity Transit to get around. When COVID-19 slowed movement to a trickle, bus drivers, support staff and riders were all heartbroken to have the usual exchanges so dramatically interrupted. General Manager Emily Bergkamp came up the ranks of Intercity Transit staff long before COVID and worked through the pandemic challenges before entering her new leadership position. Now, she is leading Intercity Transit in a return to its pre-pandemic operations levels.

After a nationwide recruitment process, Emily Bergkamp (pictured) was chosen from among 100 applicants and hired on in November of 2023 as the new general manager of Intercity Transit. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez

Emily Bergkamp Continues Leading at Intercity Transit in New Role

After she relocated to the Pacific Northwest from Kansas, Bergkamp settled in Olympia and earned her undergraduate degree in sociology and cultural anthropology from Saint Martin’s University after studying at South Puget Sound Community College. Before being hired by Intercity Transit, she worked with Senior Services for South Sound and later volunteered on the IT Community Advisory Committee. She told herself that if a position opened at Intercity Transit someday, she was going to go for it, and she did.

Bergkamp’s roles at Intercity Transit have included Vanpool Coordinator, Youth Education Specialist, Dial-A-Lift Manager, Operations Director, And Interim General Manager. While working at IT, Bergkamp also returned to school earning a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy & Governance. Each experience grew her knowledge of multi-level innerworkings and effective public administration, all assets she brought as a general manager applicant.

Emily Bergkamp (right) and Intercity Transit Board Chair Clark Gilman (left) stand with maintenance staff member Richelle Loken (center) whose team took first place in the USSC bus inspection competition at the American Public Transportation Association 2024 International Bus Roadeo competition. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez

“We had three finalists who were each really interesting transit professionals, engaged in national efforts, board policy, all of those cool things. But, we did a variety of panels of operators and mechanics, of department heads, of community leaders, and every single panel recommended Emily unanimously,” says Intercity Transit Board Chair Clark Gilman, who is also a member of the Olympia City Council. “The opportunity to have somebody who has grown with the agency and is known and respected across the staff and across the community was a very simple decision for us.”

Bergkamp also shares in many of the community’s experiences raising a family and supporting kids in school activities. Mobility and access also have close-to-the-heart meaning for Bergkamp.

“One unique thing about my background is that I was raised by a parent with a physical disability,” she says. “My father had muscular dystrophy, and seeing his lived experiences, I understand there are so many people in our community with barriers to accessing transportation. A large portion of our community struggles with mobility in general just to access things in their lives that most of us take for granted. I think viewing public transportation through that lens makes me unique as a leader.”

Intercity Transit Ingenuity and Collaboration During COVID-19

When public transportation nearly came to a stop with the March 2020 COVID closures, Intercity Transit and its partners went to work, making essential trips continue. During those early months Gilman was on the phone with Bergkamp, who oversaw operations at the time, and meeting with staff to talk about plans and how to move forward. Questions presented about social distancing, remote meetings and proactive health measures.

Intercity Transit coach operators wore masks during COVID-19 precautions (coach operator Jesse Tillmon shown here), and passengers were able to enter through rear doors easily with the already in-place zero-fare admission. Photo courtesy: Intercity Transit

When bound to reservation-style service, IT worked with social service agencies to facilitate scheduling for people with communication barriers. Discussion between drivers and labor unions was also an important step in keeping lines of communication open to hear concerns from frontline workers to create effective operational strategies and safety procedures.

While service never completely stopped, a delicate balancing act began of protecting workers and riders while striving to maintain public access to transportation. They masked-up, discussed vaccinations, and workers stayed home when they didn’t feel well.

“We had just committed to this strategic plan of transforming public transit and had literally just weeks before implemented the zero-fare pilot, so we were already figuring out rear door boarding just by happenstance,” Gilman says. “There were a whole bunch of things like that. It was also an amazing opportunity for our planning staff to be able to focus on the next changes because everything stopped for a moment, which is different from very incremental changes while the airplane is flying.”

Of the many COVID-19 travel and service health precautions, routine cleaning of touchable surfaces on busses going through the Intercity Transit downtown Olympia station was a practice that began with early pandemic precautions but has been kept due to its value of keeping riders safe. Photo courtesy: Intercity Transit

Intercity Transit Emerges from COVID

Exchanging front door greetings with drivers is back, and hiring has been continuous for more than a year with often more than one driver training class running concurrently.

“It’s helpful to know where we’ve been as an agency and work with a wonderful board of directors to envision the future of Intercity Transit,” Bergkamp says. “Before COVID happened, we had a very robust long-range plan and improved sales tax funding to enhance and improve our services, but we had to put that on pause. But, during that time, none of us lost the vision of transforming transit in our community. What’s been most exciting for us recently is we are making excellent progress to get back on track. In September we will be back to 100% of our pre-COVID service levels.”

Employees have moved into the new Intercity Transit operations facility on Martin Way, which was under construction during most of COVID, and everyone is glad to be able to celebrate events together on site. Photo courtesy: Intercity Transit

Work-life balance remains important, as well as ‘Stay home if you feel sick’ to promote health for employees and the community. Many remote jobs have returned, and remote meeting skills have translated into more accessible information for the public and employees.

Keeping pace with adjustments and growth, the agency is on the brink of a 100% pre-COVID operations level. With new General Manager Emily Bergkamp having been through the challenges and successes with the rest of the team, Intercity Transit is keeping Thurston County moving.

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