Brent McKinney moved us

by Jim Longworth

Brent McKinney officially retires at the end of this month as PART’s executive director. In fact, he’ll retire as the only executive director PART has ever had, and his legacy will be one of promoting a better quality of life through transportation.

McKinney is a lifelong resident of Surry County, and a graduate of NC State University and Purdue University with degrees in civil engineering. He began his career with NCDOT where he served as urban traffic engineer, transportation systems planner, and design review engineer. In 1979 Brent went to work for the city of Winston-Salem as traffic engineer, but soon after was named as the Twin City’s first director of transportation, a post he held for two decades.

Then, in 2001, McKinney answered the call to become the founding executive director of the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation.

Along the way, Brent has received numerous awards and recognitions including the Marble Hensley Award, the Robert Dodge award, the Moss Lifetime Service Award, and the NC Governor’s Award. He also serves on several international transportation committees, and was past president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ Southern District. The irony is that I’ve known Brent for many years, yet I had to do research to find out about these awards. That’s because Brent never told me about them. He’s not the bragging type. In fact, it’s been like pulling teeth to get him to appear on my “Triad Today” television program over the years, because he does not seek public attention. Most of the time he would tell me to use the segment to honor dedicated public officials from throughout PART’s 10-county service area, of which there are many.

Speaking of which, it was no small task for Brent to oversee a regional transportation network that has had to accommodate the diverse needs of those ten counties. Compounding the demands of his job was a general unwillingness by most member localities to adequately fund PART’s express bus service.

PART board members have known since the organization’s inception, that it was not set up to be self-sustaining. They knew that fees would need to be levied in each locality in order to keep bus fares low while expanding routes which would connect the region, and make it possible for more than 50,000 people each month to get to work and to doctor’s appointments. Yet year after year, most elected officials throughout the Piedmont Triad couldn’t see that access to employment and healthcare were a top priority. And so, not one county agreed to increase their vehicle registration fees to insure that PART could accomplish its mission in the black. It is a testament to McKinney’s administrative skills that, despite being underfunded, he has been able to keep buses running without curtailing most services.

Whether PART will remain a viable regional transit system after McKinney leaves is anyone’s guess, but either way, he will have managed to educate hundreds of thousands of people about the benefits of riding PART buses, including how it helps to clean up our air, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and save families a ton of money on gasoline and car maintenance. In addition to being an educator, Brent was also a facilitator, and spent his career bringing people together. For example, he spearheaded regional summits that brought hundreds of public- and private-sector leaders together to share ideas about how to plan sustainable communities. And, Brent was a motivator, too, convincing people to use public transportation which made their lives easier and more productive.

Brent McKinney spent his life getting people where they wanted to go. Now, the man who moved so many people will himself move on. As he told the news media recently, “My wife and I plan to travel a lot, which I guess is appropriate for someone who has spent his life in transportation.”

Brent McKinney is a role model for what a public servant should be, and we are fortunate that he traveled our way.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).