Bart Mueller, 61, has been the executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority since 2007. He heads the organization that operates the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City International Airport. Mueller announced Thursday that he will step down as the agency’s head in July.
Q: SJTA data have shown that no more than 2 percent of visitors to Atlantic City come by plane. Do you see that percentage ever increasing?
A: It’s going to have to increase. I still think the charter market is going to play a big role here. Atlantic City is either second or third of the largest charter markets in the entire country. So I think the charter service will complement the everyday service. I think bringing people in here through the charter market, through scheduled service for conventions and for travelers — as we market the city you will see a natural growth of inbound passengers. This is the fourth governor that I’ve worked for. He is the first governor that’s shouted out our Atlantic City International Airport, and I think that’s huge.
Q: Given Revel’s opening, the creation of the Atlantic City Tourism District and the new marketing campaign from the Atlantic City Alliance, have you had discussions as to how the SJTA might partner with them?
A: I meet with (Casino Reinvestment Development Authority) Executive Director John Palmieri. I’ve met with (Atlantic City Alliance CEO) Liza Cartmell to talk about the Alliance and how SJTA can work together with the Alliance and CRDA. Those discussions are ongoing. Right now we want to do whatever it takes to get more people here in Atlantic City. We are waiting for those folks to define what that is, and we will work together with them to do our very best to make sure that happens. I think (the airport expansion) is a quantum leap, and now it is just defining what the customer wants. I’m talking about not only the properties but also the Alliance and the CRDA.
Q: An expansion project that will be unveiled at the airport this summer will increase the number of gates from seven to 10 and will include an international flight processing center. How do you see that enhancing operations at the airport?
A: As these new properties come along — specifically Revel and the others who are really trying to change the model — I think the international customer is going to be important. Certainly from the aspect of conventions, for the Tourism District and the (Atlantic City) Convention Center to truly attract tier-one conventions, they have to be flown right here. They can’t be flown to Philadelphia or Newark and bused in. They are not going to get the top-caliber conventions that way.
Q: Where do you stand as far as international flights are concerned?
A: We’re in top-end discussions with Spirit (Airlines) regarding direct Caribbean service from ACY. I think Spirit hopes to make ACY (a feature city). Spirit has always been a huge part of our life down here regarding our casual market and our tourism market, so we will continue to work with that and make sure that happens. Hopefully, we will have an announcement some time at the end of this year for three or four cities. Of course it’s also what the customer wants. We’ll sit down and talk with our marketing partners in the Alliance and the CRDA, and the properties themselves. They’ll define who their customer is, and we will work together with them to bring those customers here.
Q: You have faced some obstacles in terms of retaining carriers at the airport. What is the primary challenge for Atlantic City International specifically? Are you working to recruit new carriers, and how?
A: Our biggest problem here is we are wedged between two major hub airports (Philadelphia International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport). All that being said, there are also opportunities here regarding some of the obvious problems that are going on in Philadelphia and Newark. They have huge capacity problems there. They have a hard time with really keeping that level of customer satisfaction at a high level. We have to begin to think outside of the box.
(Director of Marketing and Communications) Sharon Gordon and Airport Director Tom Rafter and their entire teams have done a very good job at actively seeking out airlines. We are talking to other airlines right now. Tom just came back from a conference — I believe in Tampa — and met with three or four airlines in Tampa to produce some new service for us in new cities. So we are actively at it.
We are never going to be a hub airport. We are not going to be Philadelphia. We’re not going to be Newark Liberty. We don’t want to be that, God forbid. But we do want to be a regional airport for South Jersey that serves South Jersey and Atlantic City — to probably do about 3 million passengers a year. That is what our master plan calls for. I think at that level we still keep the customer satisfied, we still have the ACY brand being known for our service delivery.
Q: Last year, AirTran announced it would leave the airport when its subsidy ran out. It was the fourth time a subsidized carrier pulled out. Do you still believe public money should be used to subsidize carriers?
A: I don’t know if public money should be used, but I certainly think other incentives regarding marketing dollars certainly can be a big incentive regarding how you market the product. I think there are other incentives besides money that can encourage airlines to come here. You have the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — who is the largest airport operator in the world — having conversations about ACY with some of their incumbents. That is an incentive in itself. I think there’s a better way to build a mouse trap. I think we are going to figure that out, and eventually we are going to have new service here.
Q: Your recent management audit states that the airport operated at a loss of more than $4 million in 2010. In comparison to other similarly-sized airports, its operating costs are relatively high with revenue relatively low. Why do you outsource airport operations and maintenance, and can you continue to sustain that?
A: I think that if you look at the governor’s privatization report that he published, one of the things that is noted, and recognized, and actually shouted out is the privatization of our work force here. As we deal with pension liabilities, as we deal with other benefits paid to the employees, it makes better sense for us as a public agency as we try to reduce our overhead liability to look at the strategic outsourcing of our work force. You saw us do it with our toll collectors last year.
Q: On the Atlantic City Expressway, how close are you to implementing automated toll collection?
A: Now with people having options of other destinations to go to — if they get stuck in traffic, they may think twice about coming back again. We have to make sure that customer who is attracted to this new destination — that the governor and the Senate and Legislature have committed to — we have to make sure we do our part to make sure this facility is 100 percent. The way we do that is to make sure people don’t get stuck in traffic. There is money in the bank this year ready to go. We are just waiting for the green light (from the Governor’s Office), and once we get the green light, we can have this deployed within 12 to 14 months. And I believe we will be first. As they say in the Marine Corps, we’re locked and loaded.
Q: Two years ago an audit from the state Inspector General’s Office found a “shocking” lack of oversight in financial accountability at the SJTA. What has changed since then in terms of policy and oversight, and what might the authority have learned from that situation?
A: I think what’s changed is that we are a much more fiscally responsible, tighter operation. We have placed internal controls across the board. We actually appointed a full-time internal compliance officer that manages a matrix of 162 different policies, procedures and executive orders. We are very, very serious about that report. The good news about that report is it came at a time when … I was not the executive director. So it gave me the ability to come in and actually make some changes that I wanted to make.
What we learned from that is … it’s a different day; it’s a new day. There is a different level of scrutiny now with all public officials and all public entities, and we have to rise to the occasion. I think one thing we have to do is we have to run this more like a business with accountability: performance agreements, evaluations, ongoing review of our internal policies. If you pay attention to little things, the big things will take care of themselves.
Q: Part of your mission is supporting transportation services throughout other South Jersey counties. What projects are on your radar for the future in terms of transportation services?
A: To tell you the truth, I think this authority has never met its potential. If you look up what we are able to do — what we were actually created to do — we have never grown up. If you go back to when the Atlantic City Expressway was built, there was supposed to be two expressways built — the Atlantic City Expressway and the Cape May Expressway, an east-west corridor and a north-south corridor. The Atlantic City Expressway got built. The Cape May Expressway did not. The Cape May expressway became Route 55. If you look at Route 55, there is a project … that would be right in our wheelhouse. We could have an active role in taking Route 55 and making that the Cape May Expressway.
Think about what our expressway would look like today with a north-south connection and an east-west connection. Also, from an emergency services standpoint, look at what happened with (Hurricane Irene). People from the barrier islands still have to travel up the (Garden State) Parkway ... and come back up towards Philadelphia. That’s a problem. That’s a huge problem. So if you look at what federal dollars might be available ... the point I’m trying to make is this is what we do. We are a small authority, but this is something where we can actually lend a hand for the greater good of South Jersey because our whole mission is South Jersey.
Q: Why do you think the authority never grew up?
A: I think we have always been in the shadow of the (New Jersey Turnpike Authority). When you talk about Atlantic City as a destination, our roadway is a whole different mission. The turnpike has trucks upon trucks upon trucks — and tons of tolls. We don’t want trucks on our roadway. So if a tourist is going down to visit a property, if mom and dad are going down with the kids in the car, they don’t want an 18-wheeler next to them. That’s how different we are because our missions are different. Our goals and objectives are different from any other roadway. They are a toll authority. We are a transportation authority who happens to own an airport. Our whole mission down here is different. I think having people — and having your readers — understand that is very important. We are not the average bear. We were created to do something very special and very specific for South Jersey. I think we should be utilized more and asked to do more, and we would do it.
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