Kimberley Minkel, ’88: Moving Transportation Forward in WNY
May 15, 2012 by Lisa McMahon, '09
When Kimberley Minkel, ’88, accepted a job 25 years ago as a researcher for an incubator company focused on bioremediation, a new technology at that time, she thought it would be something to do while she studied for the MCATs and made her plans to attend medical school. What she didn’t know was that the job would change her career focus, ultimately leading her to the position of executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
“Never did I dream that I would end up in transportation,” she says. “What’s ironic is that my grandfather and my great-grandfather were in transportation, so I think they would be amazed if they were alive today to see where I ended up.”
That first job, isolating the bacteria used in cleaning up oil spills at gas stations, piqued her interest in environmental health and safety, a field that she did not know existed until then. From there, Kimberley went on to take managerial positions with local and regional organizations, building an impressive résumé that included experience in the environmental and safety regulations business and compliance managing. She also married her college sweetheart, Mark Shepard, ’88, and had a son. In 2002, while she was pregnant with her daughter, she joined the NFTA as its director of health, safety, and environmental quality. This role gave her the opportunity to “be physically in every area of the Authority” and gain a comprehensive view of how the organization worked.
So when Larry Meckler, longtime executive director of the NFTA, announced that he was going to retire in 2010, Kimberley knew she had the knowledge and experience to take on this leadership role. After a national search, the NFTA’s Board of Commissioners unanimously selected her to fill the position. She is the first woman to hold the post in the organization’s 45-year history.
She took the helm at a tumultuous time for the NFTA. Budget concerns, increased focus on the environment, and a “mass exodus” of personnel, many of whom held key roles, were issues that needed to be tackled immediately. But she has always enjoyed a challenge. Some of her most memorable professors at Niagara were those whose classes were considered by most to be difficult, and she says she likes going into an impossible situation and trying to work her way through it. “I guess I like puzzles and I really felt that I could do the job,” she says.
The job is a substantial one. As executive director, Kimberley heads an organization that owns and operates the Niagara Falls International Airport, the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the Port of Buffalo, and the Niagara Frontier Transit Metro System, Inc., which provides service on 76 bus routes and one light rail line, carrying about 27 million passengers annually.
Despite her extensive knowledge of the organization, Kimberley admits her first year was a difficult one. One of her first actions was to put together what she calls “five focus areas.” The areas centered on people, both the NFTA’s employees and the community it serves; economic sustainability; quality improvements; environmental sustainability; and community partnerships.
“We’ve had a lot of success in many areas,” she says, noting that new training and succession plans have been implemented, the budget has been balanced, and quality improvements have been made. In addition, the NFTA is forming a citizens advisory panel to engage the community on a regular basis so that continuous improvement can be made.
One of the things that Kimberley is most proud of accomplishing during her time at the NFTA is the subsurface-engineered wetlands that were established to reclaim spent deicing fluid in storm water runoff at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
“At most airports, ours included, when you spray the planes, the deicing fluid just goes off into the neighboring creeks and streams,” she explains. “We were the first in the nation and still the only one to put in a treatment system using manmade wetlands.”
The project took about five years to complete. Because it was new technology, Kimberley did extensive research (which included a trip to Alaska to learn about the wetland treatment technology that state used in its strip mining industry) and treatability studies to test the process on a small scale before the system was installed in 2009.
The area appears to be a grassy field, and that’s the beauty of it, says Kimberley, who notes that most treatment facilities have a distinctive look and smell. And it saves the NFTA half a million dollars every year. In fact, the project has been so successful that it received the Diamond Award in the Environmental Category by the New York branch of the American Council of Engineering Companies and the national ACEC’s Honor Award. The EPA is also looking at it as a model of best practice.
Today, from her office on the sixth floor of the building on Ellicott St. in Buffalo, where the NFTA’s fleet of buses come and go, the soft-spoken, petite woman reflects on the 15 months she has served in the NFTA’s top spot. The things she likes best (“The diversity. We’re planes, trains, buses, boats. It’s always something different.”), those that keep her up at night (“Tragedy. I always worry about what can go wrong. Before, I was responsible for risk management so I always do the ‘what if.’”), and how she prepares for her day (“Usually when I’m driving to work or the night before, I lay out a plan as to where I’m going to focus my time and energy for the day, and then I consider it a success if I can cross off half the items on the list.”) Although her attention is focused on running all aspects of the NFTA, her particular interest in the environment remains a priority.
“Public transportation is an extension of environmental,” she says, noting that when people take the NFTA’s buses and rail service, it reduces the region’s carbon footprint. “My goal is to make the world better as a result of our activities.”