Friday, January 19 , 2018, 12:35 am | Fog/Mist 51º


After 40 Years, MTD’s Sherrie Fisher Says Next Stop, Retirement

Longtime general manager reflects on the serendipitous route she’s traveled since she was hired as district’s first woman bus driver

Two years.

That’s the length of time Sherrie Fisher thought she’d be with the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District when she started working in 1974.

Forty years later, Fisher has moved from being the organization’s first woman bus driver to being its general manager. She will officially retire Friday.

“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years,” she told Noozhawk at MTD’s Olive Street offices. “It’s been such an honor.”

Fisher talked about beginning with the organization as a 27-year-old woman, driving a bus with two small children at home.

She got into driving buses after several previous job interviews failed when employers found out she was a mom with young children. The interviewing process was much different back then, with employers asking questions that would now be considered gender discrimination.

“They wanted to know who would stay with the kids if they get sick ...,” she recalled. “After that, you’d really feel the whole interview going down hill.”

That’s why she took a job as a school bus driver in San Diego “which was pretty common for women at the time,” she said, and was able to drive the bus while her children were in school.

Fisher later moved to the South Coast, where she was encouraged to try out her skills as a transit driver.

“At the time, there were no women doing that,” she said. “I decided I’d try anyway.”

In May 1974, she was hired by MTD.

“All the men I worked with were welcoming to somebody new,” she said, even though at 27, “I probably seemed like a kid to them.”

On the bus routes in Santa Barbara, she discovered a variety of people who use the bus system, and “that’s part of the treasure.”

Although her co-workers were supportive, Fisher recalled some less receptive encounters when she first began driving.

On one occasion, a man boarded the bus, frantically looking for the bus driver, even though Fisher was sitting in the driver’s seat.

The man was incredulous that Fisher was the driver until “somebody behind him said, ‘I rode with her a while ago and she didn’t run into anything’,” Fisher laughed.

Fisher also recalled a couple of elderly women complaining that Fisher had “taken the job away from a man.”

“So it was a real different feel because it was so new,” she said, even though she’d still pass by school buses driven by women with presumably no pushback.

After five years of driving, Fisher made the jump to management, somewhat serendipitously.

One morning, Fisher discovered she had a spider bite on her leg, and though she didn’t feel like she could drive in her condition, she asked her supervisors how else she could help around the office.

“Eventually, that parlayed into an opportunity to come into management,” she said. “You never know how life will change for you.”

Since then, she’s held most of the positions within MTD, with the exception of accounting and maintenance department.

The organization has also changed tremendously since Fisher started, when the district had just 12 buses and 19 drivers.

Now, it has 108 buses and more than 150 drivers.

The system sees about 8 million passenger trips year, and in a community of 200,000 people “that’s a pretty high number,” Fisher said.

One of the biggest changes for MTD has been the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990 and requires buses to be accessible to people in wheelchairs and door-to-door service for locals who can’t ride them.

An electric vehicle fleet was added and includes the waterfront shuttle and other smaller lines across town.

Moving into the future, the district is dealing with increased ridership of students, even bringing on several articulated “bendy buses” to handle the ridership.

Students from UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College amount to 2 million trips annually for the district, not including riders from the high schools and other local schools.

“That’s a challenge because on a great day, transit makes about 40 percent of the cost, so any time we need to increase service, we need to find a way to make up that 60 percent,” she said. “On the other hand, we love having the students ride all the time.”

MTD will also be upgrading the district’s technology so each bus can be tracked to let users know if it is running on time and how many minutes it will be until it arrives at stops in real time.

Jerry Estrada, who has been with the district for 25 years, will take over as general manager Saturday, with Fisher’s last day being Friday.

Walking through MTD’s offices and break room for drivers and mechanics, Fisher greets at least 10 people she runs into by their first names, and receives a warm reception from each person.

She cites people who have been “rock steady,” like Carl Flores, MTD’s morning supervisor, who comes in every day at 3 a.m. to get the place running and has done that for more than three decades.

“It’s been an honor to work with these people,” she said.

As she packs up her office, “it’s been a flood of memories,” she admitted.

As for her plans, she’s going to Belize with her oldest son and his family and will be spending time with her other four children and five grandchildren.

After that, she’s going to her 50th high school reunion in Minnesota and is “totally looking forward to seeing my high school comrades.”

She’ll still be living in Carpinteria and admits she probably won’t be able to stay away from the local scene.

“The rest of it I’ll figure it out as I go,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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