CARTA director stepping down, reflects on decade running Chattanooga's public transit agency

Staff Photo by Andrew Schwartz / CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano poses in the agency board room Thursday.
Staff Photo by Andrew Schwartz / CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano poses in the agency board room Thursday.

The executive director of Chattanooga's public transportation system will retire later this year.

After about a decade heading up CARTA, Lisa Maragnano will go into early retirement by this summer, a move approved Thursday by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority board of directors.

The board approved CARTA Chief Operating Officer Jeff Smith to serve in an interim role after Maragnano steps down, until a permanent replacement is found.

It acted at the recommendation of CARTA's attorney, Allen McCallie, who said he consulted with Smith and Maragnano on the matter.

By phone Thursday afternoon, Maragnano said she had some health issues -- nothing major, she said -- and she felt it was time for someone with a fresh perspective. She wanted to make sure there was time for somebody to train under her, just as she trained under her predecessor, Tom Dugan, who ran the agency for decades.

One thing Maragnano learned early on: "You have to pay attention and listen to what's going on and not just automatically assume what people think."

After starting out driving buses in college, Maragnano's career had, before Chattanooga, taken place in the mass-transit-heavy Boston-area. Upon her arrival here in 2011, she realized she needed to temper and adjust her vision.

Personal vehicles where she came from were not a right of passage or a symbol of self-sufficiency in the way they are here, she said.

"I didn't understand that," she said. "I had to readjust my way of thinking."

CARTA has expanded fixed line bus routes during her tenure, and she's tried to educate people about how buses, for example, can be a nice way to get to work, since you can drink your coffee and read or respond to emails, she said. In her dream world, people wouldn't even have to think about it, she said. Zoning, funding, sidewalks and other public policy choices would conspire such that people could just go out seamlessly to the bus stop and know that they could get to their destination soon.

  photo  Staff Photo by Andrew Schwartz / CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano poses in the agency board room Thursday.

But she's also tried to establish programs tailored to Chattanooga as it is, she said. In her tenure, the agency built up the CARTA on-demand program, which in its latest incarnation allows people in certain areas to call a ride to a nearby intersection from an app.

Another idea was the creation of a transit center that could be a hub for many buses. She said the idea went through several studies.

"We're just going to keep pushing the vision," she said. "We're not done yet."

(READ MORE: CARTA is riding the green wave with new electric buses)

On Thursday, CARTA board members watched a brief animated video outlining Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's plan, via the state Department of Transportation, to reduce traffic congestion -- a plan that emphasizes public-private partnerships that might speed up lagging projects and special lanes where drivers can pay a fee to bypass traffic jams.

After the video ended, multiple board members said that the narrator in the video made no mention of public transportation. There was a note of optimism, however, because the animation depicting the envisioned paid-fast lane showed not just cars but also a bus.

Early next week, Maragnano will head to Nashville for a meeting of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, where she said members will finalize a vision for their talk with state Commissioner of Transportation Butch Eley. She said the group's presentation for Eley is not yet finalized but that one request will likely be that public buses get free use of those lanes.

Thursday's board meeting listed a December ridership of 71,716, a slight increase over the same month in 2021.

Smith, CARTA's chief operating officer, said the transit authority recently gained three drivers and lost one, bringing the total to about 85 fixed route drivers.

McCallie, attorney for CARTA's board, called it the best employment report the authority had in years -- a recent period defined by labor shortages.

In the plan laid out by McCallie and unanimously approved by the board, Maragnano would retire by June 30 and stay on for about a year in a consultant capacity while she helps train her replacement.

Board Chairman John Bilderback called the moment bittersweet, and several board members thanked Maragnano for her service.

Maragnano's future after CARTA remains uncertain.

"I've never done anything in my whole career except for transit," she said.

She'd love to work with animals. And if it comes to it, she said, she still has her commercial driver's license.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at or 423-757-6431.

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