By Bob Highfill Donna DeMartino sees a future when every high school and college student in Stockton has free access to countywide bus services. DeMartino knows the value of education, and she knows truancy would be reduced if students had safe, reliable transportation. Big ideas are nothing new for DeMartino, the Chief Executive Officer of San Joaquin Rapid Transit District. In her 18 years with RTD, DeMartino has implemented numerous programs, initiatives and services that have helped thousands of residents make their way through life every single day. “I have been so proud to be part of so many important changes,” said DeMartino, who has been with San Joaquin RTD since 2001 after spending more than 14 years with Sacramento Regional Transit. “We built our downtown transit center and moved-in in 2007. Before, people just waited on the street.” The downtown transit center on East Weber Avenue in Stockton has covered waiting areas with police presence for safety and provides a convenient access point that connects riders with nearly every route in the system. Some 8,000 to 10,000 residents use the facility daily. Other improvements DeMartino has helped spearhead include the 135,000 square-foot, $52 million, state-of-the-art Regional Transportation Center, which opened in 2015 and replaced an antiquated facility at Lindsay Street and Wilson Way. The Regional Transportation Center consolidates RTD’s operations, maintenance and administrative functions and also is used by the California Department of Corrections to maintain its fleet of vehicles. DeMartino has helped RTD add and improve numerous transfer stations that have aided efficiency and provided passengers with more amenities and greater safety, including the Mall Transfer Station on Yokuts Avenue in Stockton, the Hammer Transfer Station at Hammer Lane and Lower Sacramento Road, and the new Union Transfer Station on Union Street between First and Second streets near the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds and Rancho San Miguel Market serving south Stockton. DeMartino said about 204,000 people are projected to travel through the new Union Transfer Station on an annual basis. “Not only is it a new transfer station that will anchor some new development there,” said DeMartino, “but we’ve put electric bus charging stations there, so our Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Airport Way areas are now operated by electric vehicles.”
DeMartino said she’s proud of the new Union Transfer Station and that some of RTD’s first all-electric buses are serving the community along Martin Luther King Boulevard and south Stockton. She said RTD’s collateral and web site are available in Spanish.
DeMartino has been committed to help clean the air by leading RTD’s transition from high-polluting diesel vehicles to a fleet of low- and zero emission vehicles. In 2013, RTD launched California’s first 100 percent battery-electric buses. In 2017, RTD introduced the nation’s first all-electric Bus Rapid Transit route with four zero-emission electric buses. And recently, two routes (47 and 49) in south Stockton went to all-electric buses and are recharged at the Union Transfer Station and the Downtown Transit Center.
DeMartino has developed and her team has implemented new routes and services, including a third Metro Express BRT route in 2012, Midtown BRT Corridor Express and MLK BRT Corridor Express routes and purchased six more all-electric buses for BRT Corridor last year. And last March, RTD launched its Van Go on-demand service throughout San Joaquin County.
In late May, RTD hosted a fundraiser with the goal of providing free bus transportation for every high school and college student. Presently, RTD is used by as many as 4,000 Stockton Unified students a day and two new routes to Edison and Franklin high schools have been added. The initiative would take $1.6 million and would start with a two-year pilot program where students would be gifted free bus passes to use to and from school, after-school programs, jobs or wherever they need to be. RTD quoted a similar pilot program in Minneapolis that contributed to a 23 percent decline in absenteeism and improved grades.
“We know transportation is a big challenge for students,” DeMartino said. “I hope by providing free transportation we can encourage them in their academic progress.”
DeMartino holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and a certificate in Construction Management from UC Davis. But she had to put her education on hold temporarily following high school when she started a family. In time, DeMartino found herself a single parent with six kids ages 6 to 13. She worked full-time as a teacher and part-time as a bus operator with Sacramento Regional Transit. She said she didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her kids, but she made the most of the time they did have together.
“It was not easy, but I thought it was important for my children to see that I was willing to work hard to support them,” DeMartino said.
DeMartino worked her way up with Sacramento Regional Transit and was part of the team that launched Sacramento’s Light Rail project. In 2001, she accepted a top-level position with San Joaquin RTD and was thrust into the role of CEO almost immediately when her predecessor passed away unexpectedly. Shortly thereafter, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 occurred. DeMartino was new to Stockton and new to San Joaquin RTD. She said it was a surreal time in her life, but she relied on her faith and her family to get through and lead RTD.
“It’s rewarding to see the tangible results of your energies and actions,” DeMartino said. “I work with a great group of men and women who have accomplished a lot in the 18 years I’ve been here.”
DeMartino said she has a sign in her living room that reads: “You never know how strong you can be, until being strong is all you can do.”
She’s making sure RTD will be a strong contributor to the community for a long time.