Phil Washington, RTD’s former empire builder, looks to repeat his success at DIA

While Washington carries some baggage from his time in Los Angeles, Mayor Hancock is confident in his pick to lead the airport.
6 min. read
Phil Washington, candidate to become CEO of Denver International Airport, sits in an office in the City and County Building. June 23, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

When Phil Washington took over as general manager and CEO of the Regional Transportation District in 2009, the Denver-area transit agency's ambitious FasTracks rail expansion plan was sputtering. So Washington started to repeat a new rallying cry.

"Build as much as you can, as fast as you can, until it's all done," Washington said in an interview last week.

By the time Washington left RTD in 2015, about three-quarters of the FasTracks program was open or under construction. He's since overseen another major public transportation and highway expansion, in Southern California, where he ran L.A. Metro.

His track record is a big reason why Mayor Michael Hancock has chosen Washington to take over the top job at Denver International Airport, where longtime CEO Kim Day is retiring. 

"Quite frankly, I wanted the best manager and the best leader I could find," Hancock said in an interview. "And it's Phil Washington."

It's a crucial time for DIA, one of the biggest economic engines in the state. A massive renovation of the Great Hall is more than $100 million over budget and delayed by years, echoing where RTD was more than a decade ago. Hancock said Washington will be able to get that back on track.

"I have tremendous confidence in putting them in the hands of Phil Washington," Hancock said of the Great Hall revamp and a parallel gate expansion project. "Because I know he's going to advance them, and advance them with a great deal of commitment and sense of urgency to get them on time and on budget."

Washington would earn an annual salary of $266,143, one of the highest among Denver public employees.

The TSA checkpoint at Denver International Airport. Nov, 21, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Washington is carrying some baggage from his time in Los Angeles.

An L.A. Metro employee last fall publicly alleged that the agency had awarded a series of no-bid contracts totaling more than $800,000 to a nonprofit with ties to a board member. That nonprofit ran a sexual harassment reporting hotline advertised on L.A. Metro's system, which, the employee said, was little used and cost taxpayers some $8,000 per call.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff is investigating L.A. Metro over the matter, a local newspaper reported. However, the timing and circumstances of the inquiry "raised concerns of political retaliation," the newspaper observed.

Though Washington's name appeared in a search warrant from the sheriff's office, he denies any wrongdoing and said, as far as he knows, he is not the subject of a criminal investigation. Washington said the complaint is coming from an employee upset over being disciplined for poor performance.

"I cannot please everyone," said Washington, a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army. "I grew up in the military under the command of General Colin Powell. He used to say good leadership means pissing people off sometimes. And that's what happens."

The hotline was a "great success" for L.A. Metro, Washington said. The agency has some 30,000 to 40,000 contracts a year, he said, and many -- including the one for the hotline -- do not rise to the level of the chief executive.

"I'm running an organization with a budget of $8 billion," he said. "That was not in my purview."

Hancock said his team has vetted Washington and stands by him. Former colleagues also support him.

"While I can't really address that specific case, what I can say is that Phil Washington is a man of tremendous integrity," said Nadine Lee, who worked with Washington at RTD in Denver and was his chief of staff in Los Angeles. Denverite reached Lee, who is the incoming president and CEO at Dallas Area Rapid Transit, independently.

A DIA-bound train pulls up at RTD's Central Park Station, March 19, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Washington's former bosses and colleagues describe him as a confident leader and decision-maker.

Washington is an "incredible doer," who was instrumental in kicking FasTracks into gear, said former RTD board member Kent Bagley.

"But for his leadership while at RTD, it's questionable whether some of the programs that were initiated, especially the FasTracks program, would have been completed," Bagley said.

RTD partnered with private industry and landed more than a billion dollars in federal money to help get projects moving, though four are still incomplete. RTD also took out massive loans that now eat up a majority of FasTracks sales tax revenue every year.

"I have no regrets," Washington told me in a separate interview in March, pointing out that RTD has already restructured some debt to lessen that load. "I had to do what I had to do."

Washington changed the mindset of RTD's employees by challenging them to accomplish "something that was probably seemingly impossible to most people," said Lee, who was a FasTracks project manager.

"My job was to get things unstuck," Lee said. "So I kind of followed his lead and worked the same way that he did in terms of trying to work with a number of people to come to a consensus."

But Washington was also comfortable making decisions independently, said Lance Longenbohn, president of the largest RTD employee union, the ATU-1001.

"He would not let you get in the way of what he felt needed to be done," Longenbohn said. "I don't think anybody at the union could specifically speak to the interaction between him and his staff, but we never got the impression that he was a consensus builder."

Washington was well-liked by mechanics and operators, said Longenbohn, and even once intervened to resolve a paycheck issue for a union member.

"We went around and around with all of the upper management," Longenbohn said. "It got to Phil's attention, and he said, 'Stop. Nobody do anything else until you cut this guy's check.' He was always a straight shooter."

Former RTD board member Jeff Walker said he spoke with rank-and-file employees as part of Washington's annual review.

"They said when he came in, there was a different feel to the agency about their roles and their importance," Walker said. "They felt more valued."

Construction work at Denver International Airport, Oct. 23, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Washington says accelerating construction projects at DIA is a top priority.

He also wants to encourage real estate development near DIA and use the airport to help get young people to get into the aviation industry.

"I'm psyched to be here," Washington said. "I could have went to any number of different places in the transportation space. And I decided to come back to Denver."

Washington will appear before a Denver City Council committee later this week. A vote to confirm him could happen in July.

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