Alumnus rides successful law, political careers to Metro Transit chief
John Nations doesn’t claim to be “a transit guy.” Sure, the University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus, BSPA 1985, oversees Metro Transit, which operates the MetroLink light rail system and MetroBus. But for Nations, who became Metro’s president and chief executive officer in 2010, it’s always been about community improvement.
“I spent a huge portion of my life promoting economic development and job creation, which in turn leads to a higher quality of life,” he says. “Public transportation is an essential element of a successful economic development strategy.”
Nations grew up in Webster Groves, Mo. His mother was a regular volunteer, and his father was a lawyer, mayor of Webster Groves and chairman of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. His community-conscious parents had a simple philosophy that Nations shares.
“If you want to make your community a better place, get up and go do it,” he says.
Nations and all but one of his six siblings took classes at UMSL.
“UMSL then, as now, was a very attractive opportunity to get a good education at an affordable price,” he says.
Nations began as a business major with an eye toward law school and a general interest in politics. He switched majors when UMSL began offering a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He was among UMSL’s first to earn the degree.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Nations worked as a lawyer and entered the political arena. He ran for the Chesterfield City Council in 1994 on the platform of developing the municipality’s valley. This was a year after it suffered devastating floods and his position proved unpopular.
“I went down in a landslide,” Nations recalls.
Nevertheless, his vision for the valley as a mixed-use tax base materialized with his help, and he won a council seat in 2000. Nations was elected mayor a year later and held the position until stepping down to join Metro. In between, he had his first major interaction with the transit agency when plans were announced to cut MetroBus services west of Interstate 270.
Chesterfield was home to 26,000 jobs, Nations says, and many employees relied on the buses. So he reached a deal with Metro in which Chesterfield pledged $173,000 to keep some of the buses running. That helped bridge the gap until St. Louis County voters approved a half-cent transit sales tax increase, a campaign Nations led.
Funding, he says, remains the biggest challenge for Metro, which also oversees Metro Call-A-Ride, St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill., the Gateway Arch trams and the Gateway Arch Riverboats. The silver lining is that demand for public transportation appears to be increasing.
Nations regularly rides MetroLink from Metro’s headquarters in downtown St. Louis to meetings throughout the region. And if one of those meetings happens to be near UMSL, he can take advantage of two MetroLink stations on campus to visit his son, Jack. He is a junior education major and Pierre Laclede Honors College student.
“I’m delighted to see what the university has become, what it means to the region now and to know it’s my alma mater,” he says. “It’s something I’m proud of, and I’m proud my son sees the same value I did in receiving an education from UMSL.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of UMSL Magazine.
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