How many people can claim to have had a hand in creating something that has benefited millions of people? Linda Spock can. The Wharton alumna played a key role in the task force that put in place E-ZPass, the electronic tolling system that has clocked tens of billions of transactions.
Spock was a transportation official in 1990 for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey when she became involved in the early stages of a multi-agency group charged with choosing the technology that is now the national model.
It has been called an unprecedented cooperative effort. Coasting through the tollbooth at an easy 15 mph (or even faster in high-speed express lanes) is something drivers take for granted now, but at the time, the technology was new—and focusing the interests of several agencies on a single goal was not without its hurdles. There’s no question, though, that the inner satisfaction of doing something for the public good left Spock feeling this was the best possible career track.
“I hope I can be, if not an inspiration, then an example for students of how you can find incredible challenges and rewards in the public sector,” says Spock (néeMarine). “I look back and think how lucky I was to have a direct impact on billions of people. Students today would probably find it hard to believe, but we did this with three states and seven agencies, and we did it entirely without email. I marvel at that.”
After graduating with her Wharton MBA in 1983, Spock had three job offers in Washington, D.C. But she also had a boyfriend who had a job offer in New York. Answering a blind advertisement in the New York Times, she landed at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey as an economic analyst in planning and development. Over the next decade, bridges, tunnels and bus terminals became her world. She was assistant manager of both the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Lincoln Tunnel. (And the boyfriend became her husband.)
Spock was an executive assistant to veteran transportation leader Louis J. Gambaccini (who later became general manager of SEPTA) when reorganization came to the Port Authority, and was given a choice of keeping her position, or moving with him. “I stuck with him, and he got me on this transportation track.” Then came maternity leave, the timing of which was fateful; when Spock came back to work, she was given the task of pulling together the multi-agency project that aimed to alleviate clogged traffic around the bridges and tunnels of New York, New Jersey and other states. “I really didn’t have a choice, I was just in the right place at the right time,” she recalls.
Spock called on lessons learned at Wharton in steering the effort. “Honestly, I think doing those group projects was one of the best things that trained me for what I ended up doing, because in a situation like that, you are all peers and developing a game plan together. I think I was really well prepared. Working with a group, you get some good group dynamics and some bad group dynamics, but at the end of the day you still have to produce something by a deadline. That’s real life.”
Another Wharton experience that was important was a course with Anita Summers, the head of the public management department at the time, and now Professor Emerita.
“I remember to this day sitting in her class and her talking about how in the private sector you manage the bottom line, and that makes it easy to make decisions. In the public sector, that’s not the only thing you are trying to manage—there are other things you are trying to balance. The public sector offered greater challenges than the private, and I fell for that hook, line and sinker. Other people may feel they can do very well financially and then contribute philanthropically. But I felt that we all have responsibilities as citizens to contribute one way or another, and to help everyone understand the challenges of the public sector.”
Being a woman perhaps made her stand out, she said. “Among the top levels of the different committees, I was the only woman, and actually I think I was the youngest, which is pretty amazing. Well, I’ll tell you, as it got down to the final decision, things were pretty tense, and it was down to two companies and different agencies had different preferences, and as chair of the group’s policy committee that guided the day-to-day process, I was charged with creating a script to go through the decision meeting. And apparently I became a bit overbearing in trying to do this. One of the agency reps took me out of the room and said, ‘You are treating us like children.’ And I said, ‘When you stop acting like children I will stop treating you like children.’ From that moment on, my nickname became mom.”
Today, E-ZPass is an association of 25 agencies in 15 states, conducting more than two billion transactions per year.
Spock has moved in and out of public-agency work—she is a consultant today—and says the public sector has become a more difficult environment. The political and financial pressures are greater, and there’s a level of public scrutiny that did not exist when Spock set out on her career. “If everything goes right, there’s no headline. The fact that things run as smoothly as they do, agencies don’t get credit for that.”
Greater transparency has had its benefits, but public policy issues are inevitably more complex than can be conveyed in most media outlets, and that has created a need for better and clearer information. Example: “Trying to educate the public about fare increases and toll increases. If the price of a bagel goes up, that’s not a headline. And there are real costs and structural issues with mass transit to build capacity to handle peak periods, but you don’t have enough of those peak periods to draw adequate revenue from. So you walk a tight line. I think we need to educate people, to have some primers about transportation and infrastructure, understanding that these things have costs and that they don’t run themselves.”
University of Pennsylvania - Wharton - 1983
- Master of Public Administration
- Major(s): Public Administration