A Closer Look: Amanda Wanke
CEO, Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority
If you don’t already know Amanda Wanke, you probably have heard her name before. She first joined DART in 2015 as chief external affairs officer. She was named chief operating officer and deputy CEO in May 2020. She left DART in October 2022 to join New Flyer and MCI, a bus and coach manufacturer, before the lure of DART brought her back. The DART board of commissioners announced in July that she would be the transit agency’s next CEO, beginning on Aug. 31.
What was the factor that made you decide to apply for the CEO position?
You probably know that they finished the first round of searches without a candidate. I still knew enough people in the community and was having conversations and was encouraged by some friends and mentors to give it a shot. I had some people ask me some good questions and encouraged me to look at things differently and at least have the conversation. And once I started having the conversation, I came back to why I love this place and why I’m excited to be leading in this era. There is so much opportunity, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to be a part of that. But I needed some friends and other people to encourage me to think about it as well.
What goals do you have for DART, both in the short term and long term?
Both short term and long term, the thing that is really going to define my mission and what I do in the years to come is to win over the hearts and minds of our community that public transportation is a good and essential investment in our future. We have to really win over those hearts and minds to really believe that public transportation is that essential economic driver and is a good return on investment for our taxpayers. My first few months I’m really planning on having a lot of conversations to really understand the current dynamics. What are the current perceptions of public transportation? What are the challenges and the opportunities? I think it’s important we come to a shared vision of what it could look like and how public transit can have the most impact to drive our economy and our community forward.
What are some challenges public transportation is facing?
I look at challenges and opportunities together. One creates the other. The transition to zero-emission technology: It’s the opportunity to do things very differently to impact our world for the better and to think future forward. But the actual implementation of it isn’t easy. We have a lot to learn. How our community is growing is another opportunity and challenge. We know that public transit is essential to driving that economic development and connecting people to their jobs. I think the operations facility is another one of those things. Our current facility is surrounded by new development, and it’s wonderful and exciting but a bus garage isn’t really the best fit over there anymore. But again, costs for buildings are going up. So there’s an opportunity and challenge. I hope people will see that I’m collaborative and I’m optimistic but realistic. I want to work with people to find a path forward for each of those things.
Can you describe your management style?
People would commonly say servant leadership, but it is really, truly what drives me. I don’t believe I’m here and can accomplish all this because of me. I believe we can accomplish this together and that leadership is all about inspiring and empowering others and giving them a vision to work toward and helping all of us work toward that vision together.
There’s a lot to be determined, but can you describe the funding challenges DART is facing and what is being done to address those challenges?
We have a budget that cannot meet the growing needs of our community, and right now, property taxes is the primary way to do that. And there’s agreement that that’s not the best way to do it long term. So we have this need to invest more in it, but what tool are we going to use and how are we going to get there and how is everybody going to agree on who pays what? And that comes back to the mission of helping our community really understand and see that public transit is worth the investment.
Tell us something about yourself that people may not already know.
Growing up in Minnesota, I was a hockey cheerleader and I was captain of the football cheer team, and I was actually a finalist to be a cheerleader for the Minnesota Vikings. So, at the end of the day, I’m very glad I didn’t end up a Minnesota Vikings cheerleader but for me it does tie together some of what made me who I am. I think a lot from those experiences ties back to here. My role in some ways is to be the chief cheerleader for DART and also the coach and really think about how we’re motivating, bringing people together, inspiring vision and all moving in the same direction. My years as a cheerleader helped me learn some leadership skills that will be important where we need to go.
Is there a book you’ve recently read that you would recommend?
I love to listen to audiobooks while I’m cycling. Currently I’m reading a book called “Crucial Accountability” because I think crucial conversations and having those conversations with each other is an important part of leadership. I’m also reading the fiction book, “Did you Hear About Kitty Karr?” It’s a historical fiction book and just very interesting.
Why is it important for business leaders to pay attention to what’s happening at DART and the role it plays in the community?
I’ve seen in this community when we have a vision together we come together and do things well. And when we do those things well, you have business, you have community, you have government, you have nonprofits at the table. And I think it’s important that we view public transit in the same way. We’re working on investing in all these amenities and building our community and we need to make sure everyone in our community has access to those things. How do we ensure that access? How do we create that vision that public transit is worth investing in? We already have so many businesses that work with us. We need to continue to understand what’s important to them, their vision and what they need and how we can help them solve those problems, so that we’re working hand-in-hand to really create that strong community. When we come together, we can do something great. And I believe that getting people to all the things we’re building and the place we want to be is really important.
At a glance
Hometown: Hutchinson, Minn.; now lives in West Des Moines.
Family: Married, two children, son, 18, daughter, 16.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in communications from Bethel University and with a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Bethel.
Activities: Cycling, time with friends, fitness classes, walking and reading.