Sentinel Standout – September 2012 – Karl Otterstrom

If you want to talk with Karl Otterstrom about the benefits of public transportation, your best chance might be to board a local bus.

As the director of Planning for the Spokane Transit Authority, Otterstrom walks the talk when it comes to commuting from the comfort of an aisle seat instead of behind the wheel. Otterstrom estimates that he drives to work fewer than a dozen times a year.

“I like riding the bus because I can learn more about the city, the places that you don’t notice when driving and the diversity of people who live in this city,” Otterstrom said. “It’s also a time to read and mentally prepare for the next of my day, whether it’s going to work, a meeting or home. I also enjoy saving money, a lot of it.”

Karl Otterstrom works as director of Planning for the Spokane Transit Authority, overseeing an array of responsibilities, including the organization of bus routes throughout the greater Spokane area.
Photo by Craig Howard.

Otterstrom’s daily bus travel provides him with an opportunity to reflect on what is arguably one of the most critical urban planning roles in Washington’s second largest city. Along with overseeing a staff of seven, he is responsible for organizing the entire transit system with an emphasis on fixed-route bus service. Otterstrom’s department seeks and secures state and federal grants while continuously striving to improve the efficiency of routes throughout the greater Spokane area. His duties also entail the design and construction of capital projects – including one currently underway in downtown Spokane – with help from consultants and contractors.

With a convoy of nearly 150 buses, STA transports more people each year than many transit agencies in larger metropolitan areas across the country. The numbers pan out to around 40,000 rides per day. The fleet also includes 100 Vanpool vehicles and a paratransit service for residents with disabilities.

Otterstrom says the task of coordinating the complex system means a call to “monitor, adjust and improve the bus network, including where routes go, how often and the location and frequency of bus service.”

In his role at STA, Otterstrom places a priority on monitoring and improving the bus network for optimum efficiency.
Photo by Craig Howard.

A member of the Lincoln Heights Ward in the Spokane Stake, Otterstrom has an active agenda beyond his demanding work schedule. Karl and his wife, Kate, are parents of three children and he is currently serving as first counselor in the Lincoln Heights bishopric.

Still, the even-keeled Otterstrom is not complaining.

“I strive to make the world a better place through my family, church and career endeavors,” he said.

The STA fleet of nearly 150 buses transports more people each day than many larger metropolitan agencies across the nation.
Photo by Craig Howard.

Growing up in the Spokane North Stake, Otterstrom was a studious type who enjoyed the outdoors. When he wasn’t reading or practicing the violin, he was usually on a hike. He graduated from Mead High School in 1996 and went on to serve a two-year LDS mission in Brazil from 1997 to 1999.

When he was 8, Otterstrom attended the World’s Fair in Vancouver, B.C. with his family. The theme of the event centered around various methods of transportation with displays that included innovative ideas like the driverless SkyTrain rapid transit system.

“Although we moved beyond the range of bus service about that same time, I took a keen interest in transit,”Otterstrom recalls. “I followed the developments at STA and took transit when traveling in larger cities. I have learned, and continue to learn, more about how transit works since those days and now encourage people to think through their transportation needs when seeking new housing or employment.”

Before deciding to pursue his ultimate professional course, Otterstrom considered career paths in dentistry, civil engineering and law. Upon returning from his mission, he was accepted into Eastern Washington University and, in his first year, signed up for a course in Transportation Planning. He would go on to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban and Regional Planning from EWU before moving on the University of Washington where he received a Master’s in Urban Planning in 2006.

Prior to starting at STA nearly four years ago, Otterstrom worked first as a planner for Latah County, Idaho and later with King County Metro, the sprawling transit system for the greater Seattle region. While in the Puget Sound area, he helped prepare the first of a series of federal grants that would generate over $60 million for the agency’s bus rapid transit projects. Otterstrom also helped coordinate corridor planning discussions with King County residents and community leaders and worked with representatives from the county, city of Seattle and Washington State Department of Transportation to develop replacement strategies for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Otterstrom oversees the design and implementation of STA capital projects, including one currently under construction in downtown Spokane.
Photo by Craig Howard.

An Eagle Scout who participated in soccer and cross country while in school, Otterstrom now says his main hobby “is figuring out how things work and how to make things work better.” The study of maps is another pastime, from the delineation of scenic mountain trails to bustling cities.

“I can study the same map for hours at a time,” Otterstrom said. “Maps are so full of information. I’m interested in places and how they are organized, socially and geographically.”

For now, Otterstrom will continue mapping out the best transit routes from the West Plains to Otis Orchards with a priority on the thousands of residents who have become not only his clients, but his fellow travelers.

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