Growing up in southern California, Vince Pellegrin was a self-described “surfer kid” with a thing for hot rods. His first job? Pumping gas. His first car? A 1967 Ford Fairlane.
But after attending the University of Southern California and gaining experience as a mechanic and union steward, Pellegrin responded to a newspaper ad for a job that would steer him away from an automotive career. In 1980, Pellegrin began at the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the precursor to Los Angeles Metro, where he joined the mechanical training department.
Over the next four decades, he would become an industry leader in bus maintenance, advancing technologies in Los Angeles, New York, and the Twin Cities. More than half of that career, 24 years, was spent at Metro Transit, where he retires this week as chief operating officer.
In Los Angeles, Pellegrin got his foot in the door partly because he could speak Spanish, like many of the technicians he was asked to train. Within just a few years, he was also recognized for his technical acumen and moved into an engineering role, leading a host of alternative fuel projects. Among his earliest accomplishments was helping the agency bring on hundreds of new buses ahead of the 1984 Olympics, installing the industry’s first particulate traps with the California Air Resources Board, and putting the country’s first 40-foot bus powered by natural gas into service.
Pellegrin continued to work on alternative fuel projects through 1994, when he was recruited by the New York City Transit Authority to become the agency’s chief officer for research and development. In New York, Pellegrin helped put the country’s first hybrid-electric buses into service and led the agency’s bus procurement efforts.
Just a few years after moving his family across the country, though, Pellegrin was recruited again. This time, former LA Metro CEO Art Leahy was calling, and he wanted Pellegrin to join him in the Twin Cities, where he was now leading the precursor to Metro Transit, then called Metropolitan Council Transit Operations (MCTO). Although he knew little about the region, Pellegrin moved his family again and took over a bus maintenance department facing significant challenges. “There was a lot of privatization talk, high unreliability, and the buses just looked awful,” Pellegrin recalled.
Among his earliest memories – seeing more than 60 buses out of service due to engine or transmission failures at the Overhaul Base and dealing with 100 overheated buses the first time temperatures topped 90 degrees. Within a few years, though, the fleet’s reliability was improved through a focus on overlooked technical details. To improve appearances, the agency also expanded the capabilities of its body shop, beginning a mid-life repainting program that significantly enhanced the fleet’s appearance. It was during this period that Pellegrin also called for a switch from a standard-issue seat for bus operators – described as “one rung above an orange crate” – to a costlier but more ergonomic version. “I thought, ‘Would I spend eight hours on this seat?’ and the answer was no, so we replaced them,” Pellegrin said. “I’ve had many operators thank me for that over the years.”
While Leahy left in 2000, Pellegrin stayed, became assistant general manager and then the agency's first chief operating officer, taking responsibility for bus and light rail maintenance and operations. As chief operating officer, Pellegrin helped lead the agency through several major events, including 9/11, the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, a 44-day strike, a Super Bowl and the COVID-19 pandemic. After the bridge collapse, Pellegrin became the agency’s Minnesota state designated emergency manager.
Reflecting on his career, Pellegrin said: "It’s been my privilege to be a part of this outstanding transit agency. As much as I would like to think I’m leaving a positive legacy, the truth is I’m taking away so much more than I could ever give. This has been a tremendous learning opportunity for me, and a chance to be part of something bigger than any of us, making a difference in people’s lives every day.”