He is relaxed and at ease. His smile is broad, continuous and sincere.

There is a perceptible zip and zing in his voice, and he seems years younger.He looks a lot like John Pingree, the former general manager of the Utah Transit Authority. He even lives in Pingree's French Provincial estate on Harvard Avenue and wears Pingree's clothes.

But who is this dapper gentleman strolling around the backyard, pausing to watch Red Butte Creek babble along on its westward journey, check the craftsmanship on the garage he's building or pat his loyal dog gently on the head?

Surely this contented man of leisure cannot be the beleaguered, stressed-out, tight-lipped John Pingree who was forced to step down as the transit agency's boss last spring?

Yep, it's really him.

"I run into people now who don't know who I am, and that is wonderful," said the 58-year-old Pingree, who spent 20 years at UTA's helm. "I'm nothing. I'm nobody now - just kind of an old has-been."

Pingree does not utter those words with remorse, as might a former athlete whose moment of fame has expired, but with childlike glee. For the first time in his life, he is truly free.

"It was difficult to leave, but I left with no regrets," said Pingree, fired last May by a UTA board consumed for months by a political struggle over the agency's leadership. "I carry no ill will for (board members). I'm not mad."

The forced departure from an agency he built into prominence may have hurt Pingree's pride but not his wallet. He left with a severance package worth nearly $300,000.

With money in the bank, Pingree spent the past 11 months doing things he's always wanted to do. He appointed himself lead contractor on the construction of his garage, took on a few consulting projects and spent more time with his wife and their five adult children. He had more time to enjoy the final year of his mother's life. She died recently at 94.

Now, Pingree is preparing for a new adventure. In late June, he and his wife will leave for Mexico City where he will serve a three-year stint as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Talk about a city that could use some help in the transit department: Mexico City has both bus and light-rail mass-transit systems but is years behind in keeping up with the demand. Won't Pingree be tempted to offer some advice?

"I'll go down and introduce myself," he allowed. "I would like to negotiate a discount. We'll have 600 (missionaries) dedicated to using public transit in three missions."

That's Pingree, always trying to get the most for his money. That's what made him - and UTA - so successful for so long.

When Pingree took over the transit agency in 1977, it served three counties with 350 buses, woefully inadequate facilities and an annual budget of $11 million. When he left, it was a six-county system with 550 buses, a $60 million annual budget and $45 million in reserves to fund light-rail mass transit.

"He did an outstanding job of giving the taxpayers a phenomenal amount of service for the resources provided," said Bill Barnes, a former UTA spokesman and lobbyist, and staunch Pingree supporter.

Pingree did it all with only a one-quarter-cent sales-tax subsidy from the areas served by the transit district. That is rare in America today. Most metropolitan transit districts receive between a half-cent and a full cent on every dollar spent within the district. UTA recognizes it needs an increase in public financial support if it is to pursue its many ambitious plans, including the expansion of light rail and a Provo-to-Ogden commuter train service.

"I give John credit for taking UTA from a nondescript little transit thing and putting us on the map. He transformed UTA," said Jim Clark, UTA board chairman and Pingree advocate. "It was obviously his management expertise and his ability.

"I don't think there's any doubt UTA has been the best-run quasi-governmental agency in Utah, and that credit goes to John Pingree. He was recognized by his peers in the transit industry and by people in the business community."

UTA was heralded as the best-managed transit agency in North America by the American Public Transit Association in 1986 and again in 1996. The APTA's top award, given annually, is based on many factors including customer service and satisfaction, ridership, productivity, maintenance performance, innovation, marketing and - ironically - labor relations.

Labor is where Pingree's troubles began. He remembers a prediction from Eddie Mayne, director of Utah's chapter of the AFL-CIO, nearly three years before his ultimate ouster. Mayne, Pingree said, warned him that Salt Lake County's political structure was changing and it could be only a matter of time before a labor-initiated movement sent him packing.

"I didn't believe him," Pingree said. "I should have."

Organized labor had wanted Pingree out for years. Since 1979, to be exact, according to Steve Booth.

"I've always said that Pingree managed this company and did a lot with very little," said Booth, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, local 382, which represents more than 1,000 UTA employees.

"He was a very good money manager. He just wasn't a people person. But as far as keeping control of the budget, there's no question about it. He did that."

While pay was an issue, Booth said UTA workers had complaints about working conditions, scheduling and certain intangibles that are now being addressed under UTA's current general manager, longtime Pingree assistant John Inglish.

Pingree's fate also was determined in part by his unyielding pursuit of a light-rail mass-transit system, now under construction and scheduled to open in March of 2000 while Pingree - without whom light rail might not have become a reality - is out of the country.

Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi was initially in favor of light rail but later turned his back on both the technology and Pingree. He said a group of UTA board members, led by attorney Dan Berman, came to him in early 1996 with a variety of concerns about Pingree.

"No one should ever discount the enormous contribution that John Pingree made to the system," said Horiuchi, who said he received obscene phone calls after it became apparent he was pushing for Pingree's dismissal.

"Light rail had become a major divisive issues in this county. The only way we could heal light rail and the transportation problems was to have someone else" in charge at UTA.

An attempt to oust Pingree failed in October 1996 with the board split 7-7. The Legislature paved the way for Pingree's exit by adding another board position during its '97 session. Shortly after that law took effect, on May 12 of last year, Pingree lost his job on a 9-6 vote.

"Clearly, I think what we did was the right thing," Berman said. "It wasn't personal, I just thought it was merited. . . . It's done and over and I wish (Pingree) well."

Pingree believes many of the minor complaints about him that were bandied about, including attacks on his personality and management style, may have been manufactured to mask the political nature of his dismissal.

UTA has continued without him, and that's a sign the organization was strong and stable when he departed, Pingree said.

"John was a phenomenal manager. He was not a great politician," Barnes said. "If something was wrong, he wouldn't do it just to please somebody, and because of that there was a perception of arrogance."

These days, Pingree keeps up with UTA's doings but only through the newspapers. He remains convinced that light rail will be a successful addition to the Wasatch Front's public transportation system.

When he returns from his LDS mission, Pingree will be 61 and, he predicts, fired up for a new challenge. He hopes to catch on with a Salt Lake-area company, perhaps a smaller up-and-coming firm that needs a manager to take it from nowhere to somewhere.