Investing in its workforce and new technologies are key strategies being employed by the Albany, N.Y.-based Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) to ensure a successful future. With new service initiatives in place, including a new branding campaign, hybrid-electric vehicles and construction of a bus rapid transit (BRT) service, they are on their way to achieving this goal.
CDTA is the regional transportation provider for the four-county region, which includes Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady. It operates a fleet of 280 buses, covering a 1,700-square-mile service area. Services offered include local, express, park n’ ride, paratransit and suburban commuter service. Ridership has reached 13.5 million passengers annually, an 8 percent increase from last year.
Before its recent branding makeover, CDTA carried the same look since it began providing service in 1970. “We decided it was time to project a fresh, new image to the public in an effort to increase ridership,” says CDTA Executive Director Ray Melleady.
The new branding campaign features a customized blue paint scheme for its vehicles and a new theme logo — “iRide” — that reflects a symbol of pride and focuses on the individual.
In addition to the fleet, the branding scheme appears in educational and promotional materials, such as the transit guide, schedules and the system’s redesigned Website.
Melleady says one of the greatest challenges facing the transit industry is its image. “Given the cost of gas and the environmental issues we face, [transit] will be more relevant in our future.”
The rebranding effort goes beyond the physical aspects of the system; it also aims to rebrand the organization and what it has to offer in the way of careers. “In order to survive and to grow, we need to re-brand our occupations,” Melleady says. “I don’t think any transit system will succeed beyond its ability to attract and retain a good, qualified workforce.”
To revamp the image of a career in transit, the agency is using a “green collar” advertising campaign for job openings as an enticement for prospective employees interested in being a part of an organization that helps the environment. “The campaign was developed by APTA’s leadership program this year. We’re going to apply it at the local level.” The agency will be using the concept to recruit new hires. “You’ll see green collar advertisements for all positions; it’s no longer blue collar and white collar.”
Looking to position itself positively in the long term, CDTA is making significant investments in technology and workforce development. “We are increasing our spending in areas that we feel will add value and positively position CDTA for future growth,” Melleady says.
One such area that is receiving investment is the maintenance department. “Technology is changing rapidly, but quite often we don’t match the changes in technology with the equivalent investment in our workforce, which is counterproductive,” Melleady says. To counteract this problem, the agency developed a program for its technicians, which involves testing to assess skills gaps. Training programs were developed based on the areas of weakness. “We’ve seen a 40 percent improvement between pre- and post-test scores.”
The agency also hired a chief information officer charged with reviewing technology-related programs and ensuring they add value to the operation.
While investing in workforce development and technology will result in cost savings in the long term, the CDTA found a unique way to reduce costs for its paratransit service and divert savings into a nearly insolvent pension fund. Faced with increased demand for its paratransit services and the employee pension fund issue, the agency met with its union to hammer out a deal. “We just didn’t have the internal capacity to address what was double digit growth for our paratransit service,” Melleady says.
The negotiated deal was essentially a win-win for all involved. Per the agreement, the agency was permitted to outsource 50 percent of its paratransit services to taxi providers. Any savings associated with that outsourcing became the revenue source to bring the pension plan back toward solvency.
Last fall, the agency implemented a new biodiesel program. The entire fleet incorporates a five percent biodiesel blend called B5, which they intend to increase to a B10 blend over the course of the next two years. Going even further, the fleet will eventually upgrade to a B20 blend. “That is certainly attached to our ‘go green’ initiatives at CDTA, where we are focused on helping the environment, but it’s also a movement toward energy independence in the capital region,” Melleady says.
In addition to the emission reduction benefits, the reduction in diesel fuel consumption for the operation is significant. “We purchase 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel a year; by buying B5 we reduce our fuel consumption by 125,000 gallons,” Melleady says.
Looking for other ways to conserve energy, the operation conducted assessments of energy use at all of its facilities. “We are doing what we call smart climate control zones,” Melleady says. When a particular facility, such as a rail station, is not being used to its full capacity, interior temperatures are adjusted accordingly.
Solar-powered bus shelters and bus signs are also being installed throughout the region. To mitigate heat loss during cold weather, rapid-roll doors were installed in the most-frequently used doorways in facilities. The operation also recycles whenever possible, from paper in the office to lights and batteries. Facilities are set up to reclaim and recycle water for its bus washing systems. “Our facilities department is always looking at ways to improve our facilities and infrastructure relating to the environment,” Melleady says.
The CDTA recently expanded its Saratoga county service, which features new buses, as well as new bus stops and shelters. To develop the service, the agency engaged local stakeholders in the county, businesses, community groups and riders to obtain input. “The service has been well-received.” In place for only six months, ridership has exceeded expectations. “We expected ridership to double in two years, and we’ve already tripled it.”
Another service improvement includes simplification of the fare system. The original system, divided into zones, used transfers. Under the new simplified system, it costs $1 to ride and $3 for an all-day pass.
New vehicles were also a key component to the CDTA’s enhanced services. Last summer, it took delivery of six ,b>Gillig Corp. hybrid diesel-electric vehicles, with 23 more arriving this year. The low-floor vehicles, equipped with the Cummins ISB 260 engine and Allison parallel hybrid EP 40 drive, includes seating capacity for 39 passengers, AVL and GPS, Sportswork bike racks and March Networks’ video surveillance systems.
The new hybrids, in use for the new Saratoga routes, entered service along the heavily trafficked Route 5 corridor, between Albany and Schenectady, the first step in the development of CDTA’s BRT service.
Bus rapid transit
Once complete, the new BRT service will run 16.5 miles between Albany and Schenectady. “The primary goal of BRT is to make the service more reliable and add convenience to attract more riders,” Melleady says. Despite not being able to run the system on a dedicated right-of-way, he says that the operation had to be realistic in its planning.
Key system features will include limited-stop service, traffic signal priority, queue jumpers at key points and off-vehicle fare collection. Stations will feature real-time schedule information, itinerary planning kiosks, card swiper and ticket vending machines and offline video surveillance cameras. Several shared park ‘n ride lots will be established along the corridor.
Currently, there are 90 bus stops and 72 signalized intersections along the NY 5 corridor. By combining signal preemption and queue jumpers at congested intersections, and reducing the number of stops to 20 key stops, the system expects to shave 17 to 20 minutes off of the current trip, Melleady says.
Costs of the project total $20 million, which doesn’t include the costs of street improvements and the accompanying technology. Revenue service is slated for 2010.
As a way to increase employee ownership, the CDTA implemented a gain-sharing program. At the beginning of the year, a budget threshold is set and three primary targets related to efficiency, effectiveness and service consumption are identified. “For example, if we look at ridership, revenue and service reliability, and if we come in under the budget threshold that’s set by our board, 50 percent of the savings goes back to the employees in the form of gain sharing,” Melleady says.
The program will be marketed each month to inform employees where things stand with regard to achieving the targets and from a budgetary standpoint. “Those programs go a long way in getting organizations focused on objectives,” he says. “[It gets us] pulling in one coherent direction.”
Another employee-based plan in use is a peer recognition program, based on one in use in Austin, Texas. “It gets people in the habit of recognizing people who provide superior service to the organization,” Melleady says.