September 2011

Balancing Demand, Funding Shortfalls Difficult for Top 200

by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

No. 188, Kansas' Topeka Metro.

No. 188, Kansas' Topeka Metro.
To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the American Public Transportation Association's EXPO, METRO Magazine expanded its annual Top 100 Bus Fleets Survey to the Top 200 this year. The larger group of respondents reported, by an overwhelming 71 percent, that they are still having difficulties balancing rising demand for service with funding shortfalls, especially those agencies based in the U.S.

The additional 100 listings added 11,308 more vehicles, compared with 2010, to this year's 75,115 total reported by transit agencies from 43 U.S. states, Canada and Puerto Rico. New York City Transit (NYCT) still holds the top spot with a total of 4,336 vehicles. NYCT is followed by Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) (2,515), New Jersey Transit (2,371) and the Toronto Transit Commission (2,066). Vancouver, B.C.-based Coast Mountain Bus Co. — one of seven Canadian agencies in the top 25 - takes over the No. 5 slot with 1,891 vehicles.

Washington State's Spokane Transit Authority (No. 92) makes its debut in METRO's Top 100, while Indianapolis' IndyGo (No. 83) returns to the top half of the list. London, Ontario-based London Transit and Clearwater, Fla.-based Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, round out the Top 100 in a tie for the 99th spot, with the number of vehicles to earn that position going up from 157 last year to 191 this year. Additionally, serving a population of 40,318 people, Fitchburg, Mass.-based Montachusett Regional Transit Authority takes the No. 200 spot.

Overcoming Issues
 Echoing issues mentioned in the last few installments of the Top 100, 71 percent of respondents are having difficulties balancing rising demand for service with funding issues. The impact of this issue on agencies' budgets are still forcing many to raise fares, cut services, lay off employees, and/or implement wage decreases.

"Due to shortfall in state funding, Port Authority was forced to reduce service by 15 percent earlier this year. This led to the elimination of service in many communities and has contributed to overcrowding on remaining routes," summarized representatives at Pittsburgh's Port Authority of Allegheny County (No. 29).

When asked what steps they are taking to remedy the problem, Michael Terry, president/CEO at IndyGo, responded: "We did a comprehensive analysis of our operations a few years ago, deciding to apply federal funding toward things that would offer a return on investment, maximize the stimulus of the economy, increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact."

Meanwhile, in cities such as Orlando, Fla., LYNX (No. 72) officials are trying to increase the system's profile in the communities serviced, as well as work with elected officials.

"LYNX continues to educate the public on the who, what and how of funding and what is needed to operate the system," says LYNX COO Lisa Darnall. "We also work directly with the elected officials in offering suggestions - the LYNX planning department continues to work with federal, state and local partners to look at how we are managing our future capabilities for transit in the upcoming years and beyond."

Notably, some of the smaller agencies in METRO's Top 200 that made up the 29 percent, who said they are not having issues balancing demand with funding, flourish because of their large profile within their communities. For instance, the Regional Transit System (RTS) in Gainesville, Fla. (No. 122) reported that its unique partnership with the University of Florida accounted for 53 percent of its operating budget in 2011. The agency is also working with other local educational institutions to generate more revenue and create new services.

"RTS partnered with Santa Fe College (SFC) to promote a 'transportation fee' associated with each undergraduate credit hour for their students. This would allow SFC to charge each student a fixed-rate per credit hour in exchange for pre-paid access to RTS services," says Chip Skinner, marketing and communications supervisor at RTS. "Currently, this 'fee' is part of a bill awaiting the Florida Governor's signature. Once implemented, it will generate a new revenue stream and add over 20,000 hours of service to RTS."

Technology, Eco-propulsion
Despite the economic hurdles, transit agencies around the nation continue to explore innovations to make their systems more efficient and user-friendly for passengers.

From large to small, agencies are exploring computer automated dispatch and automated vehicle location (AVL) programs, as well as improving fare collection, whether it be installing updated fareboxes or adding smart card and innovative payment mediums, such as smart phone capabilities. Many are also using their AVL programs to improve digital signage at bus stops/shelters and upgrade their websites to include real-time information, so customers can more effectively time the arrival and departure of their buses.

Other popular innovations reported by the year's Top 200 respondents include additional cameras onboard buses and at stops/shelters to improve passenger safety and protect agency liability, as well as the exploration of more alternative-propulsion vehicles and other green-friendly initiatives. Proving that public transportation continues to play an important role in lessening the impact on the environment, 25 percent of vehicles reported use some form of alternative-propulsion system, ranging from natural gas to hydrogen fuel-cell to electric.

For instance, within the last year, L.A. Metro retired its last diesel bus and now boasts a "clean fleet" of 2,444 vehicles, with most of those being fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG). There were also several agencies reporting that they are looking into programs to help lessen their overall environmental impact.

"We are purchasing 24 gas-electric hybrid paratransit buses in 2011, have done a trolley replacement study, put out an RFI for a battery-dominant all-electric bus, received LEED certification for a new operations building and put solar energy panels in some shelters," says Randy Winders, manager, vehicle maintenance, at Seattle's King County Metro (No. 6).

Agencies around the nation, such as Baton Rouge, La.-based Capital Area Transit System (No. 163), are also creating grassroots programs to get the word out in their communities about important tax referendums coming up in the next year.

"We started an information campaign to build support for the upcoming tax election," explained officials at the agency. "The campaign is focused on how transit improves the lives of the citizens in our region."

Outside of technological innovations, agencies are also continuing to implement programs to improve passenger safety.

"Sun Tran has launched numerous safety awareness programs, such as the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program to deter unwanted behaviors at the transit centers; a pedestrian safety program; and Veolia's 300:29:1 program that focuses employee attention on small, unsafe acts that can accumulate and lead to an accident," explains Kandi Young, communications director at Tucson-based Sun Tran (No. 55).
 
Fleet numbers
A closer look at the numbers reveals 51,148 buses are 35 feet or longer; 57 percent, or 43,196, of the total vehicles are low-floor applications; and 80 percent of the vehicles reported provide fixed-route services. Comparing apples to apples, there was an increase of 1,665 buses in the Top 100 this year, compared to 2010's reported 63,807, which included a drop of 891 vehicles. With 20,467 total vehicles, this year's Top 10 make up 27 percent of the total amount of vehicles reported. Overall, this year's respondents intend to order 8,122 vehicles in the next year, a 79 percent increase from last year.

As mentioned earlier, alternative-propelled vehicles, at 18,673 total vehicles, make up 25 percent of the fleet totals reported for 2011. With 9,229 vehicles, natural gas — both CNG and LNG — is the top alternative mode of choice, followed closely by hybrid-electric vehicles (34 percent), using gasoline, natural gas or diesel fuel. When asked what type of alternative propulsion system they are looking into for the future, 51 percent said CNG, followed by hybrid-electric (32 percent) and all-electric (14 percent). Many progressive agencies added that they are also investigating hydrogen-propelled ­vehicles.

With budget and staff cuts being implemented across the nation, METRO would like to give special thanks all of the transit agencies for taking the time to participate this year. If you know a fleet that belongs on this list or have suggestions on how to improve our future lists, please let us know at info@metro-magazine.com.

To view the entire list, click here.

To view the photo gallery, click here.


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