July 2012

Contractors Helping Operators Manage Tighter Budgets

by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

As more public transportation agencies reach out to transit contractors for more cost-effective and efficient service, contractors are reporting the need to get creative when dealing with tighter budgets and increased rider demand.

We spoke to a handful of private contractor companies to get the latest on their projects, technological innovations and where they see the industry heading.

First Transit Inc., part of FirstGroup America, is a provider of passenger transportation contract and management services in the U.S. With more than 51 years of experience, the contractor provides operation, management and consulting for 235 locations in 41 states and Puerto Rico for transit authorities, state departments of transportation, federal agencies, municipal organizations and private companies.

Contracts. Serving 24 universities, including Rutgers and the University of Alabama, has been a substantial source of business over the past year for the contractor, Timothy Stokes, media director, First Transit, says.
Additionally, First Transit was recently awarded a paratransit contract for the Transit Authority of River City in Louisville, Ky. The contractor will oversee the operation of the paratransit service beginning Oct. 1, 2012. The contract includes the management of 180 employees and the operation of 91 vehicles.

Industry trends. Many transit authorities are looking to outsource service as a way of saving money, Stokes says. A good example of that is Oceanside, Calif.-based North County Transit District, another transit system that has a contract with First Transit, he adds. The contractor was able to save NCTD $4.9 million on costs for its BREEZE fixed-route bus service.

Technology. The contractor recently implemented DriveCam3 on key segments of its fleet in many of its locations. The latest iteration provides an advanced fuel management solution, which helps with sustainability as well as efficiency. First Transit committed to a five-year full-fleet deployment of DriveCam’s Managed Services Program.

Formerly Tectrans and now Keolis Transit America, the company was purchased in whole by Keolis America and its Paris-based parent company, Keolis S.A. last year, Dwight Brashear, executive VP, business development, Keolis Transit America, says. Its work in Europe has given the contractor a different perspective on the U.S. public transportation industry.

Contracts. Keolis is a full-service transit management company with contracts across the U.S., primarily in California, Florida and Virginia. The company began work on May 1 for Access Services – Antelope Valley Region Specialized Transportation Service, based in El Monte, Calif., and, as part of the service, has partnered with Stratagen for a pilot project for scheduling and tracking. Keolis has 39 employees operating this service, including 25 drivers. It utilizes 23 vehicles to operate a seven-day-a-week service. The team transported more than 5,500 passengers in the first month of service. The contractor will be responsible for coordinating, dispatching and providing all the ADA paratransit trips for five years.

Industry trends. Since the recession started, transit agencies are asking contractors to provide a very high level of service, and sometimes, the funding isn’t there as it was in the past, Brashear says. Contractors are stepping up to the plate and doing what is required, he adds, mostly by being more creative in finding ways to keep the service on the street and the quality of the service as high as possible.

“A lot of agencies are starting to slowly recover…but I think there is still an apprehension to increase service,” Brashear says.

Technology. Because of tighter budgets, Brashear says he is not seeing many transit systems in a position to upgrade or adopt new technologies. “[It’s a] chicken-and-the-egg situation,” he says. “We all realize there are certain technologies out there that can probably improve or add to efficiencies, but there’s that initial outlay of capital that comes along with it.”

He adds that technology in Europe generally has been ahead of the U.S., but that gap is starting to close. “Transportation in the U.S. is different from Europe,” Brashear says. “We’re a little more spread out, especially on the West Coast. The models being used in Europe won’t work [there]. We have to come up with a model for the way people live here. We’re getting there, but it’s a struggle. Technology will lead the way eventually.”

Sustainability. Keolis runs one of the largest taxi companies in Orange County, Calif., and compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles have become popular with the contractors that lease its vehicles. “If we run out of CNG vehicles, they’re not happy,” Brashear says. “Part of it is that the cost of CNG is less than gas or diesel. The move is going to be toward more sustainable, clean fuels. Keolis, like all our competitors, is looking at those options and embracing them.”

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