In 1974, a Massachusetts state law was passed giving cities and towns in the region more control over transportation services. Under the statute, transit agencies like the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) in Haverville were not permitted to directly operate vehicles, and instead had to contract out their services (see sidebar on pg. 72). In response, First Transit has fit the bill as MVRTA’s service provider and, over the years, has developed a successful public-private partnership.
Although First Transit’s most recent MVRTA contract, a three-year deal with two option years, began in 2003, the company has been a mainstay with the agency since 1983. Per the contract, First Transit provides a six-member senior management team, including MVRTA General Manager Bill Hoff. Hoff and his staff are responsible for the management and operation of the fixed-route, paratransit and maintenance departments.
While the fleet may not technically be his own, Hoff takes pride in his operation. “The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the finished product on the street — a clean bus being driven by a professional bus operator in a safe manner, meeting the needs of our passengers.”
On the public side, MVRTA administrator Joe Costanzo is the CEO. His responsibilities include the day-to-day management of finances, grant preparation, policy issues and oversight of its services. Costanzo says the agency hasn’t lost flexibility by using the services of a private contractor. He believes it enables the number of employees on the public side to be kept to a minimum — there are four. “There’s one direct report coming to me from the general manager and, quite frankly, [contracted service] just makes oversight of the system easier,” he says.
In addition to ease of oversight, First Transit’s relationship with the MVRTA has other benefits, such as networking opportunities. “We get to trade ideas and best practices with all of the other First Transit companies throughout the country,” Hoff says. All First Transit senior management personnel can network with each other via e-mail by sending out one e-mail, which is directed to all members for response.
“We use it for all types of things such as specifications,” says Hoff. “We put out a bid for an on-vehicle surveillance system, so we were able to get a lot of feedback from systems already equipped with cameras.” Hoff also networked with other First Transit managers to gain insight for a recent Federal Transit Administration audit.
The benefits of networking also helped the MVRTA with labor negotiations, which resulted in the signing of five-year contracts for both bus operators and maintenance workers last year. Hoff says they have the advantage of using First Transit’s corporate lawyers during negotiations and can network with other operations to track the trends in the labor market.
In addition to using the company’s lawyers, MVRTA has access to consultants. “We recently did a fixed-route evaluation for one section of the system and that was done through First Transit at no cost to the client,” Hoff says. First Transit also provides bus line inspection services for the agency at a discounted rate.
Other contractor benefits include the corporate purchasing agreements First Transit has with various vendors. Because the company buys in bulk, its clients receive a discounted rate. “We purchase everything from fuel filters to oil filters to all kinds of maintenance and office equipment,” Hoff says.
The most obvious benefit of employing a contracted service provider is the fact that it manages an operation’s diverse services, such as those offered by MVRTA. The fixed-route side falls under the auspices of the Merrimack Valley Area Transportation Co., of which First Transit is the parent company. Forty-seven vehicles operate on the fixed-route side — 43 35-foot Gilligs and four 40-foot Motor Coach Industries coaches for the agency’s commuter service to Boston.
Besides 24 standard routes, the agency offers two weekday commuter routes to Boston. All buses, including those in the paratransit fleet, are equipped with GPS-driven “talking bus” annunciators. In addition, the agency completed installation of AVL and mobile data terminals on the entire fleet in December.
The agency employs 46 bus operators on the fixed-route side and 13 for paratransit. “We allow the paratransit operators to move over to the fixed-route side when a position becomes available because the pay and benefits are better,” Hoff says.
The single-shop maintenance department, which operates under a set monthly-fee contract, employs nine technicians and one manager. “This makes it easier for Joe to budget because we incur all of the risk in the maintenance of the vehicles,” Hoff says. “Whether one engine or two blows up, it’s not going to cost him any more for that month.”
MVRTA’s paratransit service falls under the subsidiary Special Transportation Services, set up by the authority and operated by First Transit. The service uses 14 vehicles — 11 Ford body-on-chassis ElDorado Nationals and three Dodge/Braun vans.
Although it has operated MVRTA’s fixed-route service for numerous years, First Transit only took over its paratransit services in 2002. “We used to have five separate subcontractors providing the paratransit service,” Costanzo says. Bringing the service in-house with First Transit gave the agency more control in terms of dealing with customer needs and scheduling, as well as better oversight, he says.
Oversight is paramount as there are various services offered under the paratransit umbrella, which helps to explain why the agency employed five contractors. MVRTA provides an ADA and non-ADA “EZ Trans” service, an advance-phone request curb-to-curb service called “Ring & Ride,” and a “Call & Commute” service. The latter service is offered specifically to the employees of member companies, including The Gillette Co.
Management of the various services is aided by software that identifies the passenger and lists their information under the appropriate type of service. Routes can be made up of pick-ups from any of the offered services, which decreases the cost per passenger, Hoff says. The agency received a 97% on-time performance rating for pick-up and drop-offs during a recent review.
Transit training is an additional service offered by the MVRTA, in partnership with MassRIDES (a state-wide travel options program), to help Merrimack Valley businesses recommend transportation alternatives to employees. The service is provided free to all area businesses.
Through the training, outreach coordinators visit worksites to help structure programs such as carpool, vanpool matching, preferential parking, public transportation, tele-working, flexible work-hour programs or other cost-saving programs to help get employees to work.
Like any good transit authority, the MVRTA would like to grow its programs and services, but it is hampered by budget constraints. Massachusetts has dealt with budgetary issues for the past few years. Because 50% of MVRTA’s funding comes from the state, it has had to reduce its fixed-route service to compensate for the squeeze.
From 2001 to 2004, the agency slashed eight routes, going from 1.4 million revenue miles to about 1 million. “If there are any more financial issues at the federal, state and local levels, the next round of cuts are going to hurt,” Costanzo says. “We are already down to our core service.” The system only offers Monday through Saturday service and does not operate on Sundays or holidays.
“I think we are just now getting back on our feet, so we can begin to look at improving service,” Costanzo says. The agency is looking to offer 20-minute frequencies during its peak hours of service and improve its 80-minute interval Saturday service to 45 minutes. “People like the service we provide; they just want more of it.”
To deal with surging fuel and insurance costs, the operation purchases fuel futures through a competitive procurement process and works with its insurance broker to keep claims down, says Hoff.
Managing growth is another challenge for the MVRTA. According to a recently compiled agency study, the region’s senior population will grow in excess of 100% in 25 years. “We are trying to put together some strategies to work with the senior population in terms of safe driving courses and wellness programs,” Costanzo says. The agency also plans to set up an education program and an information referral service to better inform the senior public of what transportation options are available.
The operation recently completed its two-year marketing plan, which involves more outreach to social and human service agencies to help boost ridership numbers. Currently, the system is seeing a 7% boost in ridership for the past year. Ridership numbers for 2004 totaled 1.6 million for fixed route, 57,492 for paratransit and 24,711 for commuter service.
Fifteen cities and towns are members of the MVRTA, and each is represented on an advisory board that is composed of the chief elected or appointed official of its community. This can be the mayor (cities), town manager or chairperson of the board of selectmen (towns) or their designees. Each community pays for the service it receives, and a member city or town can opt not to have service and pay no cost.
The advisory board has three major powers: it must approve an annual budget, approve changes in fares and approve substantial changes in service. These three powers give member cities and towns local control of the services desired and received. Each member city and town receives proportional votes based on the amount of service received — the more service, the more votes. The distribution of the service does not allow any one city or town to exercise control over others, as the votes are not concentrated with any one city or town. This setup provides a platform for regional decision making in planning and implementing services.
The administrator is the CEO of the authority and serves at the pleasure of the board, says current Administrator Joe Costanzo.