Connecticut-based Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority (GBTA) is undergoing a renovation of sorts, with a complete service restructuring, the unveiling of a newly built intermodal station and a system rebranding on tap for the coming year. These efforts are expected to improve service scheduling, provide customers with better information and make it easier to ride the system — ultimately boosting ridership.
While it seems that the agency is revamping every aspect of its operation at once, GBTA General Manager Ron Kilcoyne says that many of the aforementioned projects have been in the works for some time, but it was just chance that everything came to together at once.
In addition to servicing its coastal namesake city of Bridgeport, the most populous within the state (population: 139,008), the transit authority operates a family of bus services in the neighboring cities of Fairfield, Stratford and Trumbull, with an extended route servicing Shelton to Derby and a Coastal Link bus operating from Milford to Norwalk.
The GBTA, which does not have a dedicated source of funding, relies on farebox recovery (40%) and state aid (60%). Services offered include fixed-route, ADA paratransit and specialized senior transportation.
The transit authority’s 55-vehicle fleet, used for fixed-route services, is composed of a mix of 35- and 40-foot Gillig Corp. and New Flyer vehicles. Twenty-four cutaway vehicles comprise the paratransit fleet and four additional cutaways are tapped for the system’s new flexible fixed-route service, which will be launched in the fall.
Before Kilcoyne took over as head of the transit authority in 2004, plans were already in motion for the construction of the bus terminal, service restructuring and purchase of advanced communication systems for the entire fleet.
In addition to these initiatives, Kilcoyne’s predecessor also worked diligently to erase any negative image associated with public transit in the community. “I had a very good foundation to work with,” says Kilcoyne.
But in order to take the system to the next level, Kilcoyne developed a plan to rebrand the system. “This is the right time for us to update and improve our image,” he says. “Our No. 1 goal is increasing ridership, but in order to attract more riders, you have to have a positive image in the community.”
Besides enhancing its image, the GBTA aims to use the rebranding initiative as a way to provide passengers with better information, thus making it easier to use the system. This plan includes creating a new, more modern logo. “Although our logo isn’t very old, it is dated-looking,” Kilcoyne says. This new logo will also incorporate a system name change. “Officially, we will still be the Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority, but to the public we will just be Greater Bridgeport Transit,” Kilcoyne says.
The operation will also replace all bus stop signs with a more distinctive version that can be easily identified by both drivers and passengers. System timetables will also be overhauled, moving from individual timetables to a single system timetable and map.
To coincide with the rebranding, refresher customer training courses will be required of all bus operators. “Because we are trying to project this new, positive image, we want to back it up with substance and how we deliver service,” Kilcoyne says. As a general rule, he says the system consistently receives compliments regarding its drivers, but adds that there is always room for improvement. “We will start by having all drivers go through eight hours of training a year. Initially, it will be customer service, but it could also focus on safety and security issues.”
This September, the agency will relocate its main downtown hub from a 1950s-era bus station to a new $25 million intermodal bus terminal. The facility, which sits on approximately 1.5 acres of land, will include 17 bus bays arranged sawtooth style to accommodate independent arrival and departure. “It will not only include our bus service, but also Greyhound and Peter Pan intercity bus service,” Kilcoyne says.
The two-story structure features an estimated 10,000 square feet of space, which includes a waiting area, ticketing and baggage for the intercity service and space to sell transit passes and provide additional passenger information. The station will house a post for the Bridgeport Police Department, a community room and separate restrooms for bus operators and customers.
In addition to being the main hub for bus service, the intermodal station also connects with rail service: Metro North commuter and Amtrak, as well as ferry service, which transports passengers from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson on Long Island, N.Y. To link these other modes, two connector walkways were incorporated into the design.
To coincide with the opening of the intermodal station, the transit authority will also restructure its services. “This will be the first time that there has been a total restructuring of the service since the transit system began operating buses in 1979,” says Kilcoyne. Once the agency moves into the new station, the additional space will allow for a time-transfer schedule for vehicles. “Right now we don’t do a pulsing, it’s really random scheduling,” he says.
Besides being able to regulate bus schedules easily with the implementation of timed transfers, Kilcoyne says unproductive routes will be replaced with a flexible route service. “These buses will pass designated stops, but you can also make arrangements to be picked up as well. So, it’s kind of a hybrid fixed-route/dial-a-ride service that is open to the general public,” he says.
Services will also be enhanced per a recently signed $2.5 million contract with Siemens for an advanced communication system and automatic vehicle locators/automatic passenger counters. Vehicles will be equipped with the new technology over the coming year, allowing for the provision of real-time information to customers via the agency’s Website and to dispatchers regulating vehicle routes.
The agency plans a Website overhaul as well, featuring a more user-friendly design, expanded service updates and improved maps and timetables. Customers will also be able to plan trips using Google’s trip planning feature. “Overall, we want to provide customers with better information,” Kilcoyne says of the plans for the site.
Selling transit time
While the GBTA will have to wait until later in the year to realize the benefits of the rebranding effort and the opening of the new intermodal station, its overhauled fare program has already seen success since its implementation in 2006. The new “Zip Trip” pass program, as it is called, is based on the concept of “selling time” to customers. In addition to offering the typical seven- and 31-day passes, the operation created a 90-minute pass, which can be purchased for the base fare of $1.50. This pass is basically a “transfer without restrictions.” A full day pass is also available for $3.
According to Kilcoyne, before the new program was introduced, there was concern the system would lose revenue. But since its inception, ridership has grown 7% compared to the previous year and revenue has grown by 11%.
When asked about challenges faced by the transit authority, Kilcoyne says seeking additional funding is at the top of the list. He says that the system is not in dire straits, like transit agencies in Pennsylvania, but isn’t making progress either. “Basically the state, at worst, is status quo,” he says. Without an infusion of more funding, he says the system will be unable to expand services.
To help build the case for additional transportation funding, Kilcoyne worked with a coalition formed from advocacy groups and local transit experts to come up with the state’s funding requirements. According to the group’s findings, in today’s dollars, there should be an increased operating investment of $63 million a year, and additional one-time capital investment of $215 million, which would be divided over a five-year period.
“Very soon, we will know if our efforts have paid off,” Kilcoyne says. “The speaker of the House put the numbers recommended by the coalition into a bill, and they are in budget negotiations now.”
Besides funding issues, the GBTA faces a driver shortage. Although its workforce is stable, with less than 3% turnover, it is difficult to find and attract new hires. The operation also expects a large wave of retirements over the next few years due to its aging workforce.
“Last year, we went to the union to raise the training pay and first-year rate for our drivers because we were having hiring difficulties,” Kilcoyne says. This problem was worsened by the fact that the agency’s pool of prospective drivers was being lured away by higher-paying school bus companies.
“Our drivers can get paid more over time,” Kilcoyne says, “but at the start, the school bus drivers were getting paid more.”