New York’s MTA Bus Company currently outpaces two local commuter rail systems in daily ridership. How did the agency reach such substantial service capacity after just two and a half years of existence?
Joe Smith, a 30-year veteran at New York City Transit and chief of operations for MTA Bus, credits what he calls “suppressed demand” for local transit, which was evidenced when each additional bus MTA put on the street was full on its first run.
The MTA Bus Company was created in September 2004 as a subsidiary of the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in order to provide bus service in areas formerly served by seven private bus companies under franchises granted by the city’s Department of Transportation.
Service began in January 2005 when MTA Bus took over the first of the seven private companies and converted the garage into a bus depot. The other six companies were merged during the following months in a staged transition, with the last company added in February 2006.
By the end of 2006 the agency operated 42 express routes and 46 local routes, serving about 380,000 riders daily with a fleet of more than 1,200 buses and a workforce of over 3,000 employees.
In his 36 years of public transit experience with the MTA, MTA Bus President Tom Savage has also been involved with the merger of the NYC Transit Police Department and the NYPD, the formation of the MTA Police Department and the creation of the NYCT MetroCard Operations Department. He says improving service reliability, maintaining ridership and establishing organizational stability at MTA Bus were the initial top priorities.
A united agency
One of the initial challenges the agency faced was maintaining staff head count following the transition from private to public operation. “Some drivers were waiting for the takeover to retire, thinking they would be grandfathered in,” Smith says. “We don’t currently have a contract with some of our bus driver unions, so there is some rate of attrition.”
According to Savage, 90% of the company’s workforce is represented by three separate unions and seven different collective bargaining agreements, which were not settled prior to the transition from the private sector.
In addition, the various private entities needed to be integrated into a single public transit operation. Not only did the separate garages need to learn to work as a network of connected administrative offices and bus depots, but employees would be required to adhere to more stringent training and probationary periods, while facilities and vehicles would be held to MTA’s higher operational standards.
Savage reports that under private ownership, certain critical activities were not performed at the bus garages, including engineering, operations planning, safety, security, environmental and code compliance, labor relations and budget.
To address this matter, employee training initiatives were developed as operating jobs were filled in 2006, and a training center was constructed at one of the bus depots.
Major facility improvements were initiated in 2006 and will continue in 2007, says Savage. Those include installation of environmentally friendly portable lifts to service the new express and local buses, installation or updating of the depot tailpipe exhaust systems, construction or updating of battery charging rooms and asbestos abatement, as well as other upgrades to be implemented under the MTA Bus 2005-2009 Capital Plan.
The fleet inherited by MTA Bus from the former private bus companies consisted of 15 different bus models, with an average age in excess of 13 years per bus.
The rapid succession of takeovers tested operations and maintenance staff. “There was no time to even breathe,” Smith says. As he tells it, the first order of business was to re-register all the vehicles, replace the license plates, remove the branding stickers from the old companies and reprogram the fareboxes on each bus. “Literally, in one place there were 320 buses that we started on a Friday, and by Monday morning it said ‘MTA Bus’ on every single one of them,” he says.
Next, the agency implemented standardized inspection criteria. “We gave everybody a timetable and said within the next 30 days no bus can go out the door if the farebox isn’t working, if there’s any graffiti on the bus or if the front destination sign isn’t working,” Smith says, noting that some of those standards were not heavily enforced in the past.
The private bus companies had been state inspected, but the MTA is a self-certified agency, enabling MTA Bus to develop inspection criteria based on the transportation authority’s standards and expertise.
A total of 759 new buses have since been approved by the MTA Board of Directors for purchase. The new vehicles include 475 high-capacity, high-amenity express buses from Motor Coach Industries Inc. and 284 Orion hybrid-electric, low-floor local buses.
At the end of May 2007, the 475 new express buses and 150 new local buses were delivered and placed in service. An option to purchase an additional 105 local hybrid-electric buses is planned, with delivery anticipated in late 2008 to early 2009. When the new bus deliveries are completed, a total of 864 new buses, or 70% of the fleet, will have been replaced, and the average fleet age will be reduced to less than four years.
Currently, MTA Bus executes scheduled preventive maintenance programs that meet MTA service standards for all express and local fleets, Savage says. MTA Bus has also developed a mid-life overhaul program for older bus models, which is an annual program that includes new and rebuilt powertrain, front and rear doors, undercarriage and brakes, air compressor, alternator, starter and full paint job. CNG buses receive CNG and fire suppression system upgrades.
MTA Bus is also testing a system that raises a flag to alert drivers to perform preventive maintenance, Smith says. Drivers are alerted, for example, when a lug nut is loose on a tire or when a door is opened for the 10,000th time.
In 2006, MTA Bus established a centralized Road Operations Unit to monitor all road supervision and bus operations and to ensure service standardization among the different depots. In partnership with a central command center that provides 24-hour coverage of road activity and incident response, the company’s vehicles and drivers have a central resource available to them to streamline services, provide support and manage operations. “The Command Center watches traffic and bridges and redirects routes as needed, working closely with police to reduce congestion,” Smith says.
Being a good neighbor
MTA Bus’ improved service schedule and resulting increase in ridership have shown that the agency is an essential component of city services. But it is other upgrades that demonstrate the company’s efforts to further accommodate both riders and the city as a whole.
For one thing, MTA buses are all now wheelchair compatible, Smith reports. Under the previous arrangement, riders needing wheelchair-accessible transportation had to call to request a bus. This change not only streamlines the process and more efficiently serves riders, it also shows the agency’s willingness to make an effort to better serve the public.
MTA Bus has also put several environmentally friendly measures in place at its facilities, including a requirement that any bus with an oil or antifreeze leak must be repaired before it goes out the next day. In addition, the agency has replaced some of its older buses with NYC Transit buses that were repowered in the 1990s with environmentally friendly engine systems. “The standard that they had to meet in the late 1990s replaced buses that virtually had no pollution control devices on them at all,” Smith says.
He adds that these types of upgrades go above and beyond state and federal environmental standards. “Don’t forget, our garages are in the metropolitan area, and we want to be a better neighbor,” he says. “So instead of having a cloud over the depot, you can barely tell there’s a bus garage there.”
Ridership takes off
After the consolidation of the private bus companies was complete, an extensive service revision program was developed to improve schedules and routes. According to Smith, MTA Bus studied its service to find the fastest ways to get people from the Bronx and other outlying boroughs to Manhattan. “People like it because it’s faster now,” he says.
Efforts under the program included schedule revisions to avoid overloaded conditions and to standardize service intervals. Routes were also revised to deal with changed transportation market conditions and traffic patterns. MTA also increased the riding capacity of the fleet, replacing 474 of the express buses that used to seat 44 to 53 people with new buses that seat 57. Plus, the company added runs on weekdays, weekends and at night. With all this, Smith says the riding public noticed no change in service beyond a change in the name on the side of the buses.
In April 2007, MTA Bus carried about a half million more passengers than it did in April 2006.
By way of illustration, Smith tells the story of a Queens politician calling to complain about a certain express route. “We added three brand new buses to that service schedule,” Smith says. “He called us up the next day saying that people were still complaining. And I said, ‘How can that be?’ We put three new buses out there, carrying at least 171 more people than they did the previous week. When we checked, the buses were full already. So the demand was definitely there,” he says.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recently proposed congestion pricing scheme, aimed at reducing traffic and pollution in the city’s busiest areas, should create an even greater demand for public transit, Smith predicts.
The mayor’s plan would charge $8 for every car entering Manhattan below 86th Street between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, or $4 for drivers within Manhattan. The measure will undoubtedly push more commuters onto local rail and bus systems. “We’re going to have to increase service and drivers because it’s going to be a huge boon for us,” says Smith.