In April 2019, the board of directors for Texas’ Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA) approved a host of on-call contracts that will allow the agency to allocate up to $2.4 million of its annual operating budget to offer a variety of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) options for its ridership via task orders. The move is part of the agency’s focus on providing more options as the face of mobility in cities and regions continues to evolve.
“There is a changing landscape in the public transportation sector we’re working in now, where people want to see different offerings other than the traditional buses and guided fixed rail,” explains Lindsey Baker, director of strategic partnerships at DCTA. “Because of this change, we’re trying to be more flexible to meet the community’s needs with more innovative solutions and kind of go more toward this model of being a broker of service.”
The agency launched the program with a request for proposals (RFP) in January 2019, asking firms to provide innovative options to implement flexible and effective mobility services to enhance and/or supplement DCTA’s existing transit offerings, as well as provide service to areas where traditional transportation options are less effective.
A total of 37 firms responded to the RFP and 31 were selected to become a part of the agency’s MaaS contract model, which features various mobility solutions, including bike-sharing, integrated fare payment and collection, microtransit, and autonomous vehicles. After approval from the DCTA board, 30 firms became eligible for contract execution.
“We had a few things in mind that we definitely wanted to accomplish with the RFP, including allowing other public entities to leverage the contracts that we have,” says Baker. “So basically, the board approved 31 vendors that we have contracts with, and now other public transit agencies, both in Texas and nationwide, can actually come to DCTA and leverage those contracts for their own purposes without having to go through the onerous RFP process. That is a big piece of this program.”
Baker adds two more keys to the RFP process was to find financially stable firms that could meet all federal requirements, as well as leave the door open to other smaller or local firms.
“In the tech world, and transportation is no exception, innovative companies can change or be bought out quickly, so we wanted to be sure that we were working with financially stable and viable companies,” says Baker. “Also, we didn’t want to eliminate firms that couldn’t meet the necessary federal requirements, because many times there are various projects where we are able to leverage local dollars instead of federal funds.”
How process played out
Baker explains that through the process, the DCTA now has a “big bucket” of $2.4 million; however, each contract doesn’t necessarily have a dollar amount ascribed to it until the task order process.
“We generally know the type of funding structure the various firms offer based on the RFP process and the information they provided, so we have an understanding of what we’re working with, which allows us to do solid estimates,” she says. “But once we decide we want to implement a project, we will then reach out to our vendors and have them give us a price quote, and based on that, we would determine who we would want to move forward with on a particular project.”
The agency embarked on the process without any specific projects or mobility modes in mind.
“I can’t say we were exactly thinking about one specific project that we knew we were going to deploy into service, it was much more a general approach in trying to inhabit this space of being a broker of service,” says Baker.
“It was more of a ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ process,” she adds, “we really just wanted the opportunity to hear from any type of innovative Mobility as a Service firm or vendor that existed and that is what we go through this process.”
As for its next steps, Baker says the agency is currently spreading the word that the process has been completed and that everything is in place, with all 30 contracts set to be completed in June. From there, she says that if the agency chooses to move forward on a project, it should take two to three months to deploy, with more complex projects, such launching an autonomous vehicle, expected to take a bit longer to deploy.
“Really, as we get the contracts in place, we are going to be in position to take off sprinting when we identify a project we want to move forward on,” Bakers says.
Moving forward, lessons learned
Baker explains a major benefit of the agency’s contract model is that the competition piece is done and it now has a pool of firms ready to go, with those contracts also available to other transportation entities.
“Our interest is not about DCTA, it’s about what’s right for the region and where we can best facilitate innovative technologies being deployed for transportation, regardless of who gets the credit,” she says.
For other agencies looking to follow a similar model to DCTAs, Baker recommends continuing to qualify additional firms to ensure your agency is up to date with all the technologies that are out there.
“In another year, we will do this again,” she says. “We will continue to keep the firms that we have already established on the roster, but we’ll be able to open it up to additional firms, which is definitely something we would advise others to do if they are following this model.”
She adds that agencies should also make sure the financial review piece is done toward the beginning of the process.
“If you find out early in the process that a particular vendor is not viable or has some questionable financials that require further vetting, you want to make sure that is done on the front end as opposed to after you decide that you want to work with that firm and are surprised by something being wrong,” Baker says.
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