With approval of its local sales tax revenue package in April 2016, which provides Tulsa Transit with a dedicated funding source for the first time, the agency is ending this year on a high note. Approval of “Vision Tulsa,” a multi-project continuation of an existing sales tax, earmarks $58 million for specific transit projects over the next 15 years and will continue to supply a permanent tax revenue source for the transit system thereafter.
The Oklahoma-based agency operates fixed-route (62 buses), three fixed-route-flexible vehicles, and paratransit service (42 vehicles) over a nearly 200-square-mile service area with an $18 million operating budget. Annual fixed-route trips totaled three million, while rides on its Lift program totaled 120,000.
Although the economy and low gas prices have resulted in declining ridership, contracts with area high schools are helping fill seats on buses, says Tulsa Transit Assistant GM, Debbie Ruggles. The agency also contracts with a large public community college and three private colleges to provide free rides to students. Starting in January, the transit agency will service two additional campuses. “It’s almost more about marketing than revenue for us,” Ruggles explains. “We’ve been very successful as an organization in reaching out to our schools and we think it will reap huge benefits for us because we are teaching the younger generation how to ride.”
Vision Tulsa plan
Like many transit agencies across the country, Tulsa Transit has struggled without a dedicated funding source. “There’s not nearly enough funding to provide the frequent service that we need,” explains Ruggles. But, while the new funding package won’t help with expansion of services, Ruggles adds, “it’s exciting” to have funding for the projects tabbed for development and a permanent tax for public transportation.
One of the projects included in the Vision Tulsa package is a downtown multimodal facility. “Our transit station was built in 1998 and is a little undersized for our community,” Ruggles says. “What we really want is a multimodal facility that will incorporate all modes of transportation, including rail.”
While the agency doesn’t have immediate plans for rail, they want to position themselves to be ready if those options are available in the future, she adds. First steps include doing development studies for the project to determine location and required elements. And, if there is money available, Ruggles says, “to begin to either match some grants or do some land acquisition.”
Another project on the books is a downtown circulator, with the aim of providing service on a fairly frequent basis to key stops, including a new link connecting the downtown area to a large privately funded park, “The Gathering Place,” which is currently under construction.
The funding package provides money for both bus purchases and operation of the service. According to Ruggles, Tulsa Transit is in the process of reviewing vehicle options to run on the circulator. “We have CNG buses and we have a commitment to CNG in Tulsa, but we are also considering whether electric buses may be appropriate for the downtown shuttle,” Ruggles says.
Vision Tulsa also includes funding for the addition of Sunday service, which the agency has never had before. “We think it will be a fixed-route deviation service,” Ruggles says. “We’re very excited to bring that to our community.”
Lastly, the tax package will support the development and operation of two bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors. The first is a North/South corridor following Peoria Ave., and the second, is an East/West corridor on 11th Street, called Route 66. Initially, a previous tax package made $15 million in funding available to build the Peoria BRT route, but none for its operation, which was alleviated in the new tax package.
An Alternatives Analysis determined Peoria Ave. was the best route to tackle first, as it acts as the “workhorse” of the system by carrying 20% of the service’s ridership, according to Ruggles. Additional data determined that there is access to 20% of the city’s jobs within a 10-minute walk of the corridor. And, one in seven residents of the city of Tulsa lives within a 10-minute walk of the corridor.
The planning process for the Peoria line is already underway and the transit agency is under contract with engineering firm HNTB to kick-start the project.
The 16-mile line will feature 36 stations and nine vehicles offering 15-to-20-minute frequencies. Major destinations along the route include the downtown area, shopping centers, parks, a university, and a technical college. Additionally, a 10-minute walk from the corridor links to two area hospitals. The BRT system will also incorporate traffic signal priority, real-time arrival info, and e-ticketing. “At one time, we talked about having off-board ticket vending,” Ruggles explains. “But, we’ve gone away from that because Tulsa Transit will be developing an app for e-ticketing.”
Also, in another effort to improve boarding times, the agency is trying to ensure level boarding at as many stations as possible, Ruggles explains.
Expedited boarding process
The importance of shorter dwell times at stops was also made apparent during Tulsa Transit’s research visits to other BRT systems. It was during a tour of San Antonio-based VIA Metropolitan Transit’s BRT service that Tulsa Transit staffers saw the need for a wheelchair securement system that would expedite the boarding process.
To that end, the transit agency became a field test site for Q’Straint’s new fully-automatic, rear-facing wheelchair securement station — the Quantum. After conducting initial set-up testing, the company installed the unit on one of the agency’s low-floor buses in service “to get buy-in from bus operators and customers,” explains Randy Cloud, director, maintenance, Tulsa Transit.
For the pilot testing of the securement system, the agency reached out to Emeka Nnaka (pictured below), a wheelchair user who was a Tulsa Transit Lift service customer. In 2008, Nnaka, a former football player, was left permanently paralyzed from the chest down after a tragic tackle during a game.
“We asked him to help us test the system,” Ruggles says. “He spent a lot of time with us and gave a lot of really great feedback.”
Of the experience, Nnaka says, “It felt great not having to wait for the driver. It was like I gained back a piece of my independence,” he explains, adding that the “squeezing” mechanism holding the chair in place felt more stable than straps holding his wheelchair.
The transit agency conducted a customer survey to obtain additional feedback on the securement system. “We received so many positive comments from our customers,” Ruggles says. “They liked that it was fast, gave them independence, and that the driver didn’t need to be involved with the securement.”
Other feedback led the agency to shift the location of the Quantum from the curb side of the bus to the driver’s side, so the passenger using the securement system wasn’t in the sight line of the other customers looking for their stop.
The Quantum rear-facing wheelchair securement station is currently on three vehicles, explains Cloud, with plans to equip six more. Tulsa Transit will also equip 16 BRT buses with the technology.