While record ridership growth is a win for transit agencies in non-metropolitan cities who have historically wrestled for a stronger foothold in the communities they serve, this growth puts a strain on their systems as they try to keep up by doing more with less.
METRO Magazine spoke with two transit agencies serving smaller areas in the nation to find out what they do and what their biggest challenge is. Interestingly, financial constraints have not impacted operations as much as it has their plans to purchase more vehicles and complete capital plans to deal with ridership growth.
Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA)
Fleet Total: 102 Vehicles (fixed-route and paratransit)
Burlington, Vt.-based CCTA was chartered in 1973 by the Vermont General Assembly, after Burlington Rapid Transit, a private bus contractor, went out of business.
CCTA offers fixed route, demand response, commuter shuttles, and ADA and paratransit services. In addition to its fixed-route services, CCTA offers downtown employees a program called the Downtown PARC. This program shuttles employees from a satellite parking lot on Pine Street to downtown Burlington businesses, conserving scarce downtown parking for shoppers and visitors. It also provides shuttles from senior housing complexes to local supermarkets and neighborhood specials for student transportation to Burlington schools.
The agency serves eight of Vermont’s 14 counties, and in 2011, CCTA merged with the Green Mountain Transit Agency.
“For people who like change, it has been very dynamic, exciting and highly responsive to the community’s needs,” says Bill Watterson, GM for CCTA. “We have been adding services during peak travel times, but the challenge for us has really been growing our fleet, because we have high service demands at times when we don’t have any spare equipment.”
The agency had been able to accommodate the ridership growth, but has recently hit a wall in terms of its capacity to grow its fleet and still maintain and store it in Burlington.
“Going forward, we have a big challenge of being able to expand our operations and maintenance base here in Burlington, so that we can take care of the fleet that needs to grow to service the routes we have,” Watterson adds.
Along with increasing the number of trips during peak travel times, CCTA added seven new 45-foot Motor Coach Industries (MCI) Commuter buses in November 2012 to service its Link Express routes traveling from Burlington to Montpelier, Middlebury and St. Albans.
CCTA pursued funding for the larger buses in 2011 based on the ongoing growth of its three Link Express routes and the clear need for additional passenger capacity. In the most recently completed fiscal year, the three Link Express routes carried a combined 146,757 passengers, which represents a 13% increase over the previous year and builds on substantial growth since the first Link route began in 2003.
In late 2011, with the support of the Vermont Congressional delegation, CCTA was successful in securing a $3.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s Bus and Bus Facilities Livability Initiative to purchase the larger buses to meet the growing ridership demands. In addition to a 46% increase in seating capacity and a 100% increase in bicycle capacity, the new MCI buses offer improved Wi-Fi service, power outlets at every seat, and passenger controlled vents and lights.
Even with the new vehicles, however, the agency is still having capacity issues, according to Watterson.
“We have had a few occasions, even with greater capacity, to see trips where we still have some standees. As soon as we roll out new frequencies, our ridership continues to grow and grow, so we continue to have this ongoing need to expand the fleet, and it is concerning where we are going to be able to find the resources to do that,” he says. “The counterbalance is we think we are in a pretty good position. We have the resources we need to build a new transit station in downtown Burlington and at least make the acquisition of some additional property to grow our maintenance and operations base.”
While Watterson admits it will be increasingly difficult to find funding to purchase more vehicles, he is satisfied with the expanded use of CCTA’s services.
“It is the type of challenge those of us in transit like to have, because we are proving ourselves popular with people,” he explains. “We are keeping cars off the road and just need to figure out how to keep them riding with us.”
Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA)
Fleet total: 191 buses (fixed-route and paratransit)
Serving two counties spanning 730 square miles and serving an urbanized area population of more than 400,000, the Pa.-based LANTA provides fixed-route and paratransit services to Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
Last year, the agency provided more than 5.5 million trips on its fixed-route services and an additional 438,000 on its paratransit services. Its service area is approximately 70 miles north of Philadelphia and east of New York City.
“We all struggle with dollars and cents, however, that isn’t our greatest challenge at this point,” says Armand Greco, LANTA’s executive director. “Our real challenge is our community is growing, at least compared to other areas in Pennsylvania, very quickly and that is very much related to our proximity to New York City and Philadelphia. So, the need to expand services to meet the growing population base is our biggest issue.”
Since 1997, LANTA’s ridership is up almost 70% due to the growth in the communities it serves. What goes along with that growth, adds Greco, is LANTA’s need for more funds to both replace vehicles and expand its fleet.
“Interestingly enough, for the next year or two operating is in good shape,” he says.
Looking to become more efficient, LANTA completed a fairly comprehensive review of its system, culminating in the restructuring of its services.
“The realignment focused on increasing services in the heaviest corridors, with the rest of the routes restructured with some degradation of services,” Greco explains. “The restructure was built around the way the community has grown over the last 10 to 15 years.”
While the agency continues to battle with increasing frequencies to meet capacity, it is in the midst of a major fleet replacement program, including the addition of 24 diesel hybrid-electric buses from Gillig, 15 of which are already on site. The additional nine vehicles were recently approved for purchase in January 2013 and will include five, 35-foot buses and four, 40-foot buses at an estimated cost of $600,000 apiece. The new vehicles are already funded and expected to be delivered in spring 2014.
The larger issue is that the agency is on a 20-vans-per-year purchase program to keep its fleet of 108 paratransit vehicles in good shape.
“We had some legislation in 2007, which is why we are in good shape operating-wise, but right now there are very little federal dollars being provided for capital,” Greco says.
With property taxes being the main source of revenue for Pennsylvania municipalities, obtaining the additional funding to grow services and its fleet will continue to be a challenge for LANTA moving forward.
“Lehigh Valley and Northampton counties, our primary funders, have been good. We’ve had a very good working relationship, and, to date, we have not been underfunded,” explains Greco. “Our communities have been very supportive, but we haveve always built our relationship on holding their amounts down and getting as many grants from our state and federal partners as possible. Now, where we are going in future is another matter, with state and federal funding getting tighter and tighter every day.”