[IMAGE]Contractors.jpg[/IMAGE]Transit agencies generally contract services with outside vendors to cut costs, benefit from the provider's management or operational expertise, or improve efficiency.
Although contractors are not seeing a trend in transit agencies converting to privately-operated services, some hope the economic climate may push publicly run transit operators to consider contracts as a way to meet the demands of constricted budgets.
Cincinnati-based First Transit, a division of FirstGroup America, provides fixed-route, paratransit and shuttle services, including university and airport shuttles. In addition, the company's First Services division offers fleet maintenance for municipalities and private companies.
First Transit President Brad Thomas has been with the company since 2003. He previously served as president of Coach USA Transit Services and joined First Transit when the Coach USA division was acquired by FirstGroup, serving as senior vice president of the east region. He became president in 2009.
In July, First Transit will begin operations in a contract for North County Transit District (NCTD) in Oceanside, Calif.
"That is what we could call a conversion, which means previously the county ran it themselves and they made the decision to contract the services out," Thomas says. "It's something that I'm hoping we see more of because I think there are some real opportunities for efficiencies when services are contracted out."
Will contracted services become a trend for agencies hard-pressed to make ends meet during tough economic times? "There are certainly more agencies that are experiencing economic difficulties," Thomas says. "I wouldn't say that there's a trend in that direction, but I'm hoping that as there are successes, we start to see more. If authorities and municipalities see that this type of conversion can be successful, they may decide to do the same."
The NCTD contract, estimated to save the agency approximately $70 million over the seven-year life of the contract, includes about 140 vehicles and 300 employees.
"We bring a lot to the table in the sense that we have a lot of different experiences and resources to draw from," Thomas explains. He says First Transit's maintenance, safety and employee programs provide efficiency while still maintaining a high quality of service for clients.
In addition, technology plays a role in helping customers attain efficient service. First Transit will be deploying two technologies in the NCTD contract: GreenRoad, a real-time driver modification training tool, and Zonar Systems' electronic inspection and maintenance tracking. "The driver is required to stop at different stations around the vehicle and identify certain things, and that's all tied into the maintenance work orders," Thomas says.
About 9,000 of FirstGroup's vehicles in the U.K. are outfitted with the GreenRoad system and the Zonar system is in place with most of FirstGroup's contracts maintained by the company's school transportation division, First Student. "These are just two examples of things where, because of our size, we're able to use what we find works and what we know is going to bring value or performance to a contract at other locations we operate," Thomas says.
Another First Transit contract set to start operations in July is in Reno, Nev., with the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). In addition to the fixed-route services First Transit already operates for the agency, the company will now also run RTC's paratransit operations.
Thomas says he is most proud of First Transit's commitment to safety. "We have a very robust safety program in place, including everything from our high-visibility vests that all of our employees wear, down to our injury prevention program, which is intended to encourage safe behavior amongst our drivers and technicians," he says.
In that vein, First Transit uses DriveCam, a driver safety training tool that records incidents such as sharp turns, hard braking and collisions. "That's been a great tool for us in training our employees because nothing quite does the same thing as having the video of an incident so they can learn from their experience," Thomas says.
McDonald Transit Associates
McDonald Transit Associates, based in Fort Worth, Texas, currently serves 32 locations, providing consulting and management and operating contracts to cities, transit authorities and national parks.
President Robert Babbitt first joined the company in 1977 as an intern and has worked at four different McDonald Transit Associates locations during the course of his career. He has previously held the positions of vice president and chief financial officer.
The company's two largest contracts are managed in Fort Worth and Charlotte, N.C. "In Charlotte, we serve a booming city of about a million people," Babbitt says. "They have opened their first rail line and have three other corridors in development right now."
McDonald has served the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) and its commuter rail line, the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) for 37 years.
The company is currently pursuing six additional opportunities for contracted services, and has been selected competitively three times in the past two months, Babbitt says, with contracts awarded with Lowell (Mass.) Regional Transportation Authority and Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah.
"There are several national parks that have begun transit systems," Babbitt says. "It was an interesting decision in each park — how much transit to offer or how much to require people to park their cars."
He notes that the addition of transit options in the national parks have had several positive impacts. "In each case where the transit systems have been implemented, they've noticed a change in the congestion and fighting for limited parking spots, and a reduction in the noise. Between those two factors, there was an improvement in the amount of wildlife that comes back down near the roadways. It was really striking that literally, a week after the shuttle was in place, here come deer and even a bobcat or two," Babbitt says.
One of McDonald's greatest strengths is its personnel, Babbitt says. "There are certainly very talented people in the government-run transit agencies, but in general, because we're able to offer our employees a long-term horizon for this as a career, we believe that we have some of the brightest people in the industry. Being able to offer a long-term career in a business that has a four-and-a-half-years average tenure is quite attractive," he says.
Two of the company's managers were named in a recent list of the Top 40 Under 40 in the transit industry, and the company has won the American Public Transportation Association award for best transit system in their size category six times, Babbitt says.
In October 2009, McDonald Transit Associates became the U.S. affiliate of Regional Authority for Transport Paris Development (Ratp Dev) USA. "Fifty-one percent of our shares are now owned by Ratp Dev," Babbitt says. "The group is now in five continents. It's the fastest growing transit service group in the world."
Keith Whalen joined MV Transportation in 1999 as the vice president of business development. After holding various positions within the company, he was promoted this year to chief development officer.
He sees MV's ability and willingness to work with clients as one of the qualities that makes the company stand out. "We work very hard to be a true partner with our customers," he says. "There are times when we are going to have to come to the table and work with them to resolve issues that may have to do with their community or the agency as a whole. Our ability to modify what we're doing, look at different ways of providing services or find ways to save money in coordination with them has really been important."
This flexibility has become particularly valuable to clients over recent years, Whalen says. "We certainly understand that these are unique times and we see the need for public transportation to be expanding and growing. At the same time, the resources and money available to support those services is declining," he says. "We have found that it is critical to maintain open lines of communication and look at different ways of doing service that may not have been looked at before."
MV plans to deploy the MV-1 wheelchair accessible sedan from Vehicle Production Group to help reduce operating costs and improve flexibility for paratransit fleets MV serves. In addition, the company is looking at ways to integrate mobile data terminals (MDTs) to improve communication and reduce operating costs. "In fact, we've worked with a few of our agencies where we funded MDT systems in a paratransit program and configured the deal in a way where it was no cost to the agency," Whalen says. "We have a great deal of resources available in our company to assist with those types of technological implementations."
Similarly, MV has developed proprietary programs that integrate with GPS technology to allow the tracking of on-time performance. "That has been used in some cases to better track the performance of routes and thus allow schedule adjustments to be made and potentially make the service more efficient," Whalen says.
Last year, MV was awarded and began operation of the Fairfax Connector contract, a fixed-route express service in Fairfax County, Va. More recently, the company was awarded paratransit contracts in Anoka, Minn., and Cary, N.C.
MV has also made driver training a focus, investing time and resources to overhaul the training program. "We give them the tools to be successful out on the road, providing our passengers with safe service, first and foremost, and courteous service as well," Whalen says. "We offer people the opportunity to make a living and have a career, at the same time doing a valuable service for their community."
Based in Lombard, Ill., Veolia Transportation operates in 28 countries, providing fixed-route bus, paratransit, bus rapid transit (BRT), commuter and light rail, shuttle and taxi services to clients requiring passenger transportation.
Senior Vice President of Business Development Dick Alexander says the company's international background plays a big role in what Veolia can bring to clients. "We have a lot of experience in a lot of different operating environments and to bring that experience to bear locally, based on whatever the priorities are of that organization, is one of the things a client gets from us that adds value," he says.
One of the contracts Veolia has won in the past year is in New Orleans, helping to improve efficiency and cut costs to work toward expanding services back to pre-Katrina levels. "The money saved will be reinvested back into service expansion," Alexander says.
He notes that this contract represents the first delegated management contract in the U.S. Under these types of arrangements — which are more common in Europe, he says — the private entity performs all functions below the policy-making level. "Instead of simply operating and maintaining buses, we do marketing, purchasing, grants administration, develop branding programs, service and routes planning - everything above the board level, Veolia provides," Alexander says. "It's an unusual model in the U.S. and we're hoping to start a trend."
The company's most recent contract award was with the City of Phoenix. Under the $74-million agreement, Veolia will take over operations of the formerly publicly-operated system there. "We'll be working jointly with them in service planning, operating efficiencies, purchasing and grant work," Alexander says.
Alexander has been with Veolia for 10 years, having started with the company as a consultant when Veolia first entered the North American market with the purchase of Yellow Transportation in Baltimore.
Veolia Transportation is a division of Veolia Transport Worldwide, which is a subsidiary of Veolia Environnement. Being part of a company that provides environmental services has affected the way the transportation division does business, Alexander says. "Our perspective in providing services is not only in terms of mobility but also sustainability," he says. "We measure our carbon footprint location by location and we have developed programs and processes with the emphasis on sustainable development."
Among those programs are a "green garages" effort and a system called eco-driving, which monitors vehicle fuel consumption and compares that to driver behaviors such as acceleration and braking. Drivers are then trained to modify driving techniques to improve fuel economy.