In April, Bill Thomas was named executive director of the RTC, which serves as the metropolitan planning organization, public transit operator, and street and highway agency for the Reno-Sparks metropolitan area and the unincorporated area in Washoe County in Nevada. He inherited an agency that played a big part in the revitalization of the communities they serve through the development of robust BRT systems that run Proterra battery-electric buses.
METRO’s Managing Editor Alex Roman recently spoke to Thomas about his short- and long-term goals as he begins his tenure, the agency’s ongoing usage of battery-electric buses, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both the RTC and the Reno-Sparks region.
What are some of the short-term goals you have as you begin your tenure at the RTC?
First, and most importantly, I set a goal to meet with each and every employee of the organization to create a broad personal understanding of the needs of the people and the organization I have been asked to lead. I would say I have met with about 90% of the employees and it has given me great insight into individual and organizational strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunities.
Another broad goal I set for myself is to address the ongoing community characterization of the transit system as a failure because ‘they never see anyone on the bus.’ As a long-term member of our community, I know this narrative has been around for many, many years. As a novice to the world of transit, I may be told that this is a common sentiment with transit. For me, that is not a good enough answer. I want to truly understand how an effective transit system in Reno and Sparks should operate. I know we have a highly skilled and experienced transit staff and a very competent contract provider. I know our rolling stock and assets have been well maintained and strategically placed. I think the missing part of the formula is making sure our Board and our community fully understand what a ‘good’ transit system in Reno/Sparks looks like and hold us accountable for providing and maintaining that level of service.
I am particularly excited about implementing our new BRT route extension that connects our quickly expanding Tier One University to our downtown, our organic and dynamic Midtown commercial district, and the potentially significant increase in discretionary riders that will result from this project.
You came on board during the pandemic, can you please talk about the impact on the RTC, as well as the state of the system today as cities begin opening back up in phases?
RTC, like many other providers, saw a huge ridership loss with the pandemic. We lost up to 62% of our riders on the fixed-routes and 75% on our paratransit service. We worked with the Washoe County Health District early on to highly encourage social distancing and sanitized our transit facilities and vehicles so were able to keep our normal service levels instead of cutting back service. This allowed us to have only five percent of our bus trips with more than 15 passengers onboard. With paratransit, we went to one person trips. Since we did not cut back service levels or stop charging fares, we do not have drastic changes to make with the reopening. In mid-June, we experienced a 45% ridership decrease over last year so we are starting to increase ridership as more openings happen. A couple of other experiences I would share is the employees of our contract provider, Keolis, were ingenious and developed a method to install moveable plastic curtains between the drivers and the passengers to increase safety for both. Very early in the process, we connected a local mask donor with Keolis to provide drivers with KN95 masks along with other PPE. This allowed our drivers to have the highest level of protection available at the time.
The biggest challenge I see is the issue of passengers wearing masks. We have followed very closely both National and International transit operators to understand how best to deal with this issue. Given we are in a country that has decentralized the response to COVID 19, we have been following our Governor’s guidance. On June 24, he mandated the wearing of masks and face coverings in all public places. The challenge we are now facing is how it will be enforced on our transit system. I am personally not a fan of the drivers being given that responsibility and concerned about passenger conflicts over face coverings and how that will affect the coach operators and the service we provide.
I also want to give credit to the US DOT, the Federal Transit Administration, and Congress for their support of the transit industry with the CARES Act. The funding we received will be very beneficial given the revenue shortfall we are experiencing. Additionally, our federal partners, in coordination with FTA Region 9 offices, provided us face masks and coverings for our frontline transit workforce and customers.
Outside of the pandemic, what are some of the agency’s biggest challenges and how are you looking to solve them?
Before the pandemic we were working with our Board of Directors to enhance connectivity in our outlying areas of the county with a combination of extending a fixed-route line and opening two new microtransit zones. We are working through our microtransit demonstration, launched last November, that has been very successful so far. We created two test zones to explore the viability of this technology to meet the challenges — low density, circuitous street networks, very few accessible sidewalks, retail built for automobile-access only, and high-auto ownership — of our outlying areas within the county. Our core service has remained highly productive, but we struggled to meet the increased demands of suburban growth efficiently and effectively.
I mentioned ridership loss earlier, and we are now looking at how we bring riders back. We are developing messaging to instill confidence and comfort to know that riding RTC transit is safe. We will accomplish this by letting them know what we are doing to clean and sanitize transit vehicles and stations daily, promoting social distancing at transit stops and in the bus, and the use of face coverings. Before the start of each shift, on a daily basis, a nurse is on site to take temperature checks of our coach operators. And, we offer reminders to everyone to wash hands frequently and stay home if sick, for their safety and those around them. We are branding this campaign, #RIDESafelyWithRTC — RIDE is what we call our fixed-route service. This campaign is just now being developed, and we are looking forward to creating a robust and compelling safety awareness program.RTC is in the process of implementing service changes, can you talk about what some of the goals of this process are?We use our service changes to make sure our service quality is as high as possible; we collect an abundance of performance data, and use it to adjust our running times at each service change to make sure our On-Time Performance stays above 90 percent. With our upcoming service change, we are implementing the two microtransit zones, as I mentioned earlier, extending two routes: one to a new school, senior services, and food bank facility along a very productive route, and the other is extending a route back along a corridor that has seen a rise in ridership after converting to a microtransit zone. This will be a good test to see if ridership will gravitate to fixed route now that there is an established pattern of usage from these higher-origin/destination locations. We did a survey of the current ridership and many requested a fixed route for these origin/destination locations. Our final change is filling in some gaps of service along one of our routes that was cut back when we were experiencing driver shortages.
Looking ahead, how do you think the idea of mobility in Reno/Sparks will change post-pandemic? Will you explore other ways to deliver services?
At this point, we are continuing to push the boundary of new mobility with our upcoming microtransit zones while pushing ahead with our expansion of our backbone system with the extension of our BRT RAPID Virginia Street Line to the University of Nevada, Reno, opening in early 2021. This is our FTA Small Starts CIG project.
I believe the biggest post-pandemic issues will be achieving the secure feeling our customers will need to have to get them back on buses; the rate of recovery of jobs, particularly those in the tourism industry, and return of students to schools and how that may impact our ridership; and lastly the recovery of sales tax revenue, which is the principle ongoing source of O&M funding. We are trying to be wise about how we spend the short-term funding assistance we are receiving from the Federal Government to maintain a sustainable business model.
Why do you feel it is important to the RTC to continue expanding its electric bus program?
The electric bus program is important to the RTC as we move toward our goal of 100% alternative-fueled vehicles by 2035. RTC Washoe was the first public agency in the state to deploy electric buses in its fleet. RTC launched its electric bus program in April 2014 with four Proterra buses. In 2018, 17 new long-range, battery-powered, 100 percent-electric Proterra buses were added to our fleet. Our fleet today is currently one-third electric buses. Reducing our dependence on imported oil has historically been one of the drivers of alternative-fuel use. Today, this goal has evolved into a more far-reaching effort to reduce our carbon footprint by lowering our transportation emissions and greenhouse gases and, as a result, improve the overall health and safety of our transit riders and our region. These buses are zero emission and produce almost no pollution in the urban area where they operate. Saving money is also important and these buses operate on 100 percent electricity that is available in Nevada at a relatively low cost. As the State of Nevada advances its goal of 50 percent renewable energy production by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050, this source of energy will ultimately be even cleaner. Additional money savings is expected to be realized in maintenance as these buses have fewer parts and are anticipated to cost less to maintain. These buses are quieter and reduce the sound pollution along the corridors they operate in and reduce the noise level inside the bus for a comfortable ride for our passengers. A cleaner, quieter, and lower cost bus improves the overall efficiency of our transit system and enhances the rider experience for our passengers that choose transit and make sustainable choices. The partnership with Proterra, working with their team, is mutually beneficial making a difference for our transit program and the transit industry. RTC’s commitment to clean transportation, improving the rider experience, and saving money is the cornerstone of the RTC electric bus program.