January 19, 2009
Despite Financial Woes, Keep Building...The Public Transit Customers Will Come!
By Joyce Eleanor
APTA Vice Chair, Bus & Paratransit Operations
Community Transit, Snohomish County, WA
Like many public transit agencies around the country, my own mid-size bus and vanpool operation in northwest Washington State faced serious budget challenges heading into 2009.
Last year’s volatile fuel prices and the severe drop in sales taxes—our primary funding source—led to drastic cost-saving measures and a fare increase for Snohomish County’s Community Transit. But, looking at our growing ridership and lofty capital plans, I presented my staff with two mandates: We would not cut staff, and we would not cut service.
To the credit of everyone at our agency, including my conservative chief financial officer, we found a way not only to maintain service in 2009, but increase it, while at the same time moving full speed ahead on some of the most exciting transit projects in the Puget Sound region.
Chief among these projects is our 17-mile Swift line, which will introduce Bus Rapid Transit to the region. Construction has begun on the line’s 24 stations, which will feature stylish weather protection, ticket vending machines, and next bus arrival signs. Swift will not only improve transit service on our busiest corridor, it will greatly increase service available to our customers.
At our ground-breaking ceremony in December 2008, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) lauded the project for our partnership with local jurisdictions and for keeping jobs in the region.
While we would like to put more of our funding into service, we recognize that access to our system can be a barrier, so we are also building new parking capacity. Our new Mountlake Terrace Transit Center will double the capacity of the old park-and-ride at the same site. The environmentally friendly project includes a four-story, five-level parking garage with solar energy panels that will feed the grid, the daylighting of a historic stream that runs through the neighborhood, and extensive use of recycled materials. Our community involvement includes a cast glass art project designed by local high school students.
We’re also increasing parking capacity in the northern part of our service area with construction of a new 200-stall commuter park-and-ride in Marysville. This rapidly growing area already has several park-and-rides, but demand has increased along with population growth.
Another exciting partnership in our region this year is the ORCA (One Regional Card for All) smart card project. The program will simplify fare collection on seven transportation agencies in the Puget Sound region by allowing passengers to swipe their card on a reader to pay their fare. The other participating transit agencies are Everett Transit in Everett; King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit, both in Seattle; Kitsap Transit in Bremerton; Pierce Transit in Lakewood; and Washington State Ferries. In our effort to improve the transit experience, this complex project aims to consolidate more than 300 types of fare media onto one card!
As ORCA and Swift demonstrate, technology is important to Community Transit’s operation. We’re now developing a transit technology program that will allow us to employ the most advanced technology available to assist in our operations. Among the most exciting features are the use of Global Positioning Satellite systems to track our bus locations, automatic passenger counters, automatic stop annunciation, computer-aided dispatch, real-time bus information, and transit signal priority. The transit technology program should give us better ridership data, improve our operations, and improve the transit experience for passengers.
Clearly, 2008 was a challenging year for Community Transit. My challenge to the agency this year, and to others throughout the country, is to look at ridership trends and invest now in projects that will pay off for years to come. It’s not easy, and not every agency can do it. In our case, we used up years’ worth of reserves and delayed some purchases to continue on our path. And my fingers are crossed that the economy will rebound this year. But I’m very proud of the fact that Community Transit has shown that—with planning, hard work, and a dedicated staff—it’s possible to continue providing great service, maintaining jobs, and improving service for our customers.