Monday, March 29, 2010

Open Government 2.0

Warning: This blog post is about technology. That means: it is way over my head, and maybe yours, too. But really, we’re 10 years into the 21st Century. Guess we gotta go techie sometimes.

I spent two days last week in Seattle at a conference called “Open Government 2.0.” The concept is that governments at all levels have all sorts of data and information that the public could use to participate in, influence and understand government. Beyond that, idealists in the room hope that technology might help create a whole new way of governing in the 21st Century.

The West Coast has many leaders in this effort. For city government trying to make data available, see Seattle's data port. Portland just launched an “apps contest” so local developers can help put city data to use. Check out their new iPhone app, which helped increase reports of graffiti from 10 to 228.. British Columbia officials are still excited about the success of their Facebook “You Gotta Be Here” campaign for the Olympics.

Like many conferences, the real value was in meeting and speaking with the people in attendance. Mukilteo City Councilwoman Jennifer Greggerson was there, and took Community Transit service to the event. See her Tweets about the conference (with link to her blog), here.

As is often the case, the lawyer in the room was a bit of a wet blanket – no offense to the very informative Ramsey Ramerman, Everett’s assistant city attorney. He pointed out that social media can create important public records and even public meeting issues that must be considered by governments and elected officials.

For those of you who know enough to be fans of One Bus Away – which provides access to King County Metro (and now Pierce Transit) bus information, you’ll be jealous to hear that I met the mastermind himself, Brian Ferris. Even though Community Transit doesn’t have real-time bus information (yet), he’d like us in the fold.

But everything is complicated when your data is not standardized. That was a big message of the conference, and one that drives home the value of Google Transit – not the application itself, but the fact that it uses standardized schedule data (General Transit Feed Specification) which can be reused in so many ways, by so many people. Michael Keating of the Open Planning Project is working to use GFTS data and open source programming to create an “open trip planner” for transit. Not surprisingly, one of his partners in that effort is the trailblazing Bibiana McHugh and Portland TriMet (which worked with Google to develop the GTFS).

I also talked to Linda Thielke of King County Metro. She seemed a little disappointed not to have any snow events this winter after Metro developed all sorts of new communication plans to improve on last year’s efforts. They have an “Eye on Your Metro Commute” blog to post peak-hour rider information. They also added an email/text alerts system similar to what we have had at Community Transit for almost three years.

My take-away from the conference is this: Technology is a powerful tool, but not an end in itself. Both are important to remember.

Friday, March 26, 2010

More than just buses; a look at CTR

Many people think of Community Transit as a bus company, but our role in giving the people of Snohomish County transportation options extends far beyond buses.

We work with some of the largest employers in the region to help reduce congestion on our roadways. Each year we honor the businesses and the people who make Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) effective in Snohomish County and Bothell. There are 74 businesses in our jurisdiction with more than 100 employees, representing about 26,000 people. Our shared task, according to state CTR law, is to reduce the number of people who drive alone to the worksite, and to reduce the total number of miles traveled by employees .

Most businesses use the carrot approach: preferred parking for carpools, vanpool and bus pass subsidies, support for Bike to Work and other fun events like the state’s current Wheel Options campaign –share the ride and win!

It’s surprising how just a little support for changing our habits and saving money can make a big difference. According to the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT): “At worksites that have participated in the CTR Program since 1993, the drive-alone rate dropped from 70.9 percent in 1993 to 65.5 percent in 2007. This is a larger drop than for the state as a whole and is also larger than the drop at other worksites in the same areas that have the same access to commute options.”

Cypress Semiconductor in unincorporated Lynnwood was honored as Community Transit’s Employer of the Year for 2009. The company considered ending its free bus pass program, but instead decided to try the new ORCA pass at a bulk rate. Now 10 percent fewer people drive alone to the business park off 164th Street. The ORCA card makes it easier for Cypress to pay for actual transit use while making bus passes available for all employees.

CTR programs don’t just benefit bigger businesses and the employees who participate. WSDOT says: “In the central Puget Sound, the CTR program plays an especially important role. Many of the trips reduced by participants in the CTR program would otherwise have passed through the region's major traffic chokepoints during peak travel periods. The absence of 19,200 vehicle trips every morning reduced peak travel delay by an estimated 18 percent on average mornings in the region.”

Read between the lines. This shows that alternative transportation helps those people who still drive! And it saves dollars! The program saved $35 in wasted time and resources for every $1 the state invested in 2009. For more proof of the value of CTR, see the 2007 state performance audit of the Department of Transportation that calls for more state investment in Commute Trip Reduction.

What do you think the state DOT’s priorities should be in this tight economy?
Building major road projects that create jobs?

Investing in efficient use of our existing infrastructure through programs like CTR and transit?

Keeping the roads and bridges well-maintained and safe?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Agency Still Seeking Funding

Community Transit is still pursuing every avenue for additional funding to fill the budget deficit in 2010 and 2011 and potentially offset the service cuts planned for June.

CEO Joyce Eleanor met with our representatives in the U.S. Congress last week and made the case for federal aid for bus service. Typically, federal funding goes to capital projects such as bus replacements or transit facilities, but not service to riders. While the agency will continue to need capital funding to replace its aging buses, Eleanor asked for special consideration for money that could be used to operate transit service in light of the planned suspension of Sunday service that will take effect June 13.

The message seemed well received, but officials and their staff expressed frustration that there is not a funding mechanism (i.e. legislation) for them to simply add this funding request. Unless a federal Jobs bill that includes infrastructure investment is revived, there may be little chance for a federal funding solution to the current Community Transit budget woes.

In conversations that Eleanor had with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (read his blog) and key federal officials, they agreed that it would be good to provide temporary operating assistance for transit service. Transit agencies across the state and nation are facing challenges similar to those at Community Transit.

On the state front, while a transit funding bill died in the House during the regular session, language to authorize a temporary vehicle license fee for transit operations is still being floated in the special session. Rep. Marko Liias of Mukilteo has been leading this effort. Legislators are wrangling over language for a final state budget, and it’s possible that the transit funding language could make its way into the final budget.

Community Transit will continue to monitor the possibility of state funding from Olympia.

Friday, March 19, 2010

High-Tech Dreams Meet Budget Reality

The creation of this blog was included in the Social and Electronic Communication Plan developed by Community Transit staff last year. So was a mobile-friendly website and the sharing of our schedule information with Google for use in the private company’s Google Transit tool (we’d also make that schedule data available to the public and other programmers).

Unfortunately, it takes both staff and financial resources to turn high-tech dreams into reality, and both are in limited supply right now. Due to budget cuts and a hiring freeze, our IT department has 18 percent fewer staff positions now than a year ago. That played heavily into the elements and timeline approved in our final electronic communication plan: low-tech blog now, mobile web and Google Transit later.

But all is not lost. Many agencies that use Google Transit don’t have their own trip planners. We do. The Trip Planner on our website is a valuable tool that has many of the same features as Google Transit - and some additional ones that we customize. Our regional Trip Planner incorporates King County Metro, Community Transit, Sound Transit, Everett Transit, state ferry and Pierce Transit information all in one place (only two of those partners are now on Google).

By having our own Trip Planner, we are able to highlight related rider alerts, include fare information and link to route schedules. We update landmark names, include holiday schedules and provide a one-stop-shop of transit info. We plan to make several small but significant improvements to the Trip Planner functionality this year, and your suggestions are welcome.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Swift, vanpool ridership rise as overall ridership falls

While they are pre-audited numbers, Community Transit’s ridership totals for 2009 are in – a 4.6 drop in ridership after four straight years of record highs.

Thar’s not unexpected given high unemployment and downward national transit trends due to the recession. The American Public Transportation Association last week released a report showing an overall decrease of 3.8 percent in transit ridership in the U.S. last year.

The bright spots for the agency are the Highway 99 corridor, where the Swift bus rapid transit line has become the highest ridership route and helped ridership on the corridor increase 11 percent.

Also, the vanpool program hit its all-time ridership mark, climbing 1.6 percent higher than 2008 numbers, when high gas prices created a huge demand for these agency-sponsored pools.

Total ridership on the agency’s buses, vanpools and DART paratransit vehicles was 11.4 million last year, down from an agency record 11.9 million passenger boardings in 2008.

By transportation mode, that can be broken down to:
· 5.2 percent decrease in fixed-route bus ridership
· 1.6 percent increase in vanpool ridership
· 0.9 percent increase in DART paratransit ridership

On June 13, Community Transit will suspend all Sunday and holiday bus and paratransit service – including Swift, and will cut service on many routes the remaining days of the week. This is being done to balance the 2010 budget.

Swift, Highway 99 ridership
· Nov. 29, 2009, Swift begins service with 1,523 boardings that day
· December , 1,699 average weekday boardings
· January, 2,367 average weekday boardings
· February, 2,660 average weekday boardings

While many Swift riders have switched from Route 101, the local bus route that runs from south Everett to Aurora Village along Highway 99 as a companion to Swift, Route 101 ridership remains healthy and is second highest in Community Transit’s system, with an average of 2,218 weekday boardings in February.

Combined, Swift and Route 101 carried 4,878 passengers each weekday on February 2010, compared to the 4,376 combined weekday boardings of Route 101 and Route 100 (which Swift replaced) in February 2009. That 11 percent increase on the Highway 99 corridor came as other transit ridership in the system dropped 8 percent February 2009 to February 2010.

Importantly, Swift is already near the system average of productivity for buses, even with more Swift buses running than on other routes.

Weekday Productivity by Boardings/Hour per vehicle
December January February
Swift 11.6 16.1 18.1
Local 18.9 19.7 19.8
System 19.7 21.7 21.9

This statistic represents how many passengers get on one particular bus in a given service hour. Keep in mind that on each route there are multiple buses in service at the same hour.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Note from a Board Member

By Ted Hikel, Community Transit Board Member

I have been an elected official for eighteen years. The vote I cast last week to suspend Sunday and holiday service was the most difficult one I have ever taken. No one on the Board of Directors, no one from the top of the administration to the bus drivers, from the Ride Store employees to the mechanics wanted this to happen.

Please understand that the most disappointed and unhappy people are not only our bus riders but also the whole Community Transit family. We were faced with making the best decision from a list of unfortunate choices. But the bottom line is the bottom line and there is not enough money to continue the current level of service. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Board Adopts Service Plan v1.0

The Community Transit Board today adopted a service plan that will suspend all bus and paratransit service on Sundays and major holidays, as well as cut overall service by 15 percent. The service cuts will take effect on June 13, 2010.

In addition, the board approved a 25-cent fare increase on all local bus and DART paratransit trips, effective June 1, 2010.

The service cuts and fare increase were made in response to continually declining revenues from sales taxes. The latest monthly figures show a decline of nearly 21 percent in sales tax revenues from the same period in 2007.

The service cuts were largely similar to a proposal announced two months ago. However, the board today adopted several changes to that proposal that restored some service to certain routes. Details of the changes will be posted on the agency's website March 5, and this blog will be updated to reflect and link to those details.

Board Chair Dave Gossett, the current chair of the Snohomish County Council, opened discussion on changes to the service proposal by proposing to reduce weekday daytime frequencies on Route 101 from 20 minutes to 30 minutes. Route 101 serves 128th Street/Airport Road from the Mariner Park & Ride east to Highway 99, then Hwy 99 to the Aurora Village Transit Center.

That proposal set an upper limit of savings that could offset other service restorations that were to come. The Route 101 amendment was passed.

Other amendments that were passed to restore service from the original proposal included:

Route 106 - Two southbound morning trips and two northbound evening trips through the North Creek Business Park area loop in Bothell between Canyon Park and UW Bothell were restored. Exact times of those trips is still to be determined.

Route 121 - Two northbound morning trips and two southbound evening trips serving the link on 23rd Avenue SE in Bothell between Canyon Park and UW Bothell were restored. Exact times of those trips is still to be determined.

Route 424 was restored to its current routing through Snohomish on all trips.

Route 477 will continue to serve Brier, but with modified routing between the Brier Park & Ride and the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center via 236th, 44th and 228th. This routing will be revisited in February 2011 when the Sound Transit I-5 flyer stop is scheduled to open.

Also, Gossett proposed a $50,000 fund be set aside to help mitigate the Sunday service cuts. Details on how this would be used are still to be worked out, but it may involve using community organizations who would provide transportation that is reimbursed through this fund. The intention is for this money to be used on trips that individuals need to make to get to work or church and who have no other transportation options.

The board adopted this revised plan unanimously.

Still under consideration are possible changes to Route 277 from Gold Bar to Everett, and Route 247 from downtown Stanwood to Everett. Additional information needed to be gathered to assess the cost of proposals to restore those services, so Gossett suggested that these two items be revisted at the April 1 board meeting.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bad News on Bus Service Cuts All Over

By Ken Harvey, Community Transit

Previous blogs have talked about recent Community Transit public meetings held regarding service cuts and fare changes proposed for June 2010.

There were some persons at a few of those meetings who said we were the only transit agency actually cutting service now. I thought it was a remarkable statement worth investigating.

So the other day I went online and googled “transit service cuts”. Up popped the first 10 of about 3,490,000 results on transit service cuts covered in news articles, blogs and documents. And it was pretty clear there’s bad news all over.

San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, Charlotte, LA. You name it. The list of transit agencies showed the same financial realities most of us have at home. Not enough income to continue the same level of outgo.

Here’s my quick read of perhaps a dozen or more stories. Transit agencies all over are between a financial rock and a hard place, despairing on how internal cost-cutting hasn’t been enough and how service cuts and transit layoffs are hurting riders, employees, and the agencies’ mission.

Locally, Kitsap Transit proposed service cuts back in November 2008. And then had to implement two rounds of cuts in 2009, including dropping Sunday service. Worse yet, officials there aren’t sure they’ll have the money to restore Sunday service for another couple of years.

Two weeks ago, the Bellingham Herald had a story about Whatcom Transportation Authority’s tough situation. They are asking voters to vote to increase their local sales tax to help fund transit service. If that ballot effort fails, they have announced they will need to cut service by 14 percent in September. And they would need to make an even larger cut by the end of 2012. They characterize the second cut as a total reorganization of WTA service.

That’s very similar to what Pierce Transit faces. They just implemented a 6% service reduction for their February 2010 service change. They are also proposing a sales tax increase ballot measure to their board which would help them avoid a total transit system resizing. Pierce Transit staff are warning that without new revenue by 2012, they face a drastic cut in service of approximately 57%!

Consider the impact to riders and employees if their current bus routes are trimmed from 51 down to an affordable 23! They will have a very busy spring and early summer sharing their set of options with their board of directors and the public.

King County Metro is not immune either. They are one of the largest transit systems on the west coast. And they are facing the same realities. It appears they’ve been successful delaying cuts for now, but the pressures which led to their news release below haven’t gone away.

The story really is the same wherever you look across the nation.
One interesting source which gives a national perspective to the service funding problems facing transit systems is at the Transportation 4 America website.

Their map of service cuts is a little out-of-date because of the bad news popping up all over, but it does provide a sense of just how widespread this is.

A few more examples:
Just last week, San Francisco MUNI board members adopted a plan to cut service by 10% for June 2010. That comes on top of service cuts they made last year.

The nation’s largest transport system, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, just announced a proposal that includes layoffs, fare, bridge and tunnel toll increases and a service cut package that will eliminate service on local and bus routes, reduce subway and commuter, and lay off more than 1,000 workers, from management to union coach operators.

Portland’s Tri-Met has just proposed a service cut and fare increase package that, if adopted, will take effect this September. Among other things, it would entirely eliminate four bus routes, curtail weekend service on some routes and eliminate low-ridership portions of some routes.

Its really sad and frustrating. Transit agencies are in the business of offering transportation options and serving people. So these service cuts really hurt. They hurt the people we love to serve. Those who choose to leave their cars behind to save money, time, frustration or clean the air. And those who depend upon us because they have no car.

Reduced service reflects reduced jobs and job opportunities. So service cuts also hurt our great employees, as well. These are the caring people who work in transit to serve those riders; from coach operators to transit IT staff, road supervisors to bus mechanics, from transit planners to dispatchers, from the staff who answer rider questions over the phone to those who communicate via the web, outreach activities and this blog. And of course, there are others, like those who make sure the bills and transit employees get paid.

That’s why every transit agency I’m aware of, has been working furiously to cut expenses wherever possible. Unfortunately, as you can see on the map, it hasn’t been enough.

Please remember that Community Transit is here to serve you. We’re doing our best to weather this storm. We are working to keep the bulk of our service available to help our riders and employees weather theirs.

If the Community Transit Board approves the proposed June 2010 service change, we are also committed to restoring suspended services as soon as financially feasible. Because all storms eventually end.