Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When Your CEO is your Talent: Delivering the Service Change Message

By Karen Johnson, Video & Design Supervisor

“Joyce, please do that line over again and pause after the word ‘customers.’”

The talent, Joyce Eleanor, is our CEO. The video team - two of her employees from Customer Relation’s Marketing Division - create the concept, draft the script, produce, direct and edit the production, and then post it to the website. The topic is the upcoming February 2012 Service Change.

Joyce is a passionate and effective communicator. As the face of our agency, she speaks from her heart. Her message is authentic because she’s talking about the agency she leads, and the employees - her employees - who have lost their jobs. She has listened to the riders who are deeply impacted by the service cuts. Any other spokesperson would be unacceptable.

Producing a video to deliver information about service changes is just one way we use video on our website as a tool for our customers. We have also developed How to Ride videos in several languages for our customers, as well as another to become familiar with Swift bus rapid transit. Community Transit riders and civic leaders also contributed their own video storytelling testimonials in their own words.

Community Transit’s training division uses our videos during employee orientation to acquaint new staff with policies and agency culture. Plans for 2012 include instructional video shorts – brief, simple videos that demonstrate how to use our Trip Planner, how to use Swift, and a variety of other useful services. We recently created an online Video Gallery that contains all the videos we’ve produced.

Videos provide the opportunity for broad messaging in a timely manner to our many audiences.
And because we produce the videos entirely in-house, we are able to be responsive and accurate, at no cost to the agency other than staff resources.

“Cut! Great job, Joyce. But I need you to do that line one more time.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

ORCA Reaches Operational Milestone

The multi-party agreement that created the ORCA smart card project was signed in 2003. Community Transit was the first agency to sign on and has been a regional leader in transitioning riders to the ORCA card. Currently, more than 70 percent of all Community Transit bus riders use the ORCA card; the percentage is even higher on commuter service to UW and downtown Seattle.

Although the ORCA system went live more than two years ago, the project just received Full System Acceptance (FSA) last week. That milestone means that ORCA is no longer a “project” for the partner agencies, but is simply the basic fare system.

Nothing changes for the public or our employees with FSA, but it begins a new phase for ORCA. Vix, the company formerly known as ERG which manages the system, begins a contract to operate the system for the next 10 years. All new changes to the system will be charged (up until now changes that made the system work correctly were considered part of the project contract). Most importantly, additions to the system can be made, whether it be new agencies coming on board, new products offered or new functionality for the ORCA cards.

The Joint Board, which is made up of CEOs and general managers from the seven partner agencies, will take time in considering what changes to make to ORCA. The system still has some operational kinks, but the program is a big success. Of the nearly 500,000 people who ride transit daily in the Puget Sound Region, about 300,000 of them use ORCA cards to pay their fare. A big percentage of those are workers and students whose employer or school provides an ORCA card. The number of business institutions has gone up since ORCA replaced the PugetPass system.

Tell us what your experience with ORCA has been, good, bad or in between.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Buying Local Can Help Spark the Economy

About this time last year, Community Transit launched the Buy Local for Transit campaign. The point is to encourage our bus riders and the general public to shop within our Snohomish County service area to generate revenues for our agency through sales tax (9 cents of every $10 taxable purchase goes to Community Transit). In addition to preventing future service cuts, that business activity also helps local businesses, local cities and the local economy.

If you have read our draft six-year Transit Development Plan, you know that our forecasts project very modest economic growth over the next six years. With that, there are no plans to increase transit service. Unless the economy rebounds.

It would be hard to measure the success of this campaign since any increase in sales tax revenue can be attributed to many factors, but we know the premise is sound. Increased spending in our service district helps our bottom line.

Community Transit has put Buy Local for Transit decals on our all our buses, created a webpage for the program and we describe our efforts in boilerplate language at the end of all our press releases that we send to local media.

A few of our buses have a larger Buy Local for Transit wrap that prominently touts the program everywhere they travel.

We know this is a good message because it is positive, economically upbeat and is a call to action. The idea came from rider suggestions when we held our community meetings for the 2010 service cuts. Concerned riders asked what could they do to help our agency. As we considered what riders could do we came up with this solution: buy local, generate sales tax.

As the holiday season approaches and many of our riders and their families and friends are out shopping, the message is more important than ever. Buy local, support your community and support Community Transit.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Swift Celebrates Second Birthday

It was two years ago this week that Community Transit, in partnership with Everett Transit, launched Swift bus rapid transit. When it opened, Swift had 12 stops in each direction along a 17-mile stretch of Highway 99 between Everett and Shoreline. There are now 14 stops in each direction, as four stops were added in the City of Everett earlier this year.

In October 2011, Swift had an average of 4,500 passengers ride each weekday. That totaled more than 107,000 passengers for the month – the highest ridership month so far. To put that in perspective, that means in October one out of every 7.7 weekday passengers on Community Transit was riding Swift. On Saturdays, that percentage was even greater as one out of every 4.7 riders was on Swift!

Riders know that Swift is a unique experience, but operationally, Swift stands out among our routes. It is the most frequent service in our system, with a bus arriving every 10 minutes from 6 a.m. – 7 p.m. Swift also has the most service hours of any of our routes, as the service runs from 5 a.m. to midnight, with more buses per hour during that long day. Of course, Swift is also the only route in our system that has off-board fare payment, which helps speed up the boarding process, frees up the drivers to focus on driving and requires fare checkers, known as Swift Ambassadors.

Swift is also the only route in our system that receives specific grant funding. State and federal grants combine to pay for a majority of the operating costs through 2013.

Swift also has been a victim of Community Transit’s service cuts. In June 2010, Swift lost Sunday service, just like the rest of our bus routes. In February 2012, Swift frequencies will be cut back to every 12 minutes on weekdays. To most riders this may not make a big difference, but from an operational perspective, this means big cost savings. There will be one fewer bus going in each direction each hour, saving the cost of a bus driver, the cost of fuel, and the cost of maintenance and depreciation on vehicles that will travel fewer miles because of this reduction.

Finally, what would a Swift birthday be without some poetry from rider Margaret Elwood?

Our favorite bus just turned two!
Dear Swift, Happy Birthday to you!
It's undeniable:
Fast, clean, reliable-
That's how your ridership grew.

At the end of your second year
Here's a rhyme to wish you good cheer.
Swift bus, you're a treasure.
Your service-a pleasure!
I'm glad every time you appear.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Prepare for Winter Weather

by Tom Pearce, Public Information Specialist

Perhaps you’ve heard that “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and it rains in Brazil.” That’s how it is for Community Transit when it comes to snow.

We cover 1,300 square miles of Snohomish County. That can mean some long trips, like Route 201 between Smokey Point and Lynnwood. Snow throws a wrench in the works. We’ve seen days with six inches of snow north of Marysville and none in south county. So the bus starting at Smokey Point needs chains and is delayed. As it moves out of the snow zone, the chains need to come off. More delays. And in the end, people in Lynnwood are wondering, “Why is our bus late?”

That’s why we post Rider Alerts on our website when snow is expected. The first alert may be a general warning. Once the flakes fly, we’re on it, day and night. If snow falls overnight, we post our first alert by 5 a.m. and continue throughout the day into the evening. Every time something changes in local service, we post an alert. For commuters, there’s the 5 a.m. alert followed by a report by 2 p.m. outlining the evening commute. By 8 p.m. we have a forecast for the following morning’s commute, when we’re back at it with a more detailed 5 a.m. report.

We also offer an electronic alert system that sends notices by email or text. We'll send the same general alert out to all subscribers as we post on the website, but if your route's routing or schedule changes during the day we'll let you know.

The addition of 23 double decker buses to our commuter fleet should improve service in the snow. These Double Talls replaced our oldest 60-foot articulated buses. The 42-foot Double Talls can operate like any standard bus in slippery conditions. Artics can jack-knife easily when it’s icy, so the few times a year we get snow, we often pull them from service. That’s also why on snowy days you may see regular 30-or 40-foot buses running on Swift.

If it does snow, check our website for major delays before you head out. Dress warmly, because buses likely will be delayed if snow is sticking to the roads. And remember, just because it’s not sticking in your neighborhood, it may be elsewhere. Check to see if we’re on a reroute, or try to get to main roads, where service can operate more easily. If your stop is on a hill, wait at the top or bottom of the hill and flag down the driver; buses can be hard to stop or start mid-hill when it’s icy.

We’re ready for winter weather at Community Transit. If it snows, we want you to feel comfortable that you can rely on the bus to get you where you need to go.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Join the Curb Club

By Debbie Anderson, Transportation Demand Management and Outreach Specialist

Suzanne D., Ph.D., rides the bus to work almost daily. As a biostatistician for the University of Washington, research is a part of her everyday work. Finding a smarter way to work and saving money – no Ph.D. required!

Through Community Transit’s Curb the Congestion program, information about how a person’s travels impacts her community can be gleaned once that person switches from driving alone to an alternative mode of travel.

Suzanne says, “Curb the Congestion is a useful way to provide important information to Community Transit, to obtain some monetary incentives, and to get stats concerning how much you save in terms of gas, mileage and the prevention of pollutants into the environment.”

Curb the Congestion is offering great rewards for participants. Log trips on at least 8 days monthly in your online calendar and you may be eligible to receive a $50 bus or vanpool voucher, gas card or REI gift card for three consecutive months. After those initial three months, participants are eligible for a monthly $150 drawing. (Incentives are funded by Snohomish County through federal grants and developer fees.) Visit www.communitytransit.org/CurbIt for complete eligibility rules.

Participants can also recruit family, friends and co-workers and receive an additional $25 incentive, up to four times!

Curb the Congestion offers participants personal assistance in finding carpools, planning bus trips and considering other alternatives to driving alone. You can contact your personal assistant at CurbIt@commtrans.org or (425) 438-6136.

Curb the Congestion is a partnership between Community Transit and Snohomish County to reduce traffic and encourage healthy travel options on congested roadways. Curb the Congestion is funded by Snohomish County through development mitigation fees and federal grants.

The program started in 2008 after Snohomish County declared 164th Street SW between Lynnwood and Mill Creek at “ultimate capacity,” creating a program to invest in transportation demand management and safety improvements rather than halt development or try to widen already built-out roads. In 2009, the county added 128th Street south of Everett and 20th Street SE near Lake Stevens to the Curb the Congestion program.

Curb the Congestion is helping relieve the congestion on these roadways. So far in 2011, the program has removed almost 56,000 drive alone trips, reduced travel by more than 1.2 million miles and has saved participants over $196,000 in fuel costs.

If you travel on one of the targeted roads, contact the Curb the Congestion Specialist about your commute options: (425) 438-6136 or CurbIt@commtrans.org.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Minor" Holiday Service

For transit agencies, figuring out how much service to put on the road on holidays is a guessing game. In good times, you might err on the side of providing more service and risk having empty buses. In frugal times, you might constrict service to the point that it inconveniences some riders.

Well, these are frugal times and many riders have been inconvenienced by the fact that Community Transit no longer operates on six “major” holidays: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The rationale for cutting service on those days, along with Sundays, was that those holidays are more universally observed and transit demand was much lower. Plus, drivers were paid premium pay to drive on those low ridership days, making that service very expensive to operate.

Community Transit still operates on four “minor” holidays: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Friday. These are days when some businesses are closed and transit demand is lower than a typical weekday, but there are still a significant number of people riding the bus.

On these minor holidays, Community Transit usually runs a regular local service schedule. Even if people aren’t working those days, they still travel to do shopping, run errands or visit family.

On these days we reduce commuter service to downtown Seattle and the University District based on expected demand. For instance, this Friday, Nov. 11 is Veterans Day. History tells us that few people change their work schedules and demand for commuter service that day remains high, so we’re running a regular schedule on all service that day. However, on Thanksgiving Friday, Nov. 25, we will operate only Route 414 with extra trips into downtown Seattle and only Route 855 to the University District. Past experience has shown that few people (about 20 percent) take our buses to Seattle on “Black Friday.”

As we prepare to cut service a second time in three years, it is a coincidence that our first day of the new service change is Presidents Day, Feb. 20, 2012. We might have run a reduced commuter schedule, but because our service will be reduced from what we operate now, we have decided to run a regular schedule that day. We’ll see how that goes.

Do you, or did you ever ride the bus on holidays?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Highway 99 survey examines corridor post-Swift

The highway from Everett to Shoreline has long been Snohomish County’s busiest transit corridor. But how has Swift bus rapid transit changed the way people travel this road?

Prior to launching Swift in 2009, Community Transit and Everett Transit did a survey of bus riders in the corridor to learn about their transit use and demographics. The agencies will be conducting a similar survey next week.

Survey teams will ride Routes 7, 9, 101 and Swift on Nov. 1, 2 and 5 (Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday). The surveyors will ask bus riders to fill out a quick paper survey on their riding choices and habits. Some questions get at understanding who the rider is and how s/he uses transit: daily, weekly, infrequently, for work, school, recreation, etc. Other questions ask whether a rider takes whatever bus comes along or chooses to ride only Swift or local service for various reasons.

Results of this survey could help Community Transit plan and receive funding for future Swift lines. The information also will help reveal what impact Swift has had on the Highway 99 corridor.

Why do you choose to ride Swift, or not to?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dick's opens restaurant along Swift line

“Dick’s is the place where the cool hang out,” according to Sir Mix a Lot. With the opening of the new Edmonds location today (scheduled for 3 p.m.), Mix and his posse can now take Swift bus rapid transit to get a deluxe with fries.

The new Dick’s is less than a city block from the Swift stations at 216th Street on Highway 99, in the Top Foods parking lot. Several other buses converge on this location, Routes 101, 110, 112, 405, 406 and 871. Transit presents a great option for getting your burger, but don’t eat on the bus!

The anticipated opening of the first Snohomish County Dick’s location helps Community Transit’s bottom line. The agency receives 0.9 percent of every sales tax dollar spent in the service district, so your $10 Dick’s purchase sends 9 cents to support transit service! If you really want to help, eat more!

What are some of your favorite eateries or entertainment destinations that you get to on Community Transit?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Local businesses shine at state commute awards

By Tom Pearce, Public Information Specialist

When it comes to commute trip reduction, local companies Amgen and Esterline Control Systems, Korry Electronics are leading the way. They are two Snohomish County businesses that work with Community Transit’s Employer Outreach program, which helps companies throughout the county meet state requirements to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on the road.

Their efforts also helped each earn a Governor’s Smart Commute Award last week. Amgen was honored with the Employer Leadership Award for Voluntary Employers while Esterline Korry received the Employer Champion Award for Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Affected Employers in Snohomish County.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Commute Trip Reduction law, which requires Washington businesses with 100 or more employees to develop programs that encourage their staff to use alternatives to driving alone for their commute. Worksites with fewer than 100 employees can participate in the program voluntarily.

Amgen and Esterline Korry are shining examples of success. Both offer ORCA pass programs that allow their employees unlimited access to buses, trains and vanpools in the Puget Sound region. The also have internal programs to support CTR goals and provide a guaranteed ride home program so employees who choose to use a commute alternative don’t get stranded without a ride home in case of an emergency.

Amgen’s Bothell Campus remains part of the state’s commute trip reduction program even though the company transferred employees to other sites so the Bothell campus has fewer than 100 employees. In addition to the other benefits, Amgen offers a subsidy to employees that walk, bike or carpool to work on a regular basis.

Its transportation program helped Esterline Korry retain almost its entire workforce when it moved from Seattle to Mukilteo two years ago. Thanks to quality transportation benefits, 51 percent of the company’s Mukilteo employees use an alternative to driving alone.

Amgen and Esterline Korry offer two examples of how CTR programs can help businesses attract and retain experienced, well-trained employees. If you or your company is interested in providing an employee transportation program, Community Transit’s Employer Outreach is ready to help.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Viaduct Closure Could Delay Later Commuter Buses

By Tom Pearce, Public Information Specialist

While Community Transit does not operate bus service on the Alaskan Way viaduct, there are 110,000 reasons a nine-day closure of that structure starting Oct. 21 could impact the agency’s service. Each day the week of Oct. 24-28, there could be 110,000 cars forced onto city streets instead of their regular trip along the viaduct.

The City of Seattle expects delays of about five minutes to cross downtown on city streets from all that extra traffic. In Community Transit’s case, those five minutes will add up, literally. Many Community Transit commuter buses make their first trip through the city, then return for a second, third and even fourth trip. That’s a five-minute delay each trip. And that doesn’t account for other potential delays – heavy traffic, accidents, traffic signals. We expect delays of 20 minutes or more on some of our later trips due to the closure.

So what’s a commuter to do? Here are a few suggestions:
• Try to take an earlier trip, before those delays have a chance to pile up.
• Look at other Community Transit routes. Several routes go to more than one transit center, offering several alternatives to a destination.
• If you travel with an ORCA card, you can ride a bus to one transit center, then transfer to a local bus to get to where you parked without paying extra.
• Talk to your boss about flexing your schedule or even working from home.
• Consider taking Sounder. Trains should not be impacted by the viaduct closure, and buses connect Sounder with several transit centers.

The viaduct closure will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21. It will allow crews to demolish the southern mile of the viaduct and attach the remaining portion to the new Highway 99. The Washington State Department of Transportation expects to work to be completed by 5 a.m. Monday, Oct. 31.

Of course, all the media hype about our own Northwest "Carmageddon" could influence enough people not to drive their cars downtown that week, and things won't be so bad. That's reason enough to watch the morning traffic report and check our online Rider Alerts to see how things are going during the closure. With some advance planning and flexibility, we’ll all get through this.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chance To Get a Van Expires Oct. 31

These vans won't turn into pumpkins on Halloween, but the opportunity for Snohomish County nonprofit organizations to get a van at no cost expires that day.

Community Transit's Van GO program awards surplus vans to worthy nonprofits that demonstrate they can use the vehicles to provide needed transportation in their community. Since 2000, Community Transit has awarded 96 surplus vanpool and service vans as well as paratransit minibuses to organizations through an annual competition.

A number of those vehicles awarded over the years are still in service. Community Transit takes good care of its vehicles, so even a van with 120,000 miles on it is likely to provide years of service for a small organization.

The deadline to apply for this year's crop, up to 10 eight-passenger vans, is Monday, Oct. 31. The vehicles are awarded through a competitive process in which community groups demonstrate how they will use the vehicles to provide transportation service. Awardees will get the van at no cost but must show proof of insurance and pay to register the vehicle.

Questions about eligibility should be directed to vango@commtrans.org or (425) 438-6136.

Applications and more details about the Van GO program are available at www.communitytransit.org/vango.

Applications that are mailed must be postmarked by Oct. 31. Electronic or hand-delivered applications must be received by 5 p.m. Oct. 31. Electronic applications must be followed by a hard copy containing the appropriate certification signatures.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Riding the Double Talls

Crosscut today ran this great first-person account of riding one of our Double Tall buses for the first time. It made me recall the thrill of that first ride I took on our leased bus back in 2007.

In this article, Mr. Hinshaw discusses the benefits to Community Transit in using double decker buses for commuter service, mainly transporting more people without greater operating costs. Another benefit to the agency is visibility. People in Seattle see the Double Talls and think of Community Transit. Other transit agencies elsewhere in the country call us to ask about our experience with the buses, or if they find out I work here they say, "Oh yeah, you guys have the double deckers."

Hinshaw asks why a U.S. company doesn't get in the double decker market, and that's a legitimate question. But yet another benefit of Community Transit's order for 23 double deckers from U.K.-based Alexander Dennis, Ltd. is that the company set up a plant in California to build our buses. That did employ U.S. workers, and set a precedent for other agencies to purchase such buses with federal "Buy America" money.

The author confesses "a childlike glee" in running upstairs to get a front row seat. What about you? What was your first ride on a Double Tall like? Are you a regular Double Tall commuter? Are you still waiting for that first chance to board a double decker? What's your story?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Is STEP?

The School Transit Education Program (STEP) is a free educational experience offered to all public and private schools throughout Snohomish County. Its main objective is to teach students K-12 the benefits of public transportation.

Education Coordinator Steve Peters uses his background in theater to bring a 30-minute classroom presentation to life! Steve uses stories, imitations and funny characters to introduce public transportation to thousands of children each year. Kids learn how to read a route number, bus etiquette, bus safety and much much more!

Once the classroom presentation is complete, all children board a Community Transit bus for a half-hour ride around the community. These buses are driven by some of Community Transit's best drivers! For more information about the program, call (425) 348-7148 or email steve.peters@commtrans.org.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

35 Years: A Quiet Celebration

By Tom Pearce, Public Information Specialist

An anniversary is a celebration. It’s a milestone in life, marking another achievement. Even in tough financial times, we find ways to commemorate those milestones. It may be a husband and wife marking their 10th wedding anniversary with a nice home-cooked dinner because they can’t afford a fancy restaurant. But we do remember.

Today is the 35th anniversary of the start of Community Transit. We’ve done big celebrations in the past. But this year, we are that couple sitting down with candles in our own dining room. We’re marking our anniversary with another day of planning to implement service cuts in February 2012. It’s certainly not what we would choose, but it is what we must do, just like some families across the nation who spend anniversaries just trying to make ends meet. Hopefully those families find at least a few minutes to fondly look back at those quaint early days, and look forward to a brighter future.

On Oct. 4, 1976, Community Transit was the newlywed. Our drivers were dressed in fine new uniforms, but they were driving 15-year-old leased buses. We started small: seven communities, seven routes. We were casual: no bus stops, just wave to the bus somewhere along one of our routes and the driver would stop to pick you up. Ring the bell and we’d stop and let you out at your destination.

As time went on, our family grew. Routes became more formal. Almost every city in Snohomish County joined Community Transit. We added routes and began to run buses more frequently. Ridership climbed as the public embraced us. Our future was bright.

And then a crisis. The Motor Vehicle Excise Tax was eliminated, taking away about 30 percent of our funding. But our friends rallied to support us. The public went to the polls to approve new funding, and Community Transit recovered and thrived. Service that had been slashed was restored, new service was introduced and ridership soared. In the mid-2000s there were four consecutive years of record-breaking ridership, culminating in 11.9 million rides in 2008.

The next year, Swift was born.

Like every other family, Community Transit was hit hard by the Great Recession. Four straight years of record ridership turned to four straight years of budget cuts. The agency borrowed from its reserves, holding off new projects and new purchases to keep service on the road as long as possible. In June 2010, service was cut 15 percent. The economy still did not rebound. In February 2012 there will be another 20 percent service cut.

This time around there is nothing for friends to rally around. Not yet. The agency has put itself in a position to be able to grow again, smarter and with a focus on improving productivity. The February 2012 service change will be a place of stability that will provide a solid base from which future growth can occur.

And we're still optimistic about that brighter future!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Larsen visits Community Transit

Congressman Rick Larsen stopped by Community Transit's operations base in Everett today to talk to employees about federal transportation funding.

Larsen sits on the House Transportation Committee that oversees the surface transportation authorization bill.

The House is in the midst of a debate over whether to reauthorize spending for two years or the usual six, Larsen said. The House also is debating a possible reduction in federal transportation spending.

After a Q&A with employees, Larsen rode Swift from the Aurora Village Transit Center to his district office at the Snohomish County campus in downtown Everett.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Tool in Fare Enforcement

About a month ago, Community Transit drivers started handing out a small business-sized card to riders who fail to pay their full fare. The card informs the rider that fares are mandatory and that s/he is riding at risk of a $124 citation.

For years, there have been complaints that drivers don't do enough to make people pay their fares. In fact, the agency's policy was for drivers to ask for fare once then not argue with a rider. The policy is to ensure the safety of the driver and other riders, and to keep the driver focused on driving the bus.

If you ask some people, they'll say fare evasion on buses is rampant. On some routes, in some areas, with some riders, it is a problem. But we had our drivers and monitors do a survey recently and found that on all Community Transit buses the fare evasion rate (those who underpay or don't pay at all) is about 2 percent. One can say that's a small number, 2 out of 100 people, but with ridership in the millions it adds up.

When we started Swift bus rapid transit, with its off-board fare payment and no fare box, we stepped up the practice of having deputies ride on buses. In the past it was more a symbol of security, but with changes to state law authorizing civil citations for non-fare payment, the deputies had a new job - fare enforcement.

Our drivers started keeping logs of fare evasion, filling out forms to indicate which routes, which locations and which times of day fare evasion was occuring most often. The deputies use this information to decide which buses to ride, in uniform or in plain clothes. A problem arose, however, when deputies encountered a fare evader and their excuse was "Well, the driver let me ride anyway."

By handing the fare evader the new card, the rider is warned and has no excuse. In fact, one supervisor told me last week that a driver handed a card to a gentleman who had underpaid. The guy sat down, read the card then came back to the front and paid the rest of his fare. Good call!

On Swift, the ambassadors are there to check fares and educate riders about how to pay fares on this different type of service. Because it's an honor-payment system, fare evasion is higher than on the rest of the system (up to 6 percent), but there is also a greater risk of getting caught as we have more patrols checking for fare evasion.

Our hope is, with this new reminder, more people will pay their fare without hassle. Drivers can remain focused on the road and deputies can do their job without worrying that a fare evader "has an excuse."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

National Recognition for Curb the Congestion

By Tom Pearce, Public Information Specialist

The Curb the Congestion program has taken thousands of trips off busy streets in Snohomish County. Now it has been recognized with a national award. The Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) presented a second-place Marketing and Outreach: Partnership Award to Community Transit and Snohomish County for their innovative and highly successful Curb the Congestion program.

Curb the Congestion is a community-based approach to reducing traffic congestion on three specific corridors in Snohomish County – 164th Street between Lynnwood and Mill Creek, 128th Street between Everett and Mill Creek, and 20th Street SE between Everett and Lake Stevens. Through financial incentives and a lot of legwork, people who live, work and/or travel on those roads every day are making pledges to change their commuting habits.

The national honor recognized the success of the 2010 Curb the Congestion program. Through the end of last year, 361 people were signed up and participating in the program, removing an estimated 18,000 drive-alone car trips from these three crowded corridors. A follow-up survey reported that 90 percent of those who signed up for the initial three-month incentive vowed to continue to use an alternate commute method.

The program’s strategy has evolved in each of its three years. For 2011, Curb the Congestion offers a $50 monthly incentive to help participants pay for alternative transportation for the first three months they get out of their single-occupant vehicles and take the bus, bike, walk, carpool or vanpool instead. After three months, those who stay with the program are eligible to win a $150 monthly random drawing.

The program started when Snohomish County decided it could not afford to build more infrastructure on 164th Street to handle traffic. The county turned to Community Transit for a solution. The county funds the program through development mitigation feeds and federal grants, and Community Transit does the legwork, like holding community fairs, promoting the program to apartment complexes and businesses and administering the program’s incentives. The county’s original goal was to take 100 trips off the road each day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Transportation Funding Roundtable

This week I attended a roundtable discussion on state transportation funding at the Machinists Union Hall in Everett, one of many that are being held around the region. There was a small, but good group of participants, including State Reps. Marko Liias and Mike Sells, Snohomish County Council Chair Dave Somers and Edmonds City Council President Strom Peterson.

People were focused on priorities for the 2012 Legislature, which is supposed to take up the issue of state transportation funding, including possible money for transit.

Somers discussed the county’s planning efforts, which include both a six-year transportation plan and a 30-year multimodal plan. He was proud of the fact that county planners worked collaboratively with transit and the various cities in creating their plans. But, purely from a capital perspective, he said there is already a $60 million funding gap for the six-year plan.

Fixing the infrastructure we now have and looking at road projects is a priority for the county heading into the legislative session. Somers, who is a member of the Community Transit Board of Directors, also made his pitch for transit funding.

Liias said that coming out of this Great Recession the impacts to families will be great as people who have lost jobs, and especially those who faced long-term unemployment, will be playing catch-up for the earnings they missed out on. For many of those families, the impacts may mean no money for college or similar life-changing decisions.

He said the number of people with no options has increased, and that will spill over to transportation choices, as fewer people can afford to buy or drive cars and more people turn to transit as their way to get around. The transit cuts we have faced here in Snohomish County have been devastating, and for those who will turn to transit in the future, we want to do our best to have a strong system for them to use.

Liias sponsored the legislation that ultimately resulted in a car tab fees that Metro got to sustain its service the next two years. The bill was originally written to help Community Transit, but by the time the session was done, our agency was dropped.

Which led to one of my points I made to the legislators: even if the Legislature grants local option funding measures for transit agencies to take to voters to raise sales taxes or car tab fees or whatever, Community Transit may well end up with no new money. Voter sentiment is not keen on taxes these days, which is why Metro supporters did whatever they could to avoid going to voters for the car tab fee.

The hope for next year is another steady revenue source for transit. One that is distributed by formula so that agencies get their fair share based on the numbers they serve.

Twelve years ago, Washington state apportioned motor vehicle excise tax revenues to transit agencies based on how many riders we carried. That steady funding source helped offset the volatility of the sales tax, our other main revenue source. After Initiative 695, the Legislature eliminated MVET funding for transit agencies. Community Transit had to cut its service by 27 percent and laid off hundreds of workers. In September 2001, ten years ago, Snohomish County voters approved a sales tax increase that took this agency to the 0.9 percent level we are at today, the maximum under state law.

Of course, when recession hit in late 2007, the volatility of that single revenue source was put on display as we lost 18 percent of our funding that still hasn’t come back. In all, between 2007 and 2013, the funding that was expected from that source that never materialized will total $207 million.

So, we are hopeful for a new state plan for transportation funding, but we must accept the fact that there could be one or several ballot measures to secure transit funding, and it may be mixed with road infrastructure funding as well.

At least two groups are talking about this right now, the Connecting Washington Task Force assembled by Governor Gregoire to put together a plan for transportation funding that will be sent to the Legislature, and Transportation for Washington, an advocacy coalition that seeks to promote new transportation funding.

Community Transit and our riders have a great deal at stake in next year’s legislative session. We will keep you updated on news as it develops. As a public agency, we cannot organize a constituency or endorse a ballot measure, but we can answer questions on how various proposals might impact this agency.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Van GO: Spreading the wealth

Community Transit just launched its latest round of the Van GO van grant program. This year, up to 10 eight-passenger Chevy Astro vans that are being surplussed from the agency's vanpool fleet will be awarded to nonprofit agencies in Snohomish County.

The Van GO program started in 2000 after passage of Initiative 695 led to the State Legislature eliminating motor vehicle excise tax (car tab) funding for transit. Community Transit lost a third of its funding and had to cut service and lay off hundreds of employees.

The notion of Van GO was to grant surplus vehicles to groups that could use them to help offset the transportation trips in the community that had been lost by the service cuts. Since then, 96 vehicles have been granted under this program. Sometimes there are surplus mini-buses awarded (former DART vehicles like the one pictured), but not this year.

If you wonder why I keep using the term "granted" it's because a public agency cannot simply give away equipment. These surplus vehicles are awarded through a competitive process and the winners must in turn use them to provide a specified number of trips the following year. When these surplus vans go to auction, as is the standard practice for surplus items, they net about $1,500-2,500. Not all surplus vehicles go to Van GO; most Community Transit vehicles are put up for auction to help recover our public investment, per state law.

From now through Oct. 31, nonprofits in Snohomish County can apply for one of these vans. Eligibility requirements and the application are available online. One thing that has worked well in recent years for applicants is partnering with another agency. For instance, some social service agencies have partnered with churches to ensure the van is used seven days a week. The number of trips an applicant says they will provide counts for 20 percent of the grant request.

If you know someone at an agency that can use these vans, or you can think of a good use at an organization you belong to, check it out. A pre-application workshop for interested groups will take place at 11 a.m. Sept. 29 at Community Transit. Send a note to vango @ commtrans.org for more information.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Board Adopts Hybrid Alternative for 2012

The Community Transit Board of Directors this afternoon selected the so-called "Hybrid Alternative" as the service plan for the agency's 2012 System Change.

The Hybrid Alternative combines the commuter route network proposed in Alternative I with the local route network proposed in Alternative III, with some modifications to each. The Hybrid Alternative does not include Sunday service.

Community Transit will reduce bus service by 20 percent in February 2012 due to low sales tax revenue as a result of the recession. A public outreach period this summer generated more than 2,000 public comments about the original three alternatives for service reductions, plus the hybrid alternative that was added in early August.

Board members were divided over the service plan, with Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Gossett, Lynnwood Councilmember Ted Hikel, Mountlake Terrace Mayor Jerry Smith, Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Somers, Mill Creek Mayor Mike Todd and Stanwood Mayor Dianne White voting for the hybrid alternative, and Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring and Gold Bar City Councilmember Steve Slawson voting against the hybrid alternative.

Although several board members said their first choice was another of the alternatives, no motion was made for a vote on any but the hybrid alternative.

In coming months, schedules and maps for the new service plan will be created. An extensive public outreach effort will take place early in 2012 to help riders get familiar with the new routing and schedules. The new service plan will take effect on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Graffiti Gets Expensive

Graffiti at our bus shelters is a big problem. It’s unsightly, creates an unsafe feeling for passengers and at a time when every penny counts, it costs money to repair. In 2007 and 2008, Community Transit’s Shelter Maintenance program fully refurbished about 70 shelters a year at a cost of $1,200 to $1,500 per shelter. That added up to $90,000 to $100,000 each year.

Major shelter refurbishing work has been discontinued during the recession, but the graffiti hasn’t stopped. To figure out how to efficiently deal with the issue, Community Transit established a multi-departmental Anti-Graffiti Project team.

The key question the team discussed is, “What is the tolerable maintenance, condition and appearance Community Transit will accept for our bus shelters, and at what cost?” The team also looked at issues such as why some stops are consistently vandalized while others are not, as well as various solutions to make shelters less attractive to vandals.

Swift stations were designed to be vandal-resistant, and already have an established standard to clean up graffiti within 24 hours. The quick response has effectively discouraged vandalism at Swift stations, but other bus shelters in the busy Highway 99 corridor have been targeted instead.

One of the major problems is that vandals scratch or etch the plexiglass panels of the shelters. When the plexiglass get badly damaged, it costs our agency about $850 just to replace the panel. Community Transit has been identifying and replacing shelters at high risk for vandalism and replacing their expensive plexiglass panels with metal screens. The screens aren’t as weather-resistant or attractive, so we continue to use plexiglass panels in low-risk shelters. We’ll be installing some redesigned shelters to test a new glass pattern that may withstand damage better than current designs.

Please report any graffiti you see at Community Transit facilities to our Customer Information staff by noting the stop identification number (on the bus stop post) or location. If you see a vandal in action, please call 911.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sales Tax Revenues Not Recovering

Once upon a time, the economy of Snohomish County was growing along with our population and employment. Sales tax looked like a stable and growing source of revenue. That was a good thing for Community Transit, since sales tax has historically made up 60-70 percent of our budget.

In 2006 we began working on our six-year Transit Development Plan for 2008-2013, and we had all sorts of hopes for the future of public transportation in Snohomish County. Our financial forecasts anticipated a slight slow-down in sales tax growth by the end of the plan, but an average growth of 6.9 percent a year seemed reasonable in Washington’s economy at the time.

Then, along came the Great Recession. Our Transit Development Plan had estimated sales tax collections of $103 million in 2011. We’re now hoping for $62.7 million in sales tax revenue this year, 18 percent less than we collected in 2007 and 40 percent less than we expected to collect before the recession hit.

The recession is supposed to be over now, and revenues are up 2 percent compared to 2010. However, about 2/3 of the increased sales tax is the result of a tax amnesty program by the state Department of Revenue. Adjusting for one-time effects, sales tax revenue is less than 1 percent higher than in 2010.

A report from the Department of Revenue last month indicated taxable retail sales overall in Snohomish County were down by 1.7 percent in the first quarter of 2011 – worst in the state.

While it looks like sales tax collections will be sufficient to balance our budget this year, our future is still uncertain. Major service cuts in 2012 are part of our long term sustainability plan. Earlier this year we had assumed a more favorable economic recovery and projected an average sales tax growth of 4 percent for the next 6 years. The fact that the economy is recovering so slowly could mean the need for more cost cutting in 2012, including the possibility of additional service cuts in the future.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

King County Metro Gets Car Tab Revenue. Why Not Us?

On Monday, the King County Council approved a two-year, $20 fee on car tabs that will help fill King County Metro’s $60 million budget shortfall and stave off a 17 percent cut in service.

Why doesn’t Community Transit seek a car tab fee?

Short answer: We can’t.
Longer answer: We tried. The original bill to give transit agencies the authority to temporarily raise revenues with a “congestion relief” or car tab fee was written with Community Transit in mind by state Rep. Marko Liias. Ironically, Community Transit and Pierce Transit were excluded from the bill when it finally passed out of the state Senate Transportation Committee.

Why don’t we raise money some other way?

Short answer: We have done what we can.
Longer answer: We have raised bus fares twice in the past three years: local and paratransit fares in 2010, and local, commuter and paratransit fares in 2008. But the public service that is transit cannot be funded by fares alone.

Snohomish County voters approved a 3/10 of 1 percent increase in the sales tax in 2001 after the state took away a third of our funding that came from the motor vehicle excise tax. That vote put us at the state maximum 9/10 of 1 percent sales tax. As it happens, the only other agency in the state that has topped-out its sales tax authority is King County Metro.

As a result of the recession, agencies that have sales tax authority remaining have been asking voters to increase support for transit for the past two years; some have succeeded, some haven’t.

Bottom line for Community Transit: We need state support – in terms of direct revenue or new taxing authority – to help fund our service. Until that happens, the Community Transit Board must make difficult decisions to balance our budget, and Snohomish County residents face more painful cuts to public transportation.