Fare Free Got CVTD Running

It’s a story similar to other stories I’ve heard. This one involves LaRew, a 96-year-old man that would ride the bus for about three or four hours each day. Todd Beutler, general manager/CEO of Cache Valley Transit District, was a bus driver at that time and developed a friendship with this frequent rider.

“One day I sat down with him for about five minutes while we were waiting for the departure and I said, ‘LaRew, what’s your story? I see you come ride the bus every day.’

“He got tears in his eyes and he said, ‘Todd, I lost my wife just a few months ago and I’m going blind so I’m living with my daughter and her family. They have three kids. I’m a burden to them, you know; they have to take care of me. I get tired staring at the walls. I get to come out here and ride around on the bus and I get to meet people like you. This is just such a wonderful thing for me because I can go and give them a break, they can go do something with the family and I can still be independent.’

“That changed my whole experience with public transit,” Beutler says. “From that point I’m like, we really make an impact on people’s lives.

“We’re more than providing public transit, we’re sometimes the only person that smiles at an individual or we’re the only one that says hello to them today. It’s more than getting people to work or going as far as a destination; it’s about much more that we do to impact their lives.

“I share this story with every transit driver just because it had that much of an impact on me,” he adds.

It was while Beutler was attending Utah State University to obtain his bachelor’s degree in human resources management that he began as a transit driver. He says, “Over time I just did various things with the organization; I was a dispatcher, then a trainer, so that’s kind of how I got my start.”

He was working for a third-party contractor and when he finished college, he went to work in California for the contractor, at that time Laidlaw Transit. “I managed a couple different projects out there. I spent three years in California then came back and was the general manager for the third-party contractor at this location.”

It was September of 2000 that he came back. California was a great learning experience he says, but he loves the community he’s in and it was a good opportunity to come back.

Starting a Fare-Free System

On Nov. 7, 2000, Cache Valley voters elected to establish the Cache Valley Transit District (CVTD). As part of the public referendum, voters ratified a special services district that includes the cities of Richmond, Smithfield, Hyde Park, North Logan, River Heights, Providence, Millville, Nibley and Hyrum. Recently, CVTD has added service to Franklin County, Idaho and Lewiston.

The funding comes from federal funds and a local option sales tax passed by the voters, a three-tenths of 1 percent in the cities CVTD serves.

“When the system first started, the people initially voted down the creation of a district, but they saw that in a local city it would have passed, it just didn’t county-wide,” explains Beutler. “Some citizens got together and they took it back in a couple of years and just took it before the citizens of Logan.”

An option considered to appeal to the community was a fare-free system.

“One of the things they told the citizens was that we’ll have it stay fare-free for the first year, just to encourage ridership and get people used to it because this community has never had anything like that since the ‘50s.

“After the first year, everyone got together and they said, ‘You know what? This really works, this thing of being fare free, let’s continue to do this.’” Beutler explains that they want to keep it fare free but look at it in the short-range transit plans each year. “One of the things the board has tasked me with doing is offering innovative services that reduce the dependency off the automobile.” He adds, “A fare, it’s kind of a deterrent to riding the bus because you may not have exact change, or how do I transfer; it’s just another thing, another barrier to people.”

Beutler says as long as they can continue to fund the system without a fare, he believes it increases ridership and it exposes more people to transit.

When I asked about the common concerns with a fare-free system, Beutler says there hasn’t been a problem with their policies in place. A “Nuisance Policy” spells out clearly what it could mean for a passenger to be a nuisance to another passenger, whether by hygiene, language or behavior, and the agency can remove you from the bus.

“We have a progressive discipline system where initially we’re just going to sit down and talk to you,” explains Beutler. “We have someone from management that will talk to you specifically what are the things that caused this, and we try to give them their rights to be back on the bus.

“If we have a chronic problem, they’re off for two weeks or a year. I guess we can kick you off indefinitely. We haven’t done that, typically the longest we’ve kicked someone off is two weeks.”

He adds, “People realize this is a privilege, not something that’s just a right and most of the time we’re able to counsel them and help them understand how their behavior’s just not affecting them, but others.

“It definitely takes resources to do that,” Beutler says. “It’s not like we don’t spend time working with individuals. We definitely do.”

A Working Relationship

Like other agencies across the country right now, funding is one of their biggest challenges Beutler says. Or more specifically, he says, “Trying to find the funding to make sure that we can continue to grow the system.

“Because we’re a government entity, we want to make sure we’re doing it in the most efficient way possible, that we’re spreading those tax dollars as far as we can.

“Our community, though it’s a very conservative community, really has embraced public transit,” Beutler says. “When you look at our ridership, just over 100,000 population and directly we serve about 80,000, we’re going to do probably 2 million trips this year.

“With that kind of ridership, we continue to have requests from the community for additional peak-time service, more direct routes for some of the hotter places that people are going. It’s trying to find the funding to make sure that we can continue to grow the system.”

Governed by a 19-member board of trustees, Beutler says the board views its role as setting end goals and the direction, letting management accomplish its own goals.

“They have basically given us four value statements and a missionstatement for us to accomplish and really, that’s what they do,” he says. Adding that it lets the creative team working at the agency do what they need to, to get the job done.

One example he shares is back from when there were high fuel prices. He says their system maintained 99 percent of the transfers on time, that those people made their transfers.

In 2008 when they saw the fuel prices jump, that number dipped to 97 percent. And, that had never happened before. “For us that’s an indicator that we’re starting to struggle with our reliability,” Beutler explains.

They went to their service committee, a subcommittee of the board, and pointed out that they were seeing an indicator of service shifting.

“The service committee then set the task of sending us out, looking at other agencies and setting a ridership standard,” he says.

The committee set a ridership standard and any time any particular route goes below that ridership standard, it had potential to be looked at to find ways to somehow modify the service.

Beutler explains, “Based on those ridership standards that they established for us, we went back and we reallocated our service delivery.

“So now, 2010, we’re 5 percent above where we were in 2008 and we’re not seeing any reduction in our reliability. We’re still at that 99 percent because we’re able to reallocate.”

He reiterates, “It’s an example of how the board didn’t come in and tell us how to get it, but just gave us an end goal, saying here’s the ridership standard we want you to look at and then you guys figure it out from there.”

About the relationship, he stresses, “It’s been very successful.”

Ready for Change

Up until last year, CVTD was managed by First Transit. Beutler explains that the agency just came to a point where they felt they had the services in-house to do what was needed to do.

“They were a very great partner,” he says. And of the transition, adds, “It has gone smoother than I would have expected and that’s a credit to everyone that works here and also a credit to First Transit.”

For CVTD, bringing things in-house has been a positive change. Beutler says they have been able to focus all of the staff in the same direction and have been able to deal with those challenges that are faced each day.

“That’s not to say that we may not look at contracting in the future.” He adds with a laugh, “That’s one thing I’ve learned in this industry, it’s that if you’re too rigid, you lose opportunities. We’re all about trying to take advantage of the opportunities for us so that means you have to be somewhat flexible and never say never.”

He stresses that remaining flexible is the main piece of advice he has for others in transit. “We need to not do things because we’ve always done them this way.

“I know that’s something that I see a lot in the industry and we miss a lot of opportunities because we’re not willing to get a different perspective,” he says.

“The way forward hasn’t been charted yet. Although we can learn from the past and we very much study that, we look at how do we apply those lessons learned for the future. The future is ours to determine.”