When Sean Smith, general manager with Durham Area Transit Authority (DATA), got out of the military he decided he needed something different to do and transportation was where he was looking, particularly the airline field.
“When I got out, the airlines were doing a lot of downsizing so I heard about Greyhound Bus Lines hiring some dispatchers,” he says. “So I ended up getting in with Greyhound and once transportation got in my blood, I couldn’t get it out and I’ve been in the industry now, going on 17 years.”
At Greyhound for 13 years, Smith worked in various capacities after starting as a dispatcher. After being a safety manager and then a department compliance manager, he was asked to run the national dispatch office. After that time, he felt it was time to learn about the other side, to go to the public side.
“The word green was going around and the congestion of cities; I needed to know more about it,” he says. After looking around at different cities, Durham, N.C., popped up and he thought he would take a chance.
“I worked my way,” he says of coming to DATA. He started as the operations manager, eventually as assistant general manager and then the general manager position that he currently holds.
When asked if there were sides of the private side that he missed at all, it was an emphatic, “No.
“Greyhound is facilitated on providing travel when people are off, so I worked a lot — every weekend, not a lot — every weekend.” He adds, “And every holiday. So being on that side of it was very stressful during those times of the year.
“Going on the public side is not as stressful as those times because it’s individuals using it on a daily basis, being transported back and forth to work and other things.”
The main experience he felt really helped him in his transition to the public side was his ability to handle a diverse group of people and being able to deal with the unions. “The state of North Carolina has a state law that they can’t negotiate with their unions,” Smith explains. “Being able to come in and negotiate new contracts and new opportunities for this location has been my strong point here in this location.”
DATA serves the city of Durham, and he explains he handles the fixed-route side of transit in the city. The paratransit is handled by Tara Caldwell, general manager for paratransit.
Caldwell has been with the agency for 16 years. “They were looking for van operators, so I was a van operator,” she says. “And that opened the door for paratransit.”
As positions became available, she applied for them from dispatcher to administrative assistant to safety manager, then operations manager and finally general manager, which she has been at for six years.
It’s no surprise that when talking to Smith and Caldwell, money is the biggest challenge they each face.
“It’s hard, but there are several programs available now and we’re working with the county and state as they write grants to come up with money,” Caldwell says. “The biggest challenge is making sure we use it efficiently.”
“Like most of the agencies out there, it’s just about funding with the communities and the cities having difficult times raising funds through taxes,” Smith says of his biggest challenge. “The funding is really a concern for everyone.”
A way they’re looking to meet that challenge is through creative partnerships. One partnership is with the regional transit company in the area, Triangle Transit Authority (TTA). “The city of Durham has decided to partner with them to allow them to have the oversight of the Durham Area Transit Authority with the hopes of bringing in the regional service for all the communities in this area under one umbrella to help defer some of the cost,” Smith explains.
“I’m really excited about that because with Triangle Transit’s knowledge of the region, we can align our schedules and share some of the responsibilities and duties of moving passengers around in this region and to defer costs on both sides.”
For now it’s just the two agencies, but he said the ultimate goal is to bring in several of the nearby cities to partner with the same program. The partnership has just started this fall and if it’s a success, they will work it out with other municipalities in the area.
He elaborates, “We’re still independent of Triangle Transit; our focus is on our community, our ridership, our visitors, our people.” He adds, “Triangle Transit understands that; they’re just giving us oversight.”
Caldwell also talks about working with regional service. “We’re going to be working together to make sure we stay in our vicinity of Durham, trying to provide senior service for our clients.”
The agencies are able to share costs and it is set up so clients outside the area of the county can have seamless service. “It makes it so the client won’t have to get off our van because they are going past our jurisdiction.”
Smith also talks about partnering with local universities to help subsidize the costs of the transportation services in the area. One such service is the Bull City Connector, a free service for the downtown corridor.
“We connect the downtown with Duke University Medical Center,” Smith says. “That’s actually funded in three forms. Duke University provides partial funding, the other funding comes from the city of Durham and procurement of the vehicles came through the federal government through ARRA funds.”
Started in late summer this year, Smith says the service has been going very well, averaging about 1,100 riders each day. “It’s been a well-received service,” he says. And they hope to extend the service a bit further to another local university, North Carolina Central University.
Increasing Ridership and Efficiency
Technology has been a benefit to the area in running efficient service and Smith looks for some new technology to be soon helping attract new riders.
“One technology that has been a real benefit starting off for us has been having the opportunity to establish an AVL system,” Smith explains. “We’ve been able to provide our customers with real-time information.
“We’re just now getting in to that, so that’s really going to be a benefit to all of our customers,” he adds. “This is a technology-rich area. It will help us tremendously to boost our ridership and those individuals that have been reluctant to take transit not knowing exactly how it worked, it would now give them more freedom to ride transit.”
Caldwell talks about how years ago, they had to do everything manually, making trips sheets and everything. “But now we have the scheduling software that when we book a trip, it decides the best route for it to go on, so it’s done by efficiency purposes.”
With the Trapeze software for the last three years, she says the only challenging part was when they had to input everything, all of the client information into the system. Then, as she says, the system did the rest.
“Increasing our productivity without decreasing our customer service; it’s kind of hard to do because what happens is, the more people who ride, the less one-on-one service they get,” says Caldwell. “With the scheduling software, it helps us maintain balance.
“I have to make sure we provide safe, convenient service and I also have to make sure that we increase ridership; it’s balancing both.”
Caldwell says what they’re trying to do now is to go through the riders that are certified and see how many people they can switch to fixed-route service. “Ones that are ambulatory and can ride with aid on the fixed-route, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Teaching clients what ADA means, that it doesn’t mean because you’re disabled you automatically are certified for the program is something they’ve been working on. “It’s just education on the client’s behalf.”
Going to association conferences, Caldwell says that everybody’s saying the same thing, the overload of paratransit. “I’ve been in transportation for 16 years and I’ve seen it where 16 years ago we were probably doing 4 to 500 trips a day and now we’re up to 800 trips a day. It’s been a tremendous growth.”