A Different Path

The path of public transportation management diverges into the two roads of public and private agencies throughout the transit industry with many diverging combinations along the way. However, West Covina?s Foothill Transit in the shadow of Los Angeles has its own uniqueness in the way its management structure is put together - three independent contractors all working together for the greater goal of quality transit.

Transit Experiment
The concept behind Foothill Transit goes back two decades when local leaders looked to create a different transit model instead of raising fares and reducing services. Foothill Transit was created as an experiment to do that, to give local leaders greater influence over local transit services and to maximize service levels.

Foothill Transit is structured with Veolia Transportation overseeing the authority?s two transit yards. The Pamona yard is under contract with First Transit and operates all of Foothill?s express service. The Arcadia yard operates primarily local service under the auspices of MV Transportation.

While there is some friendly competition between the two facilities, as Foothill Executive Director Doran Barnes says, they do operate fairly different kinds of services that, "had been provided by the public sector," but now use, "the forces of private competition to be able to come up with a new model for developing that service."

Barnes thinks the experiment has been a success to date, having allowed the agency to manage costs and focus aggressively on quality. And this is a combination he really believes in.
"It's not about being the absolute lowest cost; it's about maximizing the value for the investment," Barnes says.

"So it's really not about driving to the bottom in terms of price. It's really driving to best value for the invested dollar."

Financial Introduction
Barnes would know better than most about getting the value out of a dollar in the transit industry. A University of California Davis graduate, he worked for the university transit authority, Unitrans, as an undergrad first as an operator and eventually as director of operations and director of planning. Upon graduation he went to work for Ernst & Young, one of the world?s leading financial consulting firms, but he was never an accountant.

"I was never an accountant," says Barnes with a smile.

"I worked in their transit consulting group, and one of the projects that Ernst & Young was assigned to do was an evaluation of the cost effectiveness of Foothill Transit, so I was one of the staff members who did the comparisons that looked at the first three-year period of Foothill's existence to see if it had indeed achieved the things that it had set out to do."

That was Barnes' introduction to the agency he would one day find himself in charge of. After several years with Ernst & Young working on a variety of transit projects Barnes became director of planning for Monterey Salinas Transit before returning to Foothill as deputy executive director in 1997.

"They remembered me. I guess I made a halfway decent impression," Barnes laughs.

Barnes would stay with Foothill for four years before spending two years in Tulsa, Okla., as general manager in what he calls his "two-year sabbatical" before returning to Foothill, this time as executive director.

"So that's kind of the story of how I found myself here," Barnes says.

Balanced Management
Barnes is officially employed as a vice president for Veolia Transportation, and is the executive director of Foothill Transit, and is a vice chair (Human Resources) on the American Public Transportation Association's executive committee, and is executive committee chair for the California Transit Association. Oh, and he is also a Dale Carnegie Institute certified instructor.

Many transit officials have similar resumes, so how do they balance it all? Barnes says you just have to understand that transit isn?t an 8-to-5 job.

"And I don't think any of my colleagues in the industry would say their job is either," he admits.

"For me it's a matter of being passionate about what I do professionally, but also being passionate about the community and the people that we serve and being connected in a variety of different ways.

"So all of these things have different connections that ultimately I think allow me to be effective at all of the things that I do. And sometimes the connections will occur in ways that initially you don't really see, but as you weave the activities together they do make a difference.

"So it really is kind of this mosaic of things that come together to make it all happen."

A Different Path
Being a transit agency located in southern California, Foothill Transit can't - as another SoCal director once told me -  even sniff diesel fuel for its vehicles. Foothill Transit made the decision to go the compressed natural gas (CNG) route and has made significant strides in that direction.

"Once we made [the decision to go with CNG] we were very purposeful and very aggressive about how quickly we've moved in terms of implementing a CNG fleet," Barnes says. Currently the Foothill Transit has 262 CNG-powered vehicles in its 314-bus fleet and is moving as quickly as it can to replace the remainder.

With new technological advances being made every day, I asked Barnes if they had looked into hybrid vehicles for the Foothill fleet, but he said they were heading down
"a slightly different path."

?Where we?re looking at in terms of the next step in technology is zero-emission all-electric vehicles,? Barnes says.

"And we actually have a project that we're advancing that will implement what we believe is the first fast-charge all-electric vehicle that will be in regular revenue service."

The first of the vehicles, Ecoliners manufactured by Proterra, should be arriving at Foothill Transit very near to when you?re reading this. The initial order is for three buses to operate on Foothill's 291 line, which connects LaVerne to Pamona, which Barnes says is the perfect route for these vehicles.

"In the middle of that line is the Pomona transit center and that will be the location where the fast-charge station will be located," Barnes says.

"The idea is that the bus will come into the Pomona transit center during, essentially, a normal layover for that bus, then will connect to the charging station. The bus will be able to go from a 5 percent to a 95 percent charge in less than 10 minutes.

"And that's the goal for the project. So the idea is that every time you do a trip, you come into the station, you connect to the charging station, you juice up and you keep on going."

Barnes explains that it is this quick-charging process that makes this project so different than others. Instead of exhausting the batteries and taking the vehicle out of service to recharge, it can be done mid-route, keeping the buses moving throughout the day.

If the Ecoliners prove to be as successful as Foothill hopes, the plan is to eventually replace all 12 buses operating on the 291 line to make it entirely electrified. Barnes says from there it's a matter of locating other areas in Foothill's service where the technology and service demands match up and implementing the all-electric service there.

He notes that there are limitations with the all-electric vehicles, the greatest which may be its 40-mile range between charges.

"We're learning. The manufacturer is learning. But we really think it's got great potential in terms of local service where you do have relatively short route lengths and the ability to have layover locations where you can recharge," Barnes says.

"We're really trying to take that goal of a zero-emission, cost-effective vehicle and demonstrate that this technology can accomplish that goal. And that's really been the promise."

The project is fully funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and is the first of its kind in the nation. When asked about the operating costs, Barnes admits they believe those will be even lower with the all-electric vehicles. Of course, those vehicles also need to get power from somewhere.

"We are working with Edison, who is the power provider for southern California, for the actual pricing for the power that will power the vehicle," Barnes says.

"One of the challenges we face is because it is a fast charge - unlike a slow-charge vehicle that you plug in overnight when the electric demands are lower - we will be doing the fast charge during the day, which is a higher demand for electric power. So Edison is one of our partners in terms of putting this together and really this is new territory for them as well.

"It's one of the issues we are working through as we work through this first three-bus program and we look to expand it to something that is bigger."

Barnes says they aren't ruling out any type of alternative fuel just because they have decided to proceed with an all-electric alternative for this project.

"I think there are a lot of questions being explored related to fuel technology. We don't know all the answers to those questions yet, but we're very, very carefully and methodically exploring them - again with the goal of being a zero-emission vehicle.

"We're definitely at the tip of the spear, but it's a pretty exciting project to see this going forward."

Silver Streak
Foothill Transit may be breaking new ground with its all-electric vehicles in 2010, but it's not the first time the system has gotten attention for implementing new projects. It was just three years ago it implemented its first bus rapid transit (BRT) route, the Silver Streak, but transit moves pretty quickly these days.

"It seems so long ago. It seems like 100 years ago," Barnes says about the BRT route's implementation.

The Silver Streak runs along I-10, the backbone of Foothill?s system and as Barnes explains, was designed to, "take some services that we?d already operated, but weren't as quick or as easy to understand in terms of how it connected to the communities and to use the Silver Streak as the spine that then connects all the various local services that we have throughout our service area.

"That was the initial genesis of what became the Silver Streak — to do something that was very easy to understand. That was quicker in terms of its movement from location to location. That got customers to connecting locations that then they could access the local services and ultimately get to their final destination."

The Silver Streak route is Foothill's longest, running from Montclair into downtown Los Angeles with several stops along the way. Barnes says due to its length the electric bus application couldn?t be applied due to the current state of technology.

"Down the road maybe we?ll get there, but for right now CNG is a tried-and-true fuel choice that we are using on that line," Barnes says.

The Silver Streak is Foothill?s only line using 60-foot articulated coaches, giving it a distinctive look and presence than the regular local service, which helped customers to identify with the new service.

"If you were a customer before and needed to go somewhere you could still get there with the implementation of the Silver Streak," Barnes says.

"Depending on where you needed to go you could get there a whole lot faster. It really was kind of a reconceptualization of parts of the service in terms of how we put the whole thing together."

Technological Safety
Technology is a key factor in how Foothill Transit is planning for the future and it's no wonder that Barnes thinks that, "technology is one of those issues that is really driving our business in terms of both opportunities and challenges."

One of the ways Foothill is taking advantage of this is to implement a "soup-to-nuts" global positioning system that allows it to track its vehicles, dispatch them automatically and, most importantly to Barnes, keep an eye on everything that is happening in the agency.

"We actually first implemented with cameras in certain locations. We've subsequently, through experience, added even more. The idea being that you've got some record to see what happened on a vehicle if something does happen," Barnes says.

Barnes says this record has a variety of uses, including training, collision investigation and just about any other safety matters that come into play.

"It has really helped in terms of being able to look at what is really going on within the system," he admits.

"So if there is an incident that we are made aware of, we can pull those videos and be able to look at what is happening to assist law enforcement to investigate an incident that's occurred.

"It really is a powerful tool in terms of seeing what's going on."

Value Versus Investment
While Foothill Transit may be treading down new paths in terms of technology, its executive director comes back to his finance roots when it comes to directing his agency.

"The thing that I always come back to is to try to focus on how do you get the best value out of the dollar invested," Barnes says.

"I think some times it's easy to lose track of that, particularly in light of the environment that we work in where that value proposition sometimes it has to be looked at, but in the context of all the other requirements that we face.

"You still have to take care of those things. You've got to comply with the federal requirements. You've got to comply with your policy. But the next level in that is really looking at how you get the best value possible. And we try to blend that where we're looking at how do you derive value out of what you're doing and I would encourage my colleagues to do the same thing.

"We really have to be looking for ways to drive that value proposition into what we do and how we serve our communities."