Centered in Burlington, Vt., is the small urban transit provider, the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA). Many transit directors go from management to policy making, CCTA General Manager Chris Cole came from the policy-making side.
Cole started his career as a policy analyst for both the New York and Vermont State Legislatures. In 2001 Cole was approached by the CCTA board, asking him if he would be interested in joining on as general manager.
Cole moved from passing policies at the state level to implementing policies at the local level. His experience has enabled him to look at all sides of an issue very quickly and make an informed judgment he says. “You have to know how to interview people to figure out what’s going on with their programs, whether they’re being run correctly. Serving the oversight role in the state legislature in terms of reviewing the work of the administration was an advantage to me.” He adds, “I was able to spend time with people here at the agency figuring out what they did, why they did it.”
It didn’t come without a learning curve, however. “One of the mistakes I made early on was picking buses,”Cole says. “I based it upon what I thought the community wanted in terms of both size and look and that’s not the correct way to pick buses, so I removed myself from that part of the process and let the people who actually know what they’re doing select their vehicles through specifications and all of that stuff.” He adds with a laugh, “I’ve made mistakes, but you learn from them.”
Serving a population of about 155,000, CCTA was chartered in 1973 by the Vermont General Assembly after private bus contractor Burlington Rapid Transit went out of business.
“In ’73, nationwide a lot of the private bus companies were going out of business and that’s really when public transit got its big start in our country,” states Cole. “CCTA was created when Burlington Rapid Transit, the private bus company at that time, went out of business and the five communities that received services from them wanted to maintain those services.”
The rural transit provider in Washington County, the Montpelier service area, went bankrupt. The state of Vermont asked CCTA to come in and be the service provider for the area.
“Rather than come in as Chittenden county, you have to understand the state of Vermont politics.” Cole explains, “There’s Chittenden County where Burlington is and it’s a pretty urbanized area of the state. Then, there’s the rest of Vermont.
“A lot of times Vermonters will think that Chittenden County really isn’t part of Vermont, so we created the agency called the Green Mountain Transit Agency and at that time it was a part of CCTA.”
It has been transformed into its own private entity, with its own private board and CCTA has a contracting relationship with GMTA. Cole says, “They started service in 2002 to Washington County and we basically recreated a transit system in two weeks.”
“We were an underfunded agency for the first 20, 25 years of our existence,” says Cole. “In 2001 when I came onboard, I wanted to make inroads in the choice rider market and they really wanted to start commuter bus services, which were unknown in Vermont at the time.”
Since FY 2002 through FY 2009, CCTA has seen ridership grow by 58 percent for an average of 8 percent per year. This growth has been attributed to the unlimited access program, improved adherence to timepoints, customer service initiatives, losing poor-performing segments and the expansion of commuter services.
In 2002 CCTA started a commuter bus run from Burlington to Montpelier. Former Maintenance Manager Jack Cross was sent to California to purchase vehicles. “He bought some RTS buses at auction for about $5,000, shipped them back across the country, we refurbished them and turned them into commuter buses by putting seats with more cushions in them that had high backs.”