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.”
With a grant from the state of Vermont and $20,000 for the six buses, they started the first commuter bus run. Cole says, “It’s about 40 miles between the two cities, all interstate travel.”
He explains, “We make a stop in Badbury at a state park-and-ride lot and then a stop in Richmond at a state park-and-ride lot.
“No sooner had we started the service that we had to start adding additional runs because we had standees on the buses,” says Cole. “In 2002 it was unknown whether or not Vermonters, being a very rural state, would use public transportation to commute to work. But they did in overwhelming fashion.”
CCTA operates on a pulse system, whereby seven of its routes pulse at the downtown Burlington terminal on Cherry Street so that transfers can take place between bus routes. Cole says approximately 25 percent of their customers transfer utilizing the pulse system.
The “Smart Business Program” is a new marketing program aimed at businesses. The program recruits new passengers by eliminating a barrier to using the services, namely the passenger fare. “We have found that if the service is free to the customer, ridership will increase,” says Cole. “Yet we need the passenger fare revenue source to maintain our levels of services.
“The way the program works is, we speak to businesses along our bus routes explaining that whether they realize it or not, they are supporting our auto-centric society by subsidizing their employees use of automobiles from their own bottom line by paying for their parking spaces or the maintenance associated with their parking lots.
“All we ask is that they make similar payments for their employees to use public transportation.”
Cole shares they have had great initial success with the program and continue to sign up businesses to the program as businesses have been using their participation in this program to market their “greenness” to the community and prospective employees.
CCTA also has an unlimited pass program for the local colleges and universities. Cole says, “Many of the other transit agencies have it nationwide, but I think we might do ours a little differently.”
Burlington is a college town with the University of Vermont, Champlain College, St. Michaels College, New England Culinary Institute, Middlebury College and the Community College of Vermont in the area. Each of the colleges, universities and two local high schools use their student IDs as transit passes.
The GFI fareboxes have software rewritten so that it recognizes the magnetic stripe on the IDs to record the ride and the schools are billed once a month for the ride the students take. With the specific identifiers, the farebox and the agency is able to sort them.
“We give the universities the underlying data to which they track back,” explains Cole. A statistics class looked at the data of one university and did an analysis of who was riding, where they were going, whether freshman were more apt to use the service than seniors, and more, for the agency and universities use. He adds, “This program has dramatically increased our ridership since its inception in 2002.”
When I ask Cole what the strength of his agency is, he says it’s the professionalism. “We really put out a professional product and we’re really focused on customer service.
“When I first came to the agency, customer complaints weren’t being tracked and there were no records of the agency’s responses to issues.” He continues, “So the first thing I did was to install a customer compliant and a customer compliment system.
“Each complaint and each compliment is given a number, is tracked. If a customer complains, they get a return phone call explaining what the situation is as to why the service didn’t happen the way they wanted it to.”
Cole says some of the complaints may be the fault of the agency, but some are lack of understanding from the customer as to how the system works. “We try to reach a resolution and understanding with each complaint.” He adds, “We try to close the loop with every customer who contacts us and has an issue with some aspect of the service.”
The culture is that these are looked at as opportunities for improvement to better hone the services of the operations.
“Take care of the customers is the best advice that I’ve been give,” Cole states. “Take care of the customers and everything else will take care of itself.
“For a transit system to be competitive with the automobile, there are things that are outside of your control: the price of fuel, the price of parking. Those things contribute to transit use but they’re outside of your control.” He says, “The thing that you can control as a general manager of a transit agency is the convenience of your service and the convenience of your system.
The more you make your system convenient for people to use, the more they’re going to use it.” Cole adds, “It’s a pretty simple formula.”