The Green Big Blue Bus

The city of Santa Monica has a strong commitment to being green. The Sustainable City Plan was initially adopted in 1994. It was founded on eight guiding principles and has been revised and updated to continually advance the sustainability of the city. Of the eight goal areas, one, of course, is focused on transportation. Helping to meet that objective is Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus.

“I think the most important thing is that there is a very strong local commitment to sustainability in the city of Santa Monica,” says Stephanie Negriff, director of the Big Blue Bus. “That policy direction, it really has guided everything that we’ve done.”

During our interview, sitting on her desk were some notes for a speaking engagement she was prepping for, for a sustainability summit. She states, “To me the main thing is, people understand the environment, but I don’t think that the message on sustainability has really permeated our industry.

“I also think that sometimes it’s just not something that’s front and center in everybody’s daily activities.” She says, “That’s the difference in our city, that there’s this policy commitment from the top.

“If your boss is saying your first commitment is to save money, then you’re going to save money. If it’s to expand, then you’re going to expand. And if it’s that you are going to be sustainable, you are going to be sustainable.”

Negriff stresses, “I don’t think people really kind of connect all of the dots as to what sustainability is, which in my view is just protecting your natural environment so that in future years you’ll be able to continue to enjoy the quality of life that you have today.”

Start in Transit
Having interviewed many transit directors, I’m used to hearing the customary reasons of how people get into transit: always loved trains or buses, a parent was an operator, started as an operator, and fell into it during school are the usual ones. Negriff had her own, unique reason — deciphering regulations.

“I’m kind of a details person,” she explains. “So I started reading regulations … and realized that even though that type was really small, there was a lot to it. There was a method to it and you could figure it out.”

This interest led Negriff into the planning side of transit. She’s been in transit a little more than 30 years and it started with a college internship in Austin. After working at the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority’s transit division as an associate planner, she had the opportunity to move into operations.

From there she moved to the MPO of St. Louis and was doing some systems planning. Being born in LA and growing up in Texas, the Midwest wasn’t a place she would stay too long. “It was the worst winter they had had in St. Louis in about 40 years,” she says of the first year she was there. “I had never lived in a place where you actually wore out a coat.” She adds while laughing, “You might outgrow a coat; it might become no longer fashionable because you had it so long, but I wore it out, so, had to go!”

Fortunately she had the opportunity to go back to Austin. Some people that she had worked with as an intern were beginning to do the community outreach, exploring the idea of creating a separate transit district. “I went back and I helped to develop in Austin the first service plan that was prepared for the creation for what is now Capital Metro,” she says.

“I’ve been in Santa Monica since 1986, so this will be my 23rd year,” she says. She started as the senior administrative analyst under the director at the time, Jack Hutchinson and then John Catoe. Under reorganization by Catoe, Negriff became a manager over the planning and inter-governmental relations functions.

With 16 municipal transit systems sharing in federal, state and countywide funding, she worked to ensure that Santa Monica got its fair share for funding for operations.

“It really gave me a great opportunity, when you really understand the funding, then you really understand maintenance better,” Negriff says. “And maintenance utilizes — purchases — 95 percent of the stuff that we have.” A position was created as assistant director of operations, which was a position that the operations and maintenance divisions reported to. Negriff was apprehensive about the maintenance side of things, but understood what they needed; she understood the capital planning process from her previous experience.

“I was just really honest with those employees,” she explains. As she told the employees at the time, “I’m never going to know how to fix a bus and you may not be used to seeing a woman in a role like this, but I know how to get the money to provide you with what you need and if you work with me, I’ll ensure that you have those.” She adds, “It’s been a great relationship with them ever since.”

Working in that role and working with John Catoe prepared her for the role of director, which she has been in since 2002. “I really felt that I was ready to take on the challenge of this job,” she says.

Sustainable Practices
The policy direction of the city has guided everything that the Big Blue Bus has done. The city wanted the agency to operate natural gas vehicles; it just had to make a decision as to whether they were going to operate LNG or CNG. “So we chose liquefied natural gas,” says Negriff. “We knew we needed an infrastructure for it so we built this LNG fueling station, which, of course, fuels LNG and CNG.”

According to Ralph Merced, transit maintenance manager, the Big Blue Bus got its first small all-electric vehicle in 1998 and the first LNG buses about 2002. Currently the agency has 15 gasoline hybrids on order from ElDorado and a natural gas articulated bus from North American Bus Industries Inc.

Christopher Ramirez, marketing & public information for the Big Blue Bus, says, “100 percent of our fleet is now some kind of alternative fuel. Even the remaining diesel buses we have are running on biodiesel.” He adds, “And of course our plan is to get rid of all of those diesel-burning buses and switch them over to other, LNG or CNG.”

The agency’s fuel is delivered as LNG, its buses are fueled as LNG but the fuel can also be converted to CNG. Orange County is going to fill its CNG buses on the Big Blue Buses’ external island. “We take delivery of LNG, convert it to CNG for the CNG use, but we still have LNG to use for our buses,” Merced says. It’s one way in which the agency generates some additional revenue.

As Facilities Maintenance Superintendent Johnny Nettles says, “We’re not going to get rich over it.” Instead they’re focusing on being good neighbors and getting more natural gas buses to the region.

Building Green
About two years ago The Big Blue Bus opened its Transit Store, where you can buy tickets and passes, get route information or purchase a wide variety of Big Blue Bus merchandise, including things such as bags, toy buses, water bottles and apparel.

“We really wanted that transit store to be a community focal point to make the connection between public transportation and the environment,” explains Negriff. “What better way to do that than to create a store that’s made out of recycled materials and that promotes it.”

A short bus ride from the agency, the store is constructed with sustainable considerations every step of the way. “The floors are made of recycled tires, the countertops are made from a new material that’s a combination of plastic bottles that have been melted down and pressed, and all of the surfaces like the walls and the cabinetry, are all made of straw board,” explains Ramirez.

A special solar panel on the outside helps illuminate the store in the evening and special windows above and below that panel open to allow circulation. Being three blocks from the ocean, the Transit Store gets a nice, cool ocean breeze coming through.

The unique curvature of the ceiling inside the store works with unusual looking window sills that stick far out. The coating on the window sills is reflective so the sun’s light bounces off the reflective panel and up into the curved ceiling to illuminate even the back of the store with natural light so less electricity needs to be used.

“We just tried to think of everything we could to make it as green as possible,” states Ramirez. He guesses they probably paid about 15 to 20 percent more in making the store green, but stresses, “It was really our mission to do that and we wanted to showcase that.” He also adds that for a city green building tour, the Transit Store was featured as one of the only businesses on the tour.

Negriff says, “The bottom line is, we know that if people use public transportation instead of driving their automobiles then that is good for the environment. But our message, we say that very subtly, and the idea is that if you see the Big Blue Bus as an environmentally supportive or sustainable agency, then you will want to use it and it’s been a huge message.”

She adds, “Needless to say, within a city like Santa Monica, practically every household has an automobile and it’s not a natural step to use public transportation but we get a tremendous amount of support from our community because they make the connection.

“Public transportation is good for the environment so that means the Big Blue Bus is good for the environment and we like the Big Blue Bus.”

Funding Transit
With several billion dollars of state transit assistance money deferred from public transit to address other state budget concerns in recent years, the Big Blue Bus has had its struggles to still operate effectively. “It was real devastating to completely lose the state transit assistance account for this coming fiscal year,” says Negriff.

“We are working with the California Transit Association now to try and do what ever we can to get the message out of the importance of restoring those funds.”

She says they are counting their blessings that Los Angeles voters voted for Measure R in November, a half-cent sales tax for transportation that went into effect July 1 of this year. But, they’re challenged because they’re going to be collecting about half of what they should be on an annual basis. “We’re dealing with a $2.5 million deficit next year as a result of that,” she says.

“We are looking at where we can refine our services to try and just get through what is going to be a very difficult budget year for us.” A budget that is complicated by the fact that they need to be putting more service out on the streets.

Big Blue Bus carries about 55 to 57 passengers an hour on average on its system, with its most productive lines carrying upward of 70 passengers an hour. When ridership grows on a line like that, more service is needed out there.

“We’re looking at where we can reduce service on our least productive lines so that we can redeploy that service where we’re experiencing substantial overcrowding,” Negriff says.

Taking Line 3 from the airport to the agency, I witnessed the standing-room only of one of their more productive lines. “Yeah, Line 3 and Line 7 … the Line 7 carries 25 percent of the 22 million passengers that we carry every year,” she says. “We can run three-minute service there and still have standing loads.”

As the fastest growing line in the system, they’ve added more service to Line 3 in the last 10 years than on any other single line and as fast as service is added, they’ll see standing loads.

“Even though the stimulus dollars are great and are going to have a huge impact in the restoration of our economy, it’s all capital dollars,” says Negriff. “While we make the best use of the capital dollars that we have available, it’s a shame that we don’t have the operating dollars to complement the increase in the capital dollars so we can go out and make a real impact.

“One of the ways that they’ve tried to address the issue is creating partnerships within our community.” She explains, “We’re looking for partnerships because our business community understands the value of the Big Blue Bus to the local economy on bringing people to a local business community that is being significantly impacted by this economy.

“We have these beautiful coastal hotels but our transit occupancy taxes are coming in below projections this year as a result of the economy.” She continues, “We are working with them to promote buying locally so that we can encourage people to come in and shop and stay and dine; spend money in Santa Monica.

“We have been full partners at all levels of this community to see this through and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction as the head of this organization to have people really appreciate and have us willing partners to get through some very difficult times.”

Baby Steps to Transit
The Mini Blue service consists of smaller buses that run every 15 to 20 minutes. “We designed a Mini Blue system that is really supposed to be just for Santa Monica and it kind of was our first step of saying, how do we actually get people who don’t know how or aren’t normally inclined to ride transit, on a bus,” states Negriff.

Through telephone surveys of non-riders, Big Blue Bus learned it needed smaller, shuttle-like vehicles, clean vehicles and direct short routes.

“It was to demystify transit so that we could give people a chance, an opportunity to try it, even if they’re only going to the city of Santa Monica.” Negriff explains, “The idea was really to create the feeder network so that people could get used to using it then when the rail comes, we won’t have to have park-and-ride lots, we won’t have people driving to the rail station, we’ll have a network in place to do it.

“This system was developed at a time that we didn’t have new money available to put service out. We did it by becoming more lean and more efficient in our own operations with collaboration with the ESTES partnership and other things, we were able to kind of package the funding together to deliver the service,” she states.

“My goal is to really create a system that makes it easy or inviting for someone who’s never used a bus,” Negriff says. “It’s just amazing how when people are being really honest and saying, I’m just afraid to try it.”

She mentions how a few times, they had to put a 40-foot bus out on the route. “I’ve gotten calls from people, ‘There’s only a bus coming every 30 minutes.’

“So I’ll call and ask, did we miss a trip?” She says, “They say, ‘No, everything is out.’ So I’m like what is going on?

“It’s that they only recognize the little 30-footers. So even though the 40-footer will say The Tide Ride, it will go right by them and they said ‘No, it needs to be distinctive. We need to know it’s this one.’”

Negriff explains the riders say, “Just give us some baby steps. Give us our little mini bus and maybe once we get comfortable with that, we will be willing to try.”

Enhanced Service
The Big Blue Bus is just starting to embark on a bus stop redevelopment program that will redesign all of the bus stops, add bus shelters at high-volume stops, new maps, real-time signage and an IVR system so riders can call and find out when the next bus is coming to the stop.

The target is to complete the overhaul in 24 months, Ramirez says. “Part of that depends on the budget and partially on, well, actually most of it depends on the budget,” he says with a laugh.

“We will replace everything, even the smallest stop with the smallest number of boardings. That whole pole system will be replaced with something that is new and fresh, will look nice.” He adds, “Really upgrade the image of public transportation; make it both more exciting and also easier to ride.”

With the advanced fleet management system from Continental that was first implemented about five years ago, Ramirez says they’re ready to move forward with it and describes the signs they’re working to get for their new stops. “It’s a really cool, smooth, small, almost plasma-like sign. It’s very high-tech looking.”

He also says it uses a lot less electricity, and is hoping to have it run on solar power.

He shares that they have already gone to the city council three times with three different designs and each one has been rejected because the city council wants something that is really special. “My little thing that I’ve been telling people now is, you know what the city council wants is they want a piece of functional art. They don’t want a bus shelter.

“It has to be something that’s really iconic to the city and really beautiful.” He stresses, “And I’m glad they want that because when people see just a square little shelter, it’s like, ‘Oh, public transit.’ But if they see something that’s just really dynamic, cool, they’re going to stand up and take notice and probably be more inclined to try it.”

When I ask him about the amount of community involvement in the project, his first comment is, “Huge.

“We have a very vocal community so I’m going to do something unique, I’m going to start a blog and we’re going to be posting images and samples on the blog to get feedback.

The goal is to have three rough prototypes designed and then take those to the public to get the feedback and narrow it down to one and push that design forward.

“Hopefully people will say, ‘Oh I hate this, it’s going to block my sign, or what ever.” He stresses, “We’re going to be doing massive public outreach meetings, working with boards and commissions and, of course, the city council, to help them as we develop it.”

Something else unique that has been already tried out at one of their stops is using rubber instead of concrete. Merced explains that it’s recycled, old rubber and it’s been in place about two years now. The city was doing it on sidewalks, because tree roots damage concrete.

“This way they can grind the roots down a bit, pop this back on and if it grows back, you just lift up these sections and grind it down again,” he explains.

“Our concern was the wheelchairs; will a wheelchair roll on it easily? So far it’s been good.” He adds, “It’s kind of cool; it’s a recycled item. We’re always looking for something that has some positive impact.

“We kind of stole the idea from the street maintenance. We’ll give them credit.”

Managing Transit
When I ask Negriff what she thinks the most important thing for transit directors is she doesn’t even hesitate to answer. “The main thing is to have a mentor and to also be a mentor. I think that is my thing that has most influenced me; I’ve had great mentors.

“Being a mentor or having a mentor, I can not impress the importance of doing that and really just going up to someone and saying, if you see something in an employee or colleague that you feel you can help to enhance them or make them better, encourage someone to actually take the risk.”

When talking about management, she says, “There is no one way to run a transit system. There are some basic fundamentals that you need to understand about it, but every transit system has the opportunity and potential to be great.

“You just have to have the right people and the right resources and the right connection with your community.” About Big Blue Bus she says, “The biggest challenge is to always find ways to make our organization better because we can start on an exciting path. I’ve seen a lot of change in this organization in the years that I’ve been here.”