Culver City: Green Buses, Green Transit

Centrally located between the beach and downtown Los Angeles with a population of about 40,000 is Culver City. The local transit agency, Culver CityBus, was established in 1928 and currently operates seven routes, serving about 5.9 million passengers annually within a 22.5-square-mile area.

Art Ida, Culver CityBus’ transportation director, ended up in transit by chance and has stayed in it by choice. “When I graduated from college I started out working in corporate America,” he says as he talks about working for Xerox and then TRW Aerospace in the contract area.

“I saw the government contracts that TRW had and we would build accordingly and we would get the money,” he explains. “Well, I started to see all the contracts get closed out early so I kind of saw the writing on the wall that aerospace was about to take a huge dive.

“I looked in the paper and I saw a position at Long Beach Transit for a grants administrator, didn’t even know what a grants administrator was,” he says laughing. “But it was close to my house, so I applied, got an interview.”

As he explains, he was accustomed to working with federal agencies, it was a similar task, but working with the Federal Transit Administration as opposed to the Department of Defense.
“I got the job there and on the second day I was there, one of the things that Long Beach used to require, they used to require that employees go out and do a line ride,” he explains. “I got on the bus, took a bus ride and remembered everything about riding the bus.

“When I was young, we only had one car that was used for my dad’s business,” he shares. “Going back and seeing the people on the bus, remembering my mother taking me to the doctor or to school or to do our chores, it kind of brought everything back to me.

“And that was it,” he exclaims. “I said, wow, I remembered why and how important the bus was to us in growing up. I told myself this is the industry I’m going to stay in; I’m going to grow in this industry.” He adds, “I made a commitment within that year to stay in this industry and I wanted to do something great.”

Although he hated to leave, he said it was just time to leave Long Beach Transit to pursue more challenges, so he moved on to Foothill Transit. After a year he came to Culver CityBus and has been there for eight years now. “The reason why I came here was, this is what I wanted to do,” Ida says.

“I came here as a deputy of transportation director because I wanted to get out of the finance area and into more of the operations, more of the executive-level management.” He continues, “I came here and just last year I was appointed as transportation director because my boss retired.” He adds, “I’m very happy; it’s always rewarding when you reach a career goal.”

Running a Green Fleet
“We have been kind of on the forefront of CNG,” Ida tells me. “I think we were 100 percent back in 2003; 100 percent of our fleet was CNG.” He also says that they expanded it to some of the other city fleets and, two years ago, expanded the CNG station.

“That was a tremendous project for such a small agency, but we knew it was coming because we do service sanitation vehicles, as well as some of the other heavy-duty and publics works trucks,” he explains.

“I have to tell you, when I first came on board and I saw the CNG buses, I was very worried at that point,” he says. There were definitely growing pains, but the team has worked hard to make it successful.

“I think that because our maintenance team has been very proactive and just worked extremely hard in terms of training and making sure that they’re up on the technology, have a very good relationship with the vendors in terms of parts, that is what made us successful in this venture.”

He adds, “Some other properties have struggled due to the fact that maybe they gave up, maybe they didn’t have the relationships like we do.”

The biggest cost involved with CNG is maintaining the fueling station. Ida again attributes a good vendor relationship. “Luckily we have a very good vendor on board that we work closely with — NGS.” He stresses, “It’s those relationships that help you get through those tough times.

“We have a very good relationship with the AQD. We constantly go after any kind of grant money that we can and fund a lot of the vehicles that way.

“It’s been a blessing for us,” he adds. “I think that every transit property would tell you that when the gas prices just went through the roof, many of them had to cut service. We lucked out. We really were able to maintain status quo, of course, because the CNG did not go up as gas prices did.”

Using Technology
Five years ago the agency was in the process of procuring and implementing an AVL system with ACS, or at the time, Orbital. Ida says when they started the project others were questioning why they would undertake such an endeavor.

He says, “Everybody was saying, ‘God you’re too small, you’re not going to be able to do it, I mean why would you, you’re not going to be able to do this.’” He states, “For me, it’s like let’s remove the barriers and say how can we get this on board.” After setting down a plan and moving forward, they got it going.

“Today it’s up and running and it’s running really well,” Ida confirms. “We’re utilizing it — not fully yet — but we are definitely seeing the benefits from it.

“One of the biggest areas is getting the security cameras up; there’s no more disputing what’s happening out on the street — positive or negative,” he says. “The other part of it is it’s giving us a sense of the counts on our stops.

“We’re seeing the stops that are not so productive and we’re hoping to eventually, to start using that data to start revamping some of our services that have been there for a long time.” He admits with a laugh, “This company started in 1928 and I can tell you, there are probably some of the routes that are out there today that were out there in 1928.”

Ida affirms that with the data they have now, they can look at the routes and make adjustments to fit the changing needs of the community. “Culver City itself is kind of renovating the downtown area to make it more a restaurant row and bringing a lot of people in. Maybe it’s time for me to rethink how we’re doing things.”

Funding Transit
In LA County, there’s a regulation in the funding rules and it’s based on a formula and for years, the formula basically punished agencies for raising fares, Ida explains. If you raised your fare, you got a little more fare revenue but you would get knocked on the grant revenue.

“About a year and a half ago, the municipal operators within LA County got together with Metro and changed that rule so you don’t get harmed if you raise your fares,” Ida says. “That’s a big thing for us because we’re finally being able to at least come up to a certain fare level to offset our costs.” He adds, “We haven’t raised our fares since 2001 but I still anticipate a line of people not very happy with me.”

And working in an area with 15 other agencies, there’s a lot of communication to work together. “You work very closely with each other and you have to,” he says. “If we put a service out there that doesn’t connect to Santa Monica, which is our neighbor, then we don’t do our customers justice.”

One of the things they’ve started in the last few years to make connections easier for their riders is joining the EZ Pass program. Metro started the program for riders to purchase one pass that works over 13 different transit agencies.

“They’re coming up with this other project called a universal fare system and that’s the tap card,” he explains. “It’s a proximity card.

“Culver City was one of the first ones out of the municipal operators to come on board.” He adds, “We’re waiting for our other partners, the other cities to come on board.

“We’re looking forward to that, where somebody can add value on the card, doesn’t have to worry about change.” He explains, “They can use that tap card anywhere between Metro and Santa Monica and all the other properties.” He adds, “I see things getting better and improving and that’s going to be key in order to move people, to make it more convenient and seeing that it is easy for people.”

When he talks about the area, he talks about the congestion and the demand for parking. “I just think that it’s one of those things where I think people are going to be forced in the city to use transit. We haven’t seen it yet but we know it’s coming, so it’s just trying to be prepared for that.”

This leads him to a discussion about being prepared for increased ridership with limited and even decreasing resources. With the state taking away more transportation funding and costs rising, trying to keep service going is a challenge.

“The funny thing is, the stimulus money is great, no doubt, but the first thing I get asked by my policy board is, ‘OK, great, we have all this money, let’s put all this service out,’” Ida says. “Sorry, I can’t do that. I’ll put out great, new pretty buses.

“It’s hard for them to understand.” He explains, “We get the capital money and that’s fine, that’s plentiful, but we could really use operating and that gets taken away.” As he says now, “The state has devastated transit.

“If there are further, any other cuts anywhere, what’s going to happen is, you’re going to see a lot of transit properties just basically cut service to where again, it goes back to that connection, and people are going to say, ‘Well, why am I taking transit as opposed to driving a car?’” He states, “Then it’s just going to be counterproductive in that manner.”

In the state of California, however, the people have spoken. Measure R is a half-cent sales tax for transportation that was passed by the voters and went into effect July 1 of this year. Even during a rough economy, the voters want better transportation options.

And now there’s an expectation with Measure R passing, that the agencies should be putting out more service with extra money coming their way. “But the state just cut even more than what we’re going to get in Measure R,” explains Ida. “That’s really too bad because that really would have been an opportunity for us to relook at our service and put more quality service out there and maybe attract more people.

“I mean I was so excited when that got passed,” says Ida. “And then I see that the state took all the FTA money, then I see the economy in terms of sales tax revenue that it just dropped higher than what we expected.” He adds, “It’s like trying to keep my chin up, trying to keep everybody’s optimism there that our service is important, that we’re going to get through this, just hang in there.

“The management team is all focused,” explains Ida. “We’re all on the same page in terms of what our goals are here and basically my job is to facilitate them. I think we do that and we do that really well.”