Staying Ahead of the Curve

State-of-the-art technology and a familiar staff makes the award-winning St. Cloud Metropolitan Transportation Commission (Metro Bus) an agency worth visiting and a place I didn't want to leave. Although that could have had more to do with the impending bombardment of snow heading through the area as I left. The middle of winter may not be the best time to head to the north, but the trek provided insight into how this agency stays at the leading edge of transit in its operations.

Metro Bus was named the best transit system of its size in North America by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in 2007. It also won this prestigious award back in 1990 and David Tripp, Metro Bus' executive director, is proud to quickly point out that it is the only agency in Minnesota to have won that award twice.

Numerous reasons account for the 2007 win and the tour allowed me to see first hand what some of those qualities are.

Not only is it the extensive use of technology throughout the operations, the familiar staff makes you want to feel a part of the team. Before even arriving at the agency, the hospitality had shown through. Marketing Director and Planner Tom Cruikshank orchestrated a day of activity that involved various members of the staff and also a tour at New Flyer's manufacturing facility in town with New Flyer Program Leader Paul Hatton.

Part of a community
I ask Tripp what he attributes the agency's success to. "We're autonomous," he answers without skipping a beat. "I think that's the big reason.

"We're not part of a city operation or a county operation; we're completely, totally autonomous." He adds, "Our five members on the board, they're not pulling things because of their community. It's really a community program and they're community-minded.

"You know, we've all been here forever," Tripp reflects of the staff. "I'm 29 years, Tony and Patty, my part-time accounting clerk, have been here 22 years, Kim 20 years, Tom 18 years; we're kind of the nucleus."

He talks of not only the team and his staff's dedication, but also that of the partners they work with, including St. Cloud State, member cities and transit partners. "This is a very strong community," he emphasizes.

Part of the energy comes from Tripp's own enthusiasm toward transit. As he says, it's contagious and there is always something around the corner that's different, exciting and worthwhile. "I think there are a lot of public transit professionals and managers who got into the industry because of not just a job, but the philosophy of what public transit does," he says. "Not just to the environment, not just wise land use, but to the individuals, to the populace that we do serve." He says, "Some light bulb goes off in your head that I think guides why you choose a profession."

Through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), Tripp started as an administrative intern at Winona State University 33 years ago. "They just had a dilapidated system,? he explains. ?I latched on to it and thought, this could be better, because I had been in Japan for a full year so I saw what modern mass transit can offer."

For the past 29 years, Tripp has been at Metro Bus and explains it?s the interesting projects that pop up that have kept him here as long as he has been.

Cruikshank interjects, "Here I thought it was just because of the staff."

As Tripp laughs, he says, "I would miss them so much.

"Right, about a day," Cruikshank adds.

As to why he's remained at one place for so long, "Dennis Jensen from Duluth and I, we thought we would join the Bill Volk 'Lifetime Agency Club,'" he laughs. "For awhile there we were trying to beat Bill's tenure and Volk's just never going to leave. He could write his ticket anywhere in the nation; he's an industry magnate."

Running at capacity
Like the other agencies I talk to, the $4-a-gallon gas hit the area hard. Tripp says, "I would hope it?s an awakening process for our nation to know that as far as the automobile specifically, that we just can't do business as usual, and that efficiency is absolutely necessary as well as alternatives — good alternatives."

He mentions during the fuel crisis in the late '70s and then again in the mid-80s, he didn't see the behavior change like he did when gas hit $4 a gallon. "That's when we really saw ridership growth. Thirty percent in the summer, which is just unheard of when our St. Cloud State is on break."

Cruikshank says, "We had drivers coming in telling us passengers were complaining they had to stand. These are regular riders that ride during the day.

"At 11 o'clock in the morning or 1 o'clock in the afternoon, we had to pass some folks," Tripp states. "We were full to yellow line at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. It's a glorious problem to have."

Cruikshank says, "I'm sure you're hearing that across the country, but for us it becomes a run-time issue. Routes are running behind because you're making more passenger stops and at each of those stops you have more people boarding. It's taking longer for those drivers to make those routes."

With ridership settling down with the lower gas prices, things are running easier, but Cruikshank mentions they?re actually compounding the problem themselves. ?We?re trying to transition more of our dial-a-ride users on to fixed routes,? he says. ?Many of those users are nonambulatory, they use mobility aides and need to use some of the lifts or ramps to get on and off the bus, which means more dwell time at the curb.? 

The timing is right for change, however, as Metro Bus is performing a total analysis of the system. ?Aecom, we hired them this last spring, they?re going to help us do a system performance analysis,? says Cruikshank. ?Since we?ve had some experience dealing with that high ridership, we know that there are some areas that we?re really going to have to address.?

Our conversation leads me to ask how Metro Bus is funded. Without hesitation Tripp replies, ?Well, bake sales ...? As he and Cruikshank laugh, Cruikshank adds, ?We had a silent auction benefit on Friday.?
Tripp explains, ?The state of Minnesota is a major, major partner, more than 50 percent.? He adds, ?And then we do have our, because we are an authority created by the

Minnesota legislature in ?69, we have our own direct taxing authority. We have that ability.

?We could tax a lot higher, but things have so far balanced themselves so we didn?t have to raise taxes.? He says, ?Our tax rate is at like 1.15 percent, which is pretty small.? He also mentions that central Minnesota is conservative. ?The majority of our mayors of the four cities are conservative so as long as we?re able to squeak this and that, really, that?s the only reason we have full-wrapped buses.? And that?s a market which is also getting tougher.

The capital program is completely dependent on earmarking or discretionary funding for the big ticket items. He says, ?That?s not a very comfortable position to be in.? But adds, ?We still get by. We?re pretty creative.?

Creative solutions
Creativity is apparent with the solutions they find to help them operate more efficiently. ?We?re small enough of an agency and yet autonomous enough of an agency where if we see that there?s a good idea, we just go for it,? Tripp says. ?There are no multi-levels of bureaucracy, internal bureaucracy. It?s just like if some folks think it?s a good idea, they come to me.

?Everyone?s got their niche,? he adds. ?They?re just excited to come to work and do it. ?We?re always doing things that are cutting-edge and over-the-edge. And not all of that is completely original,? Tripp says.

One example is its U-Go-Free, a summer youth pass. ?For three months it?s free, you just have to have a parent come down and sign up the student and ridership is completely free for under 18.?

He mentions that idea came from Martin Sennett, general manager with the Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corp. (CityBus). ?There was an article in one of our industry magazines and Marty said, ?You know, we weren?t getting that many student passengers anyway, so the revenue resulting from it wasn?t that significant.?

?If you get a single mom with three kids, financially, there?s this ? here?s the social part of me coming out again ? it?s a burden,? Tripp says. ?She?s not taking the kids with her or she?s not riding as often as she should. You know, so what?s the loss?? He adds, ?Just give it away free. And we did that.? He stresses that these kinds of things have also helped in raising the relationship within the community.

Little Projects Continue On
The latest initiative for Metro Bus that I was shown was the planning work for the extension of the North Star Commuter service from Big Lake to St. Cloud. Cruikshank explains that the rail service goes from Minneapolis and ends in Big Lake, being truncated by the FTA?s new requirements. ?The group wanted us to get involved to provide commuter bus connections,? he says.

Cruiskshank and Tripp show me the design of the pulse commuter bus, which they just got back from the designer that day. ?This is one of those little projects,? Tripp states. ?I just celebrated my 29th anniversary in October. I would be a liar if I didn?t say there were times in the last 29 years that I was quite disillusioned and I made some overtures and talked to some folks, but then, as it was, some little project, something just appears and well, you know? Gee, this is kind of exciting and before you know it, you?re here as long as I?ve been and you?re looking at retiring.?