Maintenance Matters: Building a Technology Program that Delivers for Customers

Can mass transit customers be connected to buses like friends on the popular social Web site Facebook? Can bus runs become more efficient with computerized real-time route management? What if a public transit organization is managed like a private enterprise, having to balance customer-derived revenues, advertising cash flow and service efficiencies? These unconventional notions led Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) executives in 2006 to pioneer a bold $22 million technology-driven initiative aimed at a deliberate introduction of operational change to elevate customer service.

Since its conceptual inauguration in third quarter 2006, Technology Initiatives for Driving Excellence (TIDE), has been credited with simplifying public transportation, improving route efficiencies and increasing ridership for this midsized authority. The change also made way for measurably heightened customer loyalty. Even more notable, TIDE was so successful in across-the-board enhancements, just ahead of its half-way point in 2008, the authority was able to institute an unprecedented fare reduction.

Staffing, funding and execution of timing, as well as actual software and hardware choices, could make a program of this magnitude seem insurmountable. RGRTA executives and TIDE team members will tell you the outcome of a project like TIDE is well worth the equity ? financial and sweat. Besides, strategies developed by RGRTA to define, fund and staff TIDE are all detailed here, along with insights about how unique partnerships were leveraged ? most notably with ACS Transportation Management Solutions Group (formerly Orbital TMS) and the Rochester Institute of Technology ? to boost the program?s impact. If your organization is looking for operational change, this article will help.

In the Beginning: Chaos to Clarity
In the summer of 2006, transit executives in Rochester for the first time explored numerous capital project requests, all technology improvements targeted to better serve customers in its largest subsidiary, Regional Transit Service (RTS). The authority, which owns and operates a fleet of more than 400 vehicles, has 800 employees, serves 50,000 customers daily and maintains a $70 million operating budget, also had a unique set of strategic pillars oriented around customer satisfaction and ?driving excellence.?

Computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location (fixed-route and paratransit), radio system expansion, automatic passenger counters, headsigns, advanced traveler information system wayside signs, Web, notification via text message and e-mail, fare collection, smart card programs, paperless vehicle inspection reports, single sign-on for bus authorization, operations management software, demographics software and a variety of interfaces between these and other systems were technologies initiatives integrated by TIDE.

Though technologically complex, this program?s overarching goal focused sharply on improving customer satisfaction through two simple principles ? better customer service and increased operational efficiency.

Building Momentum ... Team, Budget and RFP Building
By autumn of 2006, the authority had created stakeholder teams, appointed team leaders, developed a series of high-level requirements and documented intended ?end results? for these technologies. A formalized request for proposal was crafted by the winter. This document was unique in that it did not come with the usual list of concrete technical requirements, but rather an outline of desired results. It also maintained a stipulation that respondents provide a detailed solution to the business use case posed by the RFP; this allowed vendors to propose creative alternatives that may have not been considered by the authority, rather than off-the-shelf products.

Now that the authority had its RFP, it needed a way to drive the program forward without robbing time from the already busy internal staff. The authority?s finance team conducted a return-on-investment analysis weighing the hiring of a dedicated team versus bringing on consultants to execute TIDE. The outcome was clear: with a 10-year life, an on-staff dedicated team would, by far, financially outperform a consultancy.

Establishing a core team presented the added benefit of retaining industry and specific institutional knowledge that often ?walks out the door? with consultants.

The authority also made the unusual decision to not pursue candidates for this team that had transit-specific knowledge. Executives believed that like any other industry, there were broadly applied technology and project management backgrounds that could also work in public transit.

The first order of business was to hire the program manager for TIDE, a search that took nearly nine months. In spring, 2007, the new program manager was tasked with determining team makeup and for recruiting and placing the TIDE team. Three more members were added to the team, including a radio systems and IT engineer, an executive administrative assistant, and a senior programmer and database administrator.

Critical Control ... Identifying a Gate Keeper
The authority centralized TIDE?s numerous initiatives intentionally with the program manager. The intent was to allocate decision-making to one gatekeeper in an environment rich with competing priorities. Often, line managers struggled to strike a balance between the operational aspects of their day-to-day role (?getting buses on the road?), and the perceived low priority and time-consuming tedium of a multi-year technology program implementation. The business decision was made to yield the final call to the program manager, whose responsibility it was to deliver the program on time and under budget, but also to provide deliverables for the ultimate satisfaction of the customers served, namely external customers and internal stakeholders who have a keen appreciation for customer preferences and operational needs.

Organizationally, the program manager was given ?dotted line? access to the CEO. This enabled quick communication of issues, escalation of issues and immediate involvement by key executive staff when needed. This ?streamlining? of decision-making was a key factor in the program?s to-date on-time performance.

Vendor Selection
Since the RFP process was so unconventional (allowing respondents to propose solutions ? and requirements ? that would fit the business need of the authority), the diversity of responses was similarly disparate. It was incumbent upon the authority to conduct a very detailed analysis of just what the respondents were proposing, so that there would be an ?apples-to-apples? comparison.

From March to May 2007, the authority embarked on a tour of reference customers provided by respondents. The TIDE team also interviewed proposed vendor teams, visited vendor headquarters and rigorously compared specifications provided using a process whereby vendor proposals were evaluated based on several non-technical factors, as well as traditional technical compliance items and pricing. Such non-technical factors included: ?ability to deliver? on schedule, ?ability to commit adequate resources? to the program, ingenuity, compatibility, maturity of development processes, strength of the proposed talent and team accountability.

From June to September, the authority leveraged vendors and proposals to derive a comprehensive statement of work and requirements matrix, and finally selected and entered into contracts with ACS Transportation Management Solutions Group of Columbia, Md., as prime contractor with Trapeze Software Group of Missaugua, Canada and GFI Genfare of Chicago, Ill., as subcontractors. The program officially kicked off in November of 2007.

This process was not without challenges. From March to September, the vendor selection team at RGRTA selected and then de-selected prime vendors, and subsequent to prime vendor selection, went through full contract negotiations with two fare collection subcontractors before finally selecting GFI Genfare. These were, at times, very difficult and contentious choices: but in the end, the decision came to what was best for RGRTA customers and for the program as a whole.

Leveraging Partnerships
In addition to its innovative vendor selection process, the authority took a unique approach to bolstering its in-house engineering support for the project ? seeking help from a segment of the community it served ? the local engineering university. A RFP for non-recurring technical services was released and contract awarded to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to assist with the vendor selection, requirements definition and system design activities. Ranked sixth in the nation among engineering schools according to U.S. News & World Report, RIT is a recognized leader in higher education for its cooperative education program and research centers. It was with assistance from RIT?s System?s Modernization and Sustainment Center that enabled the authority to quickly augment its core team with engineering experts in a variety of fields.

The center at RIT is a not-for-profit extension of the university that employs students and full-time faculty and staff. It has a long-standing history of developing technologies to confront equipment life-cycle sustainment and health monitoring challenges encountered by the U.S. Department of Defense ? a corollary that is surprisingly similar to those within the public transportation industry.

The benefit gained by the authority from this arrangement was that it had immediate access to expertise in vehicle health monitoring, radio communications, software and systems development that allowed it to tailor ACS? solution to meet its exact needs. In addition, all work was conducted under pre-negotiated federal rates, helping to keep labor costs low. Better yet, by partnering with RIT, the authority found an ally that was motivated for ensuring project success beyond terms of a contract, since both resided in and supported the same community.

The authority views its relationship with ACS Transportation Management Solutions Group as a mutually beneficial partnership, rather than a customer-vendor relationship.

RGRTA works to actively assist ACS by presenting and promoting ACS at tradeshows and events, providing industry domain expertise, providing references for potential ACS customers and by participating as a Beta site for ACS pre-release products and software. RGRTA and ACS have quarterly strategic meetings to share successes and opportunities at the highest executive level. This fosters a relationship of verified trust and mutual assistance not usually seen in a typical customer-vendor relationship.

Making it Happen
Today, roughly at the midway point in the TIDE program, final design is complete, and components like Trapeze OPS and Google Transit are live. Factory acceptance has started with a full deployment of on-bus smartcard farebox, computer-aided dispatch, automatic vehicle location, automatic passenger counter, yard management, with communication electronics and software slated for within the next 12 months.

Customer relationship management and fleet maintenance software improvement projects are also planned. Once fully integrated, these systems will become a common data source for every aspect of the customer relationship, and will allow the authority to fine tune its products to meet customer needs, and provide a better transit experience for its customers that is personal and in real time.

While many elements of this program are not new to the industry, the organizational strategy behind the implementation is new. A creative RFP and contract formation process; a dedicated and empowered program team; collaborative partnerships with a local university, prime vendor and subcontractors; and a lasting commitment to customers and their connection to our product ? are all pillars of this sweeping program that will provide the technology foundation for the next decade of customer satisfaction, customer reach and operational excellence.

Randal Weaver is the advanced technology systems program man-ager for the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) in New York State.