Bridgeport, the largest city in Connecticut, is located on Long Island Sound in the southern part of the state. The harbor had been a trade port and shipbuilding center in the 18th century and the city was named for the first drawbridge over the river.
The agrarian society shifted to mercantile endeavors and, with the opening of the railroad in 1840, a booming manufacturing town. As with many American cities, the later part of the 20th century brought loss of businesses and loss of investment in the community.
Referred to as “Park City” because of Seaside Park and Beardley Park, Bridgeport is looking back to its green past. Redeveloped brownfields, expanded green spaces and an increase in transit are some of the opportunities the city is focusing on.
At the helm of the Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority (GBTA) is Chief Executive Officer Ron Kilcoyne, who’s been passionate about transit all his life…and then some. “My mother said when she was pregnant with me, the only time I ever kicked was when the train was going by,” Kilcoyne laughs. “I guess it’s prenatal.”
Kilcoyne grew up in an older suburb of San Francisco and, with parents that didn’t drive, transit was second nature. “I actually started riding a city bus on my own at age six, to school every day.” He adds, “I wasn’t the only one that was doing it then, either.
“It’s just been sort of in my blood all this time. Where we lived, by the San Francisco airport, there are the trains, the buses, planes, the whole thing,” he says.
While going to college and after college, Kilcoyne worked in retail management until he found the right job. That job was with AC Transit in Oakland, Calif.
“Actually it was the MTC, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, called rent-a-planner at AC Transit.” He explains, “It was like an entry-level planning position and they would hire people that they felt would show promise and then they would place them with a particular transit agency.”
After nearly two years, Kilcoyne was hired on at AC Transit where he spent 12 years, and then managed Santa Clarita Transit for 10 years. And then he spent some time on the private side. “I dabbled in consulting for two years for Corvo Engineering, which is now part of DMJM.” It was the appeal of working at multiple agencies and having an impact on multiple projects that drew him into it. He says, “That still appeals to me, but what didn’t appeal to me about consulting was the business development.” He felt the management side was the better fit, so four years ago came to manage GBTA.
Managing Mobility in Bridgeport
As the city has finalized its Final Master Plan of Conservation and Development, Kilcoyne has been working to involve transit in various aspects of the city’s plans. “We’ve been working to develop, for the city to adopt a transit-first policy, and that could incorporate a lot of different things,” Kilcoyne explains. “We’ve also been advocating that rather than focusing on parking, that we should be focusing on thinking of more comprehensive work of transportation mobility, parking being a component of that.”
GBTA has also been looking at universal passes as well as car sharing. Talking to city staff, developers and other stakeholders and holding parking workshops, GBTA has been educating the community on the potential options. “We’ve talked to builders where they have plans for some development, where they want to get exemptions on the parking requirement, so they’ve been very much interested in buying universal passes for their tenants, as well as possibly going the car share route,” Kilcoyne says. “I think our biggest problem is educating, and that’s what we’re really in the process of. We haven’t really encountered any opposition; you encounter a lot of blank faces.
“We get involved with the downtown masters plans, we’ve been heavily involved with areas of the city,” Kilcoyne says. “I think to achieve the best benefit it is just that constant education effort, looking for opportunities to enlighten other individual people to think about transit and support, and how transit needs to be involved in making sure they are commenting on projects.”
He shares an example of a mixed-use development built around the train station in Fairfield that illustrates it doesn’t always go how they hope. “For the last three years we’ve been going in and saying what our needs are. Trying to find appropriate places for buses has been like pulling teeth.” He explains, “We’ve met with the city, we’ve met with the state, we’ve met with everyone. Everyone says, ‘Yeah, it’s a good idea.’
“Yeah we’ve got some bus stops in there, but I’m not really happy with what we ended up with.” He adds with a laugh, “But it was not from any lack of effort on our part. So you work and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t.” He quickly points out that sometimes the impact isn’t immediately felt and that with persistence, changes evolve. He affirms, “It’s something you have to make a priority of.”
Looking at the riders’ trip beyond the bus or train part of the trip is one of the ways that GBTA is looking to make long-lasting impacts. From the time the person walks out her door to the time she goes into the door of where she is traveling, looking at those patterns and influencing efficient options is a focus. “The prevailing attitude is that this has been an external factor and transit operators don’t have any control over that.” Kilcoyne elaborates, “That is true. We don’t have control over land use, we don’t have control over sidewalks, but the other point, we don’t have control doesn’t mean we can’t be out there trying to influence.”
He stresses, “Most of us don’t really have any control over how much money we get. When we have to either advocate for a referendum or legislation, or even if we have dedicated funding, that goes up and down with the economy.” He points out that just as they work to influence funding, they work to influence land use.
With the infill growth potential in Bridgeport, there is a lot of potential for transit. “In the next 10 years I see us growing significantly,” Kilcoyne states. “I’m hoping that we’ll become more of a mobility manager, particularly in the downtown area where we will be working with the city of Bridgeport in some kind of partnership, managing overall transportation and just taking a more comprehensive view to transportation.”
This leads to a discussion of SUDS, the Sustainability Urban Design Standards with APTA, including its Urban Design Standards Work Plan. “We’re trying to use the same standards approach to urban design issues,” he says comparing it to APTA’s other standards programs. “It’s a very broad area because we’re looking at both, tools to give to transit agencies so they know what to advocate for as well as standards that could be adopted by the FTA when approving transit projects for transit funding.”
Because this is a formal standards process, he has hopes that it has the potential to be adopted by other organizations, as well. “We will be using some of the material that has been put into these best-case documents and will look for the missing pieces and give them kind of that industrywide standards appeal.
“It may also have more credibility with other organizations — traffic engineers, planners, architects — because they’ve gone through the standards process within a traffic engineering community.” He says with a laugh, “People are more likely to break a law than to deviate from those standards.”
Growing Opportunity, Shrinking Funding
Just as with most other agencies, funding is a concern. One thing Kilcoyne talked about at great length was the pending reauthorization. “The current SAFETEA-LU expires next year and there is an effort to get authorization — not reauthorization — because now is the time to start looking at some changes in the approach,” he stresses. “I’ve been particularly interested in the whole issue of operating assistance.
“I do not advocate going back to federal operating assistance, but I do advocate the position that federal policy should encourage, support, leverage more operating investment at the state and local level.
“Bottom line is, we talk about growing transit, TransitVision 2050 actually talks about quintupling ridership by 2050. It isn’t going to happen without more operating investment,” he maintains. “In so many places, it’s cut, cut, cut. And, right now with the double-edged sword of fuel, there needs to be more things, more consistency, but I don’t feel it’s going to happen without some kind of federal push to encourage that there can still be state and local funding.
“Cities that we serve have budget deficits, have to cut, cut, cut and I don’t expect we will have any luck going to them asking for more money,” Kilcoyne says.
Connecticut has a bi-annual budget and this year they meet to make budget adjustments for FY09. “As in many states, the budget surplus is rapidly disappearing,” Kilcoyne says. He mentions he is hopeful as there still is a bill alive that could get additional money. “The Speaker of the House is behind it, so the good news is that transit is viewed positively and we’ve been able to keep it viewed positively.”
A Collective Effort
While speaking with Kilcoyne about GBTA, he mentions that it is more than any single agency working in a community. “We all just serve our little neck of the woods. If we were not involved, if there isn’t some sort of collective effort, nothing really would ever happen. I think we would be in a much, much weaker state because, let’s face it, legislation at the federal level, at both the state and local level, determines our ability to do our job, out ability to provide services and our ability to grow.
“If we aren’t out there actively participating, actively trying to shape legislation, as well as provide benefits to each other through sharing information,” he says, then pauses and shifts direction. “It’s important to take both a local view as well as the broader view of the region, state and national level.”
He stresses, “My first priority is to run a transit agency and that’s always got to be my first priority. But nonetheless, I do feel I have a responsibility, and we all have a responsibility towards the overall health of the industry.”