So far 2007 hasn’t been a good year for Metro Transit general manager, Brian Lamb. On top of the normal issues that cause a transit agency director to pull out his hair — you know funding, planning, making sure the buses and trains run on time — Lamb has had to face a dramatic upswing in crime on his system at the beginning of the year and then the I-35 bridge collapsing, a tragedy that will change the area’s transportation flow for months.
Yet, he’s upbeat and energetic about Metro Transit, the Twin Cities region and the transportation industry in general. And this way of facing adversity head-on with determination and a smile has rubbed off on his staff. There wasn’t one person there who I spoke to who didn’t look at whatever obstacle put before them with anything but a “we-can-do-it” attitude.
Lamb’s excitement could be felt as he jumped into the interview, not even letting me ask a question before starting to talk about his agency. Lamb has a history of more than two decades with Metro Transit, starting with the agency as a college intern as the ’80s dawned.
Leaving the agency in 1999, he moved into a job with the state as head of the Driver and Vehicle Services Division, which was near collapse. Lamb reengineered that department before being appointed the commissioner of administration, putting him in charge of all internal state businesses. While successful, Lamb was moving away from transit, so when he was offered the chance to come back to Metro Transit as its general manager, he jumped at the chance.
“My heart has always been in transit,” says Lamb with a smile, noting that he is about to celebrate his third anniversary at the new position.
“I view my time at the state as almost a graduate school experience because what it really allowed me to do is to see how morale is such a key component to success. And when I walked into Driver and Vehicle Services after years of being kind of being beaten down and being viewed as the hopeless bureaucrats or whatever it is, the first thing you have to offer them is hope.
“And then only once that hope starts to get a little traction can they gain a little confidence. And then when that confidence gains some traction then you really start to see some amazing progress,” Lamb says.
Hope was something Metro Transit was in need of when Lamb returned to it. The agency had just come off a 45-day strike from earlier in the year, was staring a $60-million budget deficit square in the face and was about to go back into labor negotiations.
As Lamb admits, “There were a lot of reasons to be demoralized.
“But there were some reasons to actually be optimistic, as well,” he adds pointing to Hiawatha’s opening at the time and his history with the agency giving him a sense of familiarity he could build upon.
Lamb says the energy he has comes from the people he works with at Metro Transit. Their commitment keeps him going, “It’s not a job for most people that work at Metro Transit, there is a passion about what they do. And you don’t have to look very far before you see people with that.
And when you are in that kind of environment I think everyone strives to do things beyond what they’re required to do.”
Light Rail Success
Brian Lamb is the first to admit that Metro Transit’s Hiawatha light rail line has done better than anyone could have hoped. By 2006, its second year in operation, it had exceeded ridership projections for 2025!
With 30,000 riders on weekdays and Saturdays closing in on that fast, the Hiawatha light rail corridor can be called a success, but that wasn’t always the case. Lamb says there were concerns about its location and whether it was the best choice to start light rail in the Twin Cities.
“In certain projections there were better corridors,” says Lamb. “But the thing about Hiawatha that adds some vitality to it is that it not only has that commuter market associated with it … but also because it is anchored with the Mall of America and the airport and it has a U of M location that is right near there as well, as well as downtown.”
The key to Hiawatha’s success says Lamb is that it’s a seven-day attraction, not just a commuter route, although Metro Transit boasts 40 percent of downtown commuters use transit. The commuter ridership drops off on the weekends, but the slack is picked up by shoppers using it to get to the Mall of America.
And the line has had the added effect of reinvigorating a part of the city that needed a boost. “Hiawatha Avenue has really been kind of a stagnant, no-development environment for 40 years as they were trying to rethink its role. It used to be an old mill road, so it used to have a lot of trucks going out there accessing the grain mills and that kind of thing,” says Lamb.
With the introduction of the light rail line, though, Hiawatha Avenue has seen an amazing turnaround. “The most optimistic projections were that in this 12-mile stretch you might have 7,000 new housing units,” says Lamb. “Well over the course the last few years, both that are already in place but also in the final planning stations, there are some 15,000 housing units that are in place or are in the final stages.”
Lamb notes that as with most new rail projects, there is skepticism before the first line goes in. “The train to nowhere it was called popularly around here.
“But then once they start to really see it is successful, that people are using it for a variety of purposes, that kind of thing, I think you get a lot more people that were previously agnostic on it that start to become true believers and the last few years the question is when can we get our line.
“And that’s obviously not feasible that every neighborhood has access to light rail in the near future or long distance or whatever. But it does kind of stimulate that full acceptance and recognition that our region can benefit by a well-designed and well-executed transit system.”
Metro Transit’s next light rail project will be the Central Corridor, which runs from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, connecting the Twin Cities. Better yet, it runs straight through the heart of the University of Minnesota campus.
“When you take a look at University Ave., [it] was a regional hub of activities and retail in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s,” says Lamb.
“Then as the freeway network started to build in, it started to suffer from a lack of renewed investment or whatever it is. And so I think the people who are thinking of the Central Corridor are seeing this as a great opportunity to redevelop that whole University Avenue corridor.”
Lamb says that he sees development quickly outpacing investment. “I think oftentimes in regions what happens is the first time you make the investment, development follows that investment, the second time it starts to come on a concurrent schedule and the third and later times it starts to anticipate the infrastructure development and that’s what we’re seeing already on University Avenue — higher density development and really transit-oriented development up and down that corridor.”
A new initiative for Metro Transit is its Hi-Frequency network. This new take on the average fixed-route service is based on the idea of getting people on the bus by getting them to stop worrying about schedules.
“You know the one thing that again is born out even with light rail was that what if you ask the average person waiting on the platform when the next train is coming, they don’t know, but they know it is coming along soon,” explains Lamb.
“And so that whole question of what it takes to get people to take transit — one of the things is they don’t have to wait, that they don’t have to memorize a schedule, that I control when I can go and when I can come back.
“And we’ve known for a while here locally and clearly it’s also proven out nationally is that the more you can take a frequency and apply it in an urban setting is that the more people will be tending to use it.
“And so what we did was to say you know we’ve got several routes that have a very good frequency. Some rival the light rail frequency during the rush hour — five to seven minutes,” he adds.
“But you know it’s been kind of the candle under the bushel basket, we really haven’t taken advantage and promoted that to our consumers. So what we did was identify several routes that we had a minimum of 15-minute frequency over the span of the service day as well as frequency 15 minutes or better on Saturdays as well. And then said, you know what we want to do is just start marketing that network so the people can know that if I’m on this particular line, I don’t need to know the schedule. I know that soon enough there will be a bus going by.”
Metro Transit has started promoting its “Hi-Frequency” network with clearly defined signs at the stops on its “Hi-Fi” routes, and it looks to be working as the system’s largest ridership growth in 2007 is on its urban local bus routes.
Lamb says Metro Transit is looking at expanding the network, it’s all part of the long-range plan, but it hinges on resources and dedicated funding. Lamb also notes that the Hi-Fi routes aren’t bus rapid transit (BRT) routes, just fixed-routes with high frequencies. Metro Transit currently has no BRT routes, but as it moves forward, any BRT routes added to the system would be integrated into the Hi-Fi network.
One of the leading initiatives for Metro Transit is its Go Greener initiative combining hybrid buses, biodiesel fuel and other steps to improve Metro’s sustainability efforts.
“I think it’s important for us to be on the leading edge both from an environmental sense but also from a cost containment sense,” says Lamb.
Lamb says the hybrids they are using in the fleet now can obtain up to 25 percent fuel efficiency in start-and-stop urban traffic.
“One of the things that we wanted to do is to make sure that from a global perspective, that people understood that transit really is an environmentally friendly option,” says Lamb, “but also that we need to be thinking because of the volatility of fuel prices that we continue to look at ways that we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
Besides hybrids, one other way Metro Transit is looking at reducing dependence on foreign oil is through the use of biodiesel fuel. In Minnesota, the state mandated mix for biodiesel is 2 percent. Metro Transit is charging far ahead of that by changing its entire fleet over to a biodiesel mix five to 10 times greater!
“Our whole fleet is operating on B10, which is a major step forward,” says Lamb.
“No one else in the state who [uses biodiesel has] a B10 mix. And next spring we are going to go to B20. Our plan in the next few years is to operate between B10 and B20 depending on the season. You know, when you think about that, [it] will save us about 1.2 million gallons worth of diesel fuel we know [come] mostly from foreign sources.”
Metro Transit isn’t limiting its Go Greener effort to its bus fleet. This past Earth Day, the system powered its light rail line exclusively with wind power.
“When you think about that and what that says, it says not only can you potentially have a form of transportation with zero emissions, but it can be totally regenerative and that wind power came from the state of Minnesota. I mean that to me is the kind of thing that has a real future for us,” says Lamb.
Lamb says that while Metro could run its light rail line full-time with wind power, there currently is some additional costs associated with making sure the power is coming exclusively from wind resources that is preventing them from switching just yet. He will point out, though, that southwestern Minnesota has a great capacity for growing in that area.
“It’s one of the windiest parts of the country. And being able to make that a critical part of our energy infrastructure on the state level, that’s what they’re looking at. The prospect of having our own energy source there is really very appealing to us.
“So it’s kind of what you do back at home, but it’s also what you want to be able to convey to your potential customers,” says Lamb.
Metro Transit launched its AdWheel Award winning “Fix It” ad as part of its Go Greener initiative.
“[It] is really kind of saying there are lots of things that you attend to and fix all the time, but one thing that we should all be concerned about keeping in good repair is our own planet Earth,” says Lamb.
“So that’s kind of the start, Step 1 of a multiyear commitment we have to this region that we are going to be on the leading edge of environmentally conscious transportation. And that is really the only place I think we can be if we really want to grow, because more and more people are becoming aware, sensitive and want to become part of that process and this is an easy way for them to be.”
On Aug. 1, 2007 the main spans of the bridge crossing the Mississippi River on I-35 fell into the river during evening rush hour. Thirteen people died and 100 more were injured in the disaster. One of the leading first responders on the scene was Metro Transit personnel and over the days following the aftermath, the agency proved how it was as much a part of the relief effort as any city agency.
“In this region at least I think that there’s a great awareness that transit is a part and parcel of our fabric and our emergency response,” Lamb says.
“And in fact, the day of the response we had not only our police deployed immediately, but we had buses that were dispatched within the hour down to provide Red Cross immediate staging support.
“We had set up a shuttle operation between Minneapolis City Hall and the site to bring emergency workers and ultimately public officials to and from the site. And all that was coordinated beforehand.
“So this integration in terms of emergency response and that kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident.”
Lamb said he sat back in admiration watching his people volunteer to help others in need during this crisis, “Automatically by the next day we had a commitment that we could expand our peak operation by another 25 vehicles.
“That meant that our maintenance staff that normally had these number of vehicles out on a daily basis had to commit to this many vehicles starting the next day. Our operators staff, which is you know obviously geared toward what you were expecting yesterday, stepped up and did a remarkable job in committing to that many more hours on the street.
“And over the course of the next few days what we did was create a plan that said what can we do to help mitigate the fact that 140,000 vehicles on a daily basis cross this span. And so first of all what we did was we scanned what we had up in the north and the east metro and identified park-and-ride areas, lots, that we still had capacity. We was put together a plan that promoted free rides out of those park-and-rides for the first week following the bridge collapse,” says Lamb.
“[I saw] a really tremendous response. And in fact, not only did we get a response that initial week, but then in subsequent weeks we saw a very strong retention level and so those targeted park-and-rides that we had, we still are seeing 25 to 35 percent increase in utilization out of there, those park-and-rides, over what we had prior to the bridge collapse.”
Lamb pounds his fist on the table and smiles, “But we’re not done.”
Lamb says thanks to $5 million in emergency expenditures authorized by the President and Congress, they can institute a multi-month plan to increase service even more.
“We will be ramping up and serving not only our suburban park-and-ride commuters but also providing more limited stop service, faster point-to-point service within our north urban area as well,” says Lamb, who admits he couldn’t be happier where the planning process is going.
Even before the I-35 bridge collapse Metro Transit had its share of troubles in 2007 with a series of high-profile incidents on its buses. Bus incidents aren’t unheard of, but before 2007, Metro Transit had a safety record nearly five times better than the national average.
“It starts at the very beginning in terms of the people that you hire, but also starts with your training process and your retraining process,” says Lamb.
“We have, I think, a very aggressive and multi-level safety training focus here at Metro Transit that extends beyond the light rail operation that really is part and parcel as part of our bus operations.
“And I’m very pleased with the fact. Now having said that, you still have hundreds of accidents on an annual basis, so there’s always room for improvement. But I think that our safety record really is … I think would rank up there right on the top for big transit systems in the country.
“That to me is the art of any business is being able to know when and how to respond to things that weren’t planned. And this last beginning of the year where we really hadn’t had a significant act of violence — a shooting or whatever — on one of our buses in six years I think prior to that time. Then all of the sudden we had three within a month and a half. And it was like wait a minute!”
Lamb quickly points out that high-profile incidents like this can be a nightmare for a transit agency and be disastrous for its ridership if it spins out of control in the media.
“There is a very real potential for this thing to kind of spin out of control in the sense of people saying jeeze if the transit system is unsafe, there is no way I want to subject myself or my family or whatever it is to it,” says Lamb.
Metro Transit’s solution to the incidents was a simple one — quickly and decisively expand its safety and security efforts in its system and on board its buses in particular.
“On a monthly basis a year ago we had about 250 hours of police presence on our buses in our system,” says Lamb.
He says the plan going into 2007 was to double the police presence in the system to around 500 hours, but the incidents caused them to drastically increase those numbers.
“When these incidents came out we reprioritized our budget and we focused on bringing that up to a five-fold increase.
“And so right now we’re averaging about 1,500 hours of onboard security. But we couldn’t do that absolutely in isolation. To be able to do that we would need to partner with the local jurisdictions,” says Lamb.
Working with the city of Minneapolis, the city has taken over walking the downtown area, allowing Metro Transit police to be redeployed onto buses, gaining a solid response from the local communities. It also helped that the system had worked to improve its onboard security features such as by adding cameras.
“The fact that the cameras that were on the buses were instrumental in terms of identifying the perpetrators and ultimately leading to their arrests,” says Lamb.
“If you commit a crime on a Metro Transit bus, you will get caught,” is the message Lamb says the agency is communicating to the community — that the agency isn’t just lying down and taking it from the bad guys.
“We’ve got a very aggressive plan towards making sure that our buses are safe and secure,” says Lamb, “Are we at a point where I am completely comfortable. No.
“I think we do have to stay ever vigilant, but one last piece I think is kind of unique how we’ve approached this is a program we actually started a year ago.
“We know that in some ways that your bus service reflects the communities in which you serve. And that if you go through some communities that have safety issues, it’s going to spill over onto your bus routes.
“You know there are a lot of people who live in these communities who don’t accept living in unsafe communities is a fait-de-compli. And so there’s a group that we’ve been working with called the Mad Dads over the course of the last year.
“What we’ve done is partnered with that group and they’ve adopted one of our most troubled routes and on a couple times a month what they do is they get on the bus and they create — it’s interesting because they create a culture on that bus where there’s a behavior expectation that is kind of like respect the ride, but they do it in [a way that you] almost have to witness it. But they do it in a very joyful way and create an atmosphere, I think, of camaraderie and trust and that kind of thing. And we’ve been very pleased with that.
“And that is one of the things in this network of things that you have to do. You need to make sure that you can reach out to the extent possible and partner with the communities that you serve. And we think this Mad Dads is really a model that we’d like to not only be able to communicate with our partner agencies throughout the country, but one we would like to expand in our own region as well,” says Lamb.
Brian Lamb likes the sense of a transit community. That the transit industry is not just people doing the same job, but a network of likeminded individuals who can tell their war stories and offer advice to those who need it.
“I think that’s what the beauty of being in this business is,” says Lamb. “You know with the exception of funding the opportunity to share successes is really unique.
“Just in the same way that the Hi-Frequency network wasn’t an idea that in and of itself we generated ourselves … It was an idea we thought would be portable here.
“I would love to be able to, whether it’s our Go Greener initiative, that 10 to 20 percent biodiesel — how we go about that, anything that we glean from the U of M in terms of what we might be able to help direct the industry in a new direction. That’s not something I want to copyright. It’s something I want to be able to share with my peers around the country.
“By the same token, things, new successes or things that they’ve come across that I could benefit from I think that I really want to be able to have that open dialogue and exchange,” says Lamb.
So was facing the adversity of a labor strike, funding crisis, crime and an infrastructure disaster all in his first three years worth it for Lamb? Without a doubt.
“It’s just been a fun three years. We worked through the immediate challenges that first year and then just really focused on what we all wanted to see and that’s a vibrant growing organization. And the last couple of years we couldn’t have been happier.”