Providing Hot Service in the Cold North

It was Duluth, Minn., or Saudia Arabia. Dennis Jensen, general manager of Duluth Transit Agency (DTA), chose Minnesota.

After the Navy Jensen went to work for an advertising agency and eventually became the Northeast regional manager for advertising and public relations for the Continental Trailways Bus System in Washington, D.C. This was his introduction to transit.

“I worked for the Trailways Group for three years and then went to work for a start-up company by the name of ATE Management and Service Company.” He was then off to Baltimore to be the administrative assistant to its manager.However, Maryland MTA assigned a contract to ATE from the bankrupt operator of ground transportation services at the former Friendship Airport and he was assigned to that contract as the marketing director.

“I was eventually named as general manager of that operation,” he says. “We got the service on to a footing where it was pretty much paying for itself,” he explains. Maryland MTA assigned a contract to ATE from the bankrupt operator of ground transportation services at the former Friendship International Airport. He adds with a laugh, “I really had worked myself out of a job, out of an assignment.”

It was at that time he got a call from ATE, asking him if he spoke Spanish. Not speaking Spanish myself, I think he said his answer was, “un poco.”

So, ATE gave Jensen a one-way ticket to Laredo, Texas.

His new assignment? “That was quite a challenge, let me put it that way,” he states. When it would rain, he and the mechanics would get into a bus to keep dry. “Keep in mind we’re still inside the building,” he says now able to laugh about it.

While at Laredo, Jensen explains the agency took over the motor pool of the former air base, Laredo Air Base, which was closing at the time; the city was acquiring that property. “They were using the federal surplus of property then, to house the bus operation and we began immediately making plans for a new building.” He adds, “I put all the grants together for buses and buildings and so forth. Then I was transferred to Duluth.”
Jensen says, “Actually I had two choices. I could go to Saudi Arabia or I could move up to Duluth.” With family in Minnesota, that sounded like the good choice.

He moved up there in 1979. ATE Management Co.’s first contract was with the city of Duluth. “In the mid-’90s they were sold, or bought, by Ryder Systems, the former truck leasing company,” Jensen explains. “They formed a public transportation division that was subsequently sold to First Group.” He adds, “That’s how I’ve come to work for First Group, or First Transit.”

Developing Hubs
The city of Duluth has a unique configuration. Jensen explains, “Duluth is primarily a southwest-northeast city. There’s an 800-foot elevation drop from the upper reaches of the area down to the lake level.”

About seven years ago, the DTA did a study, kind of a transit vision, with the MPO. It recognized that due to the configuration of Duluth, there were some problems associated with the way people had to use a bus to get where they were going. Everything went through downtown.

“If you were going anywhere in Duluth, that meant that you had to take a bus trip downtown, then you would transfer, then you would go to the other neighborhoods,” Jensen says. The MPO came up with establishing some regional transit hubs.

In the downtown area, I-35 originally was going to continue beyond Duluth. Rather than do that, the city decided they were going to terminate the interstate at a certain location and that made money available called Interstate Substitution Dollars.

“What they decided to do was to kind of revamp the main street through downtown Duluth, which is Superior Street,” expains Jensen. “Transit qualified for some of those monies.” With that money, DT established two major transit centers downtown.

DTA consolidated bus stops down to nine stops with two major ones being in the heart of downtown. And as Jensen says, “In retrospect, that was a mistake.

“We should have never put those directly across the street from one another because what it did, it just encouraged a lot of jaywalking as people were transferring from one route to another.

“We learned that lesson. We won’t do that again,” he adds with a laugh.

“When we started the transit centers, one of the things we were looking at was how do we get people here and what amenities do we provide,” he says. One of the amenities they wanted to provide was a daycare. “We came to an agreement with the YWCA that they would be the daycare operator in that facility,” he says.

After about four years, the YWCA had to consolidate that daycare back to the main center, as it could only operate one facility. “So we opened it up,” Jensen says. “We worked out an agreement with a private operator to open up a convenience store.” He continues, “And now we’re talking with the Duluth Police Department about opening a substation.”

The most successful hub and venture Jensen says, is at the University of Minnesota Duluth at the Kirby Center. To get this going, DTA had to assure it was going to generate ridership from the university. It looked at starting a U-pass program. Jensen says, “We certainly never coined that phrase, but we’ll steal any good idea.”

It was at this time the university was faced with the problem of having to build more parking lots to accommodate increased enrollment. “We were just very fortunate, it was perfect timing,” Jensen says. “We convinced them that if they offered a free bus pass to every student, they wouldn’t have to build new parking ramps and that’s exactly what happened.”

The service has proven so successful, it has expanded to the four other area colleges. “I would say of all the things we’ve done in the entire time I’ve been here, that has been the most successful program ever,” Jensen states.

One of the issues in the beginning was that the university ID that is used as the transit pass, it was impossible to know if a student had dropped out. “Fortunately for us we just acquired the GFI Odyssey system and so now we have programmed into our computer system; if there is an ID that is no longer an active enrollment, we get that list and we put that into our system and those IDs are rejected by the farebox.”

After the pass program, DTA moved into constructing the transit center at the student center. About this time there was a lot of talk across the country about the Welfare to Work program. There were three obstacles in getting people into the workforce: transportation, accessible daycare and education.

The university put in a daycare adjacent to the transit center. The partnership between the university and DTA created the perfect mix. “Here we had a university, we were putting in a daycare center and we had transportation service,” Jensen states.

Ahead of its Time
It was a bit of persuasion from the Minnesota DOT that DTA got swept into the amount of technology it has. The Minnesota DOT was initiating Transportation Operating Control Centers (TOCC) around the state.

“We needed to replace our radio system at that time,” he says. “We were convinced, we weren’t convinced, we were persuaded, let me put it that way,” he says laughing, “that we should take the next step and that we should be looking at AVL, automatic vehicle locators, and some of the other technology that was just coming in to being under the ITS acronym.”

For passengers waiting outside in the middle of Duluth-stricken winters, knowing exactly when the next bus is coming is important. Jensen explains, “When people call in and say, ‘well, I’ve been standing out here on the corner for 20 minutes, where’s the bus?’ Now we can look on the computer screen and tell them exactly where it is.

“Better yet, if they’re standing at a downtown transit station, there’s a sign that will tell them approximately how long it will be before the next bus comes.”

He admits that DTA probably got into ITS more heavily than an agency his size would like to at the time, but now, he can’t imagine an agency this size without it. “That was a statement I probably could make five or six years ago,” he says. “What’s happened is, the whole industry has matured greatly. We jumped into the ITS picture and once you’re in it, there’s never any going back.”

For other agencies looking to jump in, he did have some words of advice. Know what you’re getting and have the staff that can work with it. “We were probably a little overly ambitious about some of the software programs that we needed,” he says.

But as Jensen reiterates, “The technology is wonderful, there’s no question about it. We have more reports and everything else.” He stresses, “The easier we can make it for them [the public] to access information, then the more inclined they are going to be to ride the bus.

“When agencies go through this, I think the best thing they can do is call other systems that have had experience with it and just get a good discussion about what they’re getting into and what some of the issues are going to be,” he says. “Every situation is different. Every agency has different requirements, expectations.”

Cutting Costs
One area DTA has reduced its costs is with its insurance. “I remember when I first arrived here in the early ‘70s our insurance was costing us $400,000 a year, just for liability,” Jensen says. “It was a real concern. It wasn’t so much that we had a bad safety record, it was just that’s how much it cost at the time.

About 10-15 years ago, DTA made a decision to go self-insured. He explains, “When I say self-insured, that’s with a $100,000 self-insured retention and buy umbrella insurance.

“We did a calculation, I think it was last year, we’ve saved probably over $2 million doing that, just in insurance premiums and pay-outs.”

One of the reasons for the lower liability claims is the onboard security system. “What did I say was the best thing we ever did?” he says laughing. “I forget what that was, but the onboard security system is worth every dime that any system wants to invest in it.

“I credit that with diminishing a lot of the liability claims over the years,” he says. “But more than anything, it just provided a very accurate record of what goes on, on the bus.” Not only liability claims, but customer service as well.

“I would say in 99 percent of the cases, the cameras verify that the drivers were doing the correct thing,” he states. “And also, the longer you have them on there, the more aware the public becomes of them. I think that helps in reducing a lot of the issues on the bus.”

He continues talking about his staff and like every other agency, you are only as strong as your staff. “My philosophy is, you always hire the best people you can for the job,” he maintains. “Can’t always pay them what they want, but you tell them, work here and you’ll get great experience and it’s a great company. That really proves itself out.”

He tells me, “You ask how I’m able to do all these other things and it’s because I’ve got such a great staff here. Everybody knows their job and they do it well. It works well.”