Blacksburg Transit: Staying on Top of Things

When talking to Rebecca Martin, transit director at Blacksburg Transit (BT), it’s hard not to get lost in hearing about her agency’s role in responding to the deadliest shooting in the United States. But being in the town of a large university has shaped the agency in other ways, as well.

Learning Transit
With an English degree from the University of Virginia, Martin got her first job writing a newsletter for the local transit system in Charlottesville. After that, as she says, “I was just really lucky.” Having the opportunity to see transit from the federal, state and local levels provided a strong background and an encouraging boss got her going.

“I happened to have this wonderful boss that saw that I had a passion for it and enjoyed transportation,” she explains. “I found opportunities where there were some rural areas that wanted some transportation and she was like, ‘go do it.’”

Being fresh out of school, Martin hesitated at the thought, as she knew there was a lot she didn’t know. She says with a laugh, “She said, ‘well, you’ll figure it out.’”

So, she did it. “I started talking to people and helped start up some of the employment routes that came from the county into Charlottesville. That was Jaunt Transportation.”

She explains she went to the federal side working for the CTAA. “I worked on their hotline and I loved it. I learned so much because I was there when ADA came out.

“Then I went and worked for the state as a transit grants manager providing state oversight to local systems,” she says. “I had a really unique opportunity to see transit from the federal and state level before starting Fredricksburg Regional Transit.

“I had a great opportunity there,” she emphasizes. “I actually started a system from scratch; there was nothing.” She adds, “That was kind of the hard way of learning about local transit, but it was wonderful.”

It was after Fredricksburg that she came to BT. “I couldn’t have done this job if I hadn’t gone through the process of starting a new system,” she says. “I learned so much from that experience.”

As transit director, Martin is a department head within the town of Blacksburg. “That means I have a weekly meeting with the other department heads,” she explains. The departments don’t share any of the facilities with transit, but the close relationships and shared knowledge have been a good resource.

Small Town Growing Up
BT is a small system in a small town but it has grown. About the time Martin was coming to the agency, the last census pushed BT to Small Urban. Martin mentions, “I knew that Small Urban was happening. I came right at that crux moment.” Coming at a time when the funding was going to change provided new challenges. Thinking progressively and pulling from past experience has made the transition easier.

”We’ve never had to sell advertisements on buses before. In fact, we were very proud of ourselves becuase we didn’t,” says Martin. “Things now are completely different. We’ve been advertising with results.

“The transition wasn’t quite as painful as we thought it would be,” she mentions. “With fewer state and federal funds coming in, we had to look at new ways to raise fevenues.” She adds that the town council stepped up to the plate and was willing to makes changes to 20-year-old transit policies. “The community was ready for a change.”

Martin is focusing on developing partnerships to increase revenues. “Part of the reason I think I was hired here was that in Fredricksburg we started a partnership program. We had retail and grocery stores and different places; developers providing annual funds into the system and I was able to get between $400,000 and $500,000 a year of nontraditional funds coming in,” Martin explains.

Being brand new made it easier, she says. “You’re starting out, everyone doesn’t know what to expect, they don’t know how you’re funded. You have this great opportunity of telling people, things are not the same as they used to be 20 years ago, things have changed.

“In Blacksburg it’s much more difficult because the community partners have never financially supported transit,” she says. “We needed to go out in the community to explain to our potential partners the benefits of partnership.

“The harder part at BT was explaining the benefits of partnerships and getting intial buy-in,” Martin says. One of the partnerships they’ve been working on this year is with apartment complexes. BT provides service to many of the apartment complexes and, of course, carries a lot of the residents.

“We have been working with apartment complexes, requesting finanical support of the system,” explains Martin. “It doesn’t have to be a lot. If each apartment complex even gives $10,000 or $15,000 annually, that would help us with our operating.”

She adds, “We could give some advertising in return, but the idea was that you’re not purchasing advertising, we really want more than that.
“We need relationships with the movers and shakers in our community so that when we go through our hardship, which every system does, we have dedicated partners to help us,” Martin says. ”We have everything in place to help us versus us just going out and reaching out our hands, which is kind of where we were when I first came.”

To establish relationships, Martin explains they look to hotels, apartment complexes, and a variety of local businesses. “We meet with them, we get involved with their department councils. They all know us now.” She adds, “They understand that it’s a win-win for them to support the local cost of the transit system.”

Keeping up with the University
The town of Blacksburg is a small town. As Martin describes it, it’s the type of town where you know your neighbor’s name, everyone takes care of everyone else, the kind of town you want to raise a family. Sitting in this small town is a large university, Virginia Tech.

“You’ve got this huge school that brings in so much because they’re the biggest resource,” she explains. “We’re constantly working with them. They do research with us, we go after grants together, it’s wonderful.”

She adds that it makes BT keep up with technology. “You have to keep up with technology to be a partner with the university and to stay on the cutting edge.

“The one thing we just started was our streets program, which is our AVL/GPS,” explains Martin. “Now we actually know where our buses are in real time and can get a lot more information about on-time performance and ridership.” This system was just launched with the start of the school year and she anticipates the benefits it will provide. “We will be able to get so much more data quickly.”

Once this system has been in place and is running as expected, she says she would like to have the bus information sent out to cell phones. “The idea is that you could access your cell phone to see if you’ve missed your bus, or when the next bus is coming.”

In 2003 the town began a similar-type program and BT was involved from the beginning. “Blacksburg Alert” is a system that allows people to sign up for up-to-the-minute information. The information can be directed to email or to a cell phone. Bad weather, route changes or emergencies, BT can notify passengers immediately about anything affecting the ride.

Employees are required to sign-on to the alert and it was through that system that Martin said BT was provided updates about a shooting on campus at Virginia Tech on April 16 of this year.

Emergency Response
“We had heard about the shooting,” Martin says. “We had minor detours on the system early in the morning.” Martin was referring to the shootings that happened when two people were shot and killed at a dormitory on Virginia Tech’s campus.

By the end of the day, there would be 33 people killed.

“My staff was at shift change, which is right down on the drill field,” says Martin. “So my staff was within eyesight of what was happening.
“Our first indication was that our supervisors called in shots.” She continues, “We took a kid with a broken leg to the hospital. We learned he had jumped from a window and had hurt himself. That’s when we really knew how serious things were.

“I’m really proud of my staff. My supervisory staff is full time. My operators are mainly part-time students. Staff remained with their buses and helped evacuate people. My supervisors did traffic control, helped people towards the buses, redirected students away and took people out of there.”

Blacksburg was involved in an emergency situation in August 2006 when William Morva escaped custody. “We shut down our transit system as a precaution to ensure that Morva did not try to escape the area by using the bus,” Says Martin. “We then staged our buses as part of the emergency preparedeness plan.

“We had to shut down during that timeframe and then became whatever the police needed,” she says. She explains that they did the same thing for this emergency situation.

“We didn’t know if there was a second shooter and what we didn’t want, what we all learned from the first experience, if there is somebody else, we don’t want the bus to be an escape and we don’t want to keep bringing people to campus.

“We got everybody out as we moved off campus, we regrouped and prepared for evacuations. We then provided services per police request,” she says.

“We provided a lot of tactical support. We provided the transportation that was needed, we provided a bus if they needed for triage; we provided a bus for moving police officers around; we just provided whatever service was needed. The close working relationship that is developed continually throughout the year with Virginia Tech, the town police and EMS was critical during this emergency. It was a big part of our success.”

During our talk, Martin couldn’t stress enough the efforts of her operations manager, supervisory and office staff. “Our staff was absolutely amazing.”

For its actions, the Virginia Transit Association awarded Blacksburg Transit with an award for Emergency Response in a Crisis.

Martin made an interesting point about the day. “You know, nothing was exactly as we trained. We had to adapt continually as the situation unfolded, but we were very successful.” She says, “For instance, my contacts within the universtiy, every single one of them was out of town that day.

“They were out at conferences and out of town and it still worked,” she explains. “We called each other, we found each other, they found out what they needed, we shut down the system, we pooled our resources; we had staff located at tactical centers; we were able to know what they needed from us, we were able to keep our operators at work so we could send out the buses needed.”

She mentions that they are in the middle of writing a transit emergency preparedness report to share.

“For us, the couple things that I know we’re definitely going to tell people is train, train, train. Staff fell back on regular training used for bad weather, large venue events and everday occurances with complete success. It is important for transit systems to invest in a solid training program.”

The second thing she stresses as important are community relationships. “The relationship that we build everyday with our localities and businesses are critical. In this area Blacksburg Transit has a reputation of being a team player in the region.”

“And we work closely with town staff, university staff, regional partners and EMS so that when an emergency occurs, it was easy to work together as a team as our relationship with others was already established.”