Staying Focused

Some times it’s the simple things we all know that make something successful. For Jay Banasiak, general manager of Wichita Transit (WT), he says his agency’s success comes down to having a plan. “Get your vision set on what you think you need and stick to it,” he says.
Not as simple to execute, but that is what has worked for WT as last year the Kansas Public Transit Association (KPTA) named it Transit System of the Year and it received an FTA Achievement Award for Zero Deficiencies in the Triennial Review, the first ever in FTA’s Region VII.

Diesel in the Blood
Banasiak laughs that it wasn’t that he wanted to get into transit; it is just that he’s been in transit all his life. His dad was a bus driver, so transit was always important. After the Air Force, Banasiak went after his master’s degree in Louisville. During his studies he took a course in transit planning taught by Bobby Griffin, the manager of the Louisville system at the time.

“He [Griffin] worked for a management company that managed Louisville at the time,” Banasiak explains. “They were obviously looking for young people to get into the transit business.” That company, ATE Management, now First Transit, hired him and he’s been working for them since.

“They hired me on and I was kind of in a manager’s program for about a year. Did all kinds of bus line inspections and comprehensive operation analysis and marketing reports,” he says. From Louisville he went to Cincinnati for a year, then Peoria as assistant manager and eventually to general manager.

ATE told him about an opening in Wichita and it looked like a good opportunity to Banasiak. “I got on the Web site, looked at Wichita, looked like a nice-sized town, had a nice economy, had a lot of airplanes and manufacturers here,” he says. “I said this is right up my alley. I was in the Air Force and I’m in transit and I can go to the air capital of the world.”

About all this he says, “It really had nothing to do with me wanting to get into transit, that’s just what happened.” He adds with a laugh, “I guess it’s in the blood or something. I must bleed diesel fuel.”

Having a Plan
Having a broad background has been a benefit when Banasiak looks at what is best for his agency. “I’ve been to a lot of agencies, many different sizes throughout my career and every agency is different. Everybody’s got their own issues and problems.”

He continues, “You really need to come up with a plan and try to really think out what needs to be done first, what are the logical things you have to have done first.” He adds, “The most important thing you need is new buses. No matter whatever else you get, you need to have reliable buses that are passenger-friendly.”

“You get your bus, you get your farebox, you start to get some technology, you just come out with a plan,” he says. “Once you get your plan, you can present your plan to your legislators and say these are the things we need, whether it’s your city council, and then your federal legislators, and even state legislators. Start planning and get that money. Luckily Wichita city council has been great in supporting WT’s plans.”

Regional Van Maintenance
One of those plans for WT is to build a Van Maintenance Facility (VMF) by January 2009. Not just a standard maintenance facility for its paratransit vans, this facility would be for all of WT’s support vehicles and the approximately 115 similar paratransit vans operating in the community.

WT has a fleet of 21 vans to provide paratransit rides and it also has six contracted agencies providing paratransit service. One of those is the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation. They provide clients with daycare or training that they have to get to. “They have a fleet of vans, so instead of us providing service for their folks, they will provide the service for their clients,” Banasiak says. “In every instance for those six agencies, they’re really their own client.

“These people are taking care of their own clients instead of us taking them,” he explains. “They charge us and we pay the bill. They’re basically helping us out.”

With the agency’s employee driving and it’s the agency’s equipment, it is less cost than if WT were doing it. “We feel like it’s a win-win situation,” says Banasiak.

“We pay for the trips, otherwise we would be taking those clients anyways at probably a higher rate,” he explains. It also provides another benefit. “It’s more personalized service for their clients; they like that. They can kind of take care of their own…give a little more TLC to their clients.”

All of these different vans are being serviced at a variety of places. As Banasiak says, these agencies oftentimes rely on mom-and-pop shops or somebody that is not really specialized in working on the large, 16-passenger cutaway vans.

“This Van Maintenance Facility is going to be another partnership where we’re going to build a van maintenance facility, we’re going to staff it, we’re going to take care of our vehicles there, but we’re also going to take care of those agencies’ vehicles that want to participate with us,” he explains. “The benefit for them is it’s going to cost a lot less money to repair their vehicles and they’re going to get their vehicles repaired quicker because we’re specialists in these types of vehicles.” He adds, “Once again, it will be something that will help them and us in lowering our cost in maintenance.”

The VMF will be able to perform all maintenance functions on 30 WT federally funded paratransit vans and support vehicles, with the exception of engine and transmission rebuilds. WT will offer those same services at a reasonable rate to other agencies providing paratransit rides.

The grant was submitted in June of this year and was accepted in September. The design work will be complete by March of ‘08, construction should start in July and operation in January ‘09.

Making things run smoother
2007 marks the 40th anniversary of public transit in Wichita. In 1967 the Wichita Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMTA) began public operations of mass transit service. In 1997, WMTA became Wichita Transit, a city department. Within the past few years, WT has added new technologies that have contributed to the success of the agency. Some of those include automated scheduling, onboard and facility video surveillance, electronic registering farebox technology and computer maintenance software.

“You know it’s funny because every new piece of technology, we [can’t understand] how we lived without it,” Banasiak says. He shares an example.

“We bought new fareboxes back in 2003, GFI Odyssey,” he says. “We used to count money in the back and we used to have two people that would count money for two hours every day. It would be picked up everyday by an armored car.” He adds, “It was just quite a big hassle.”
Not only a hassle, but not always accurate. “We relied a lot on our drivers and formulas to get ridership figures,” he says. “We saw that when we did it by formulas, we estimated higher than what we thought.”

He continues, “It’s amazing how the accuracy is unbelievable. Those fareboxes are just so perfect and close to what the bank counts that we don’t need people to mess with counting money anymore.

“Also, the information on our ridership is very accurate.” He says, “Just knowing exact ridership counts and the money we’re getting, we can analyze our system better and figure out what’s best to do.

“The other thing that we did get that was very good for us was our paratransit scheduling package,” Banasiak says. WT has about 70,000 trips a year that it used to do by hand. “That was real intensive and our ladies back in dispatch were pulling their hair out trying to get schedules done everyday for 300 to 400 rides a day.

“Now with the scheduling package we can give information back to passengers when they request service and by the end of the day, you press a button and you get these schedules out,” he says. “That has increased our efficiency in paratransit immensely and it just makes it a lot less stressful for our schedulers.”

He adds, “Once we get AVL/MDTs next year, we just flip a switch and now that program will go automatic — real-time scheduling.”

Facing Challenges
Banasiak explains a challenge WT is facing. “Paratransit. It’s not only growing, it’s getting more expensive.

“It used to be way back in the 1990s, the ADA was 7 percent of our budget,” he explains. “Now it’s creeping up to about 27 percent of our budget.” He exclaims, “And this is for 300 some thousand passengers compared to 2 million bus passengers.

When talking to Banasiak, he mentions that they were going out to bid in a few months for a total ITS package that will improve efficiency. “That’s going to be AVL, automatic vehicle locators; we’re going to have mobile data terminals for the bus and van. We’re going to get an operation software package, a customer service software package and then update our paratransit software package we have now. Hopefully we can control better the rising ADA budget.”

As for the other challenge at WT? “Fuel is the biggest concern we have,” stresses Banasiak. “We’ve more than doubled our fuel budget in less than three years.

“It’s a funny thing, but my office sits where I can see everyone come in and out of the facility.” He continues, “It used to be back in ‘99 when we first got here in our new facility, a diesel truck would go by, I wouldn’t even think twice about it.

“It was like $8,000 a load, an 8,000-gallon fuel tanker.” He states, “Now, the last one that just passed my office was $22,000 for that fuel truck. Every time a fuel truck passes by I just cringe because it’s just killing our fuel budget.”

He also states that it is delaying some of the capital programs from going faster because they have to rob other programs for fuel. There was always a contingency for fuel and by the end of the year there was contingency left over that could be used elsewhere.

“Now, the last two years, we have no contingency anymore,” he says. “I can’t fund enough money in contingency so I’m robbing from other divisions and other line items just to make sure we make ends meet with fuel. Every service I operate, that fuel thing is creating a challenge.”

Transforming Staff
The city of Wichita is starting a program that will be making a difference at WT. “I think the biggest thing that I’m really looking forward to in the next couple of years, the city has got a program that they’re calling Transforming Wichita,” says Banasiak. “We are trying at Wichita Transit to include our employees in how we develop programs and update procedures and policies.

“What that is, we’re going to set up some committees,” he explains. “We’re going to get input from our employees — our drivers, our maintenance folks and our admin people, on all the things we’re doing now.” Some of the things he mentions are all the routes WT has, how maintenance is done, how WT serves the public, how complaints are answered, every policy.

“Review all these and try to get and revise these things from our employee’s angle.” He says, “I think this is something that not only is going to get our employees really involved but it’s also going to make us better.”