“You can’t grow if you don’t know” was something I heard repeatedly throughout my interview with Ann Dawson August, executive director at Santee Wateree Regional Transportation Authority (SWRTA).
It was while in the U.S. Army Reserves JAG core that a colonel introduced August to the idea of transit. “One of the colonels that worked with us indicated that the local transit agency was looking for minorities and women to be in a management internship program,” she explains.
She worked for the department of the Army at an Area Maintenance Support Activity (AMSA), and he told her that the transit agency had an equivalent job in its maintenance department.
“[He] told me to bring in a resume and took it to the agency. There were no guarantees in getting a job, the rest would be up to me,” she says.
August went to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) for about 13 years and then to SWRTA, a small urban and rural transit agency. She came to SWRTA as director of transportation and officially became the executive director in 2001.
I asked August about the transition from SEPTA to SWRTA. “It was almost like taking a trip back in time,” she says laughing. “At SEPTA you’re talking about almost 10,000 people and about 1,500 vehicles; people are more specialized in your larger transit agencies.”
She continues, “Here at SWRTA you wear different hats. And the one thing that I’ve enjoyed since I’ve been here is the fact that you get the opportunity to learn it from the bottom up.”
Different size agencies of course have different types of challenges. “At the rural agencies you have a bigger challenge because an operator can drive 20 miles before they pick up the first person. That’s a bigger challenge for us in terms of fuel cost.” She says, “Scheduling becomes a very critical role in the scheme of things.”
The Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) sponsored the management program August came to SEPTA under. Joining SEPTA provided her with a larger picture of public transportation as a whole. She maintains that it also provided other opportunities. “I felt that getting involved in community or transit organizations would help not only my public speaking skills, but also the team-building and a lot of other things that you sometimes don’t get to do in your normal day-to-day job.”
August was a quality control administrator in the internship program at SEPTA and while in that program, had the opportunity to visit different transit properties. While at other properties she noticed many were having maintenance roadeos.
She tells me, “I asked my director at the time, ‘is there a reason we don’t have a maintenance roadeo?’ and he said, ‘yeah, there is.’
“And I asked, ‘What is it?’
“We haven’t had anybody to oversee it,” she says was his response. To which she replied, “Well, I’ll take it on.”
From that point on, she has been affiliated in one way or another with roadeos. SWRTA’s maintenance team won first place in the state’s bus/maintenance roadeo competition in 2005 and 2007.
Being involved with roadeos and organizations is really important to August. She mentioned that at SWRTA, the employees rotate attending national conferences. “What we try to do is expose people to other transit environments and let them see the bigger picture,” she says. “At a small rural agency like ours, the only thing they would see is what’s in the state of South Carolina.
“In our case, it’s a drop in the bucket to the bigger picture because we’re always being compared as a small 5307, an urbanized agency. Other agencies like that because we’re under the same scrutiny as they are when it comes to reporting processes.” She asserts, “But we don’t have the same staffing level and we don’t receive the type of funding that they would get.”
The exposure to the larger industry and staff development has been an integral part of the success of SWRTA. Winning the Best Public Transit Provider Award in the state for 2002 and 2007 and August winning the state award this year for Best Transit Director, it takes a strong commitment of the team.
August affirms, “The staff realizes that just because we’re a small agency, it doesn’t mean that we’re out of the loop.
“We went from an agency with almost a million-dollar deficit, to building an Intermodal Transportation Center,” she says proudly. As the staff has grown, the agency has grown.
Like all the agency directors I’ve talked to, August stresses, “You can’t run a transit agency independently.” She adds with a laugh, “I tell them they make me look good.”
Staff training is provided in coordination with the COGs and with other agencies in the region. Organizations rotate where the training is held. “It almost becomes a wash because we provide training for them and they provide training for us, so there’s not much cost involved,” she says. “It’s going to cost us the same amount to provide training for 10 people as it would be for 15.”
Getting the Kinks Out
When August first came to SWRTA, staff did the scheduling by hand and all the information was in people’s heads. “They knew who did what routes, they knew the people that were traveling, they knew where they lived and they knew the phone numbers,” she explains. “But if something happens to that person or that person doesn’t come to work that day; that information is with them.”
Technology was part of the answer to getting a more efficient system. Adding technology has its benefits and challenges and SWRTA staff has adjusted along the way.
”When you have a liaison that works between our company and the company that’s going to be implementing the technology, one of the things we found was that information was not being relayed accurately,” August says.
“We decided that we needed to take a step back and regroup anytime that we’re going to deal with technology. We’re going to bring in an individual that understands what the makeup of our company is and have the company implementing the technology come in and do an assessment versus hiring a consultant to relay information.
“Going through our implementation phase of the technology, we realized that you don’t necessarily cut costs right then, nor do you eliminate people in the process,” she explains.
She adds, “If anything, you end up adding more people until you can get rid of the kinks in the process.”
In the end, the scheduling software at SWRTA has greatly improved efficiency. August says it has also allowed for more time for employees to have the time to learn additional skills and to implement other new technology.
SWRTA is currently working on a renovation restoration, turning an 1899 building, formerly a telephone and magneto manufacturing plant, into an Intermodal Transportation Center, due to be complete in the spring of 2008. The building will house the operations and administrative personnel and it will also house the Southeastern Stages Company, a company providing Greyhound Bus services.
“SWRTA has to work very closely with the Archives in History at Columbia to ensure that we are abiding by the guidelines,” August explains.
She gave one example of this. “We had to put wood windows back in the building. We wanted to do metal with a wood look. They told us we could not do that; we had to put wood windows back in the facility.
“When doing a restoration, it is a lot different than building new,” August states. “We ended up having to do a lot of mold mediation, soil borings and steel framing to make sure the building was stable.”
When talking about the Intermodal Transportation Center, August mentions the agency received a $5-million congressional earmark in 2003 for the center. When I asked her about dealing with funding shortfalls, she laughed.
“What we’re doing is what I call robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says. “What happens is that we try to stretch the services as much as we can.”
The lack of local and state dedicated funding is the biggest challenge facing SWRTA. With the population growth of seniors, there is going to be an increased demand of services. “With the demand on services it means we’re going to have to have more equipment, more employees and, of course, we have to have a permanent revenue source in order to do that,” she says.
“We can’t go hat-in-hand from year to year trying to figure out where the appropriations are going to come from and how much is going to be appropriated.”
She adds, “We have to look at diversifying our revenue stream.
“We go to City Council meetings, County Council meetings, Town Council meetings, explaining the importance of public transportation and the economic benefit,” she explains.
“What we’re trying to do in our area is to ensure that people get the stigma out of their minds that transit is a social service.
“We try to explain to individuals on a regular basis that public transportation is a part of our economic growth and development.”
She maintains, “You can build the shopping center, you can build the medical facilities, you can build the recreation facilities, but if people can’t get there, then what are you building them for?”
Educating a Community
SWRTA has found that word of mouth has gotten its message across quickly. “If you have a person that you trust, if they tell you, ‘I’ve been riding public transit for the last three months. I’ve saved money on gas, I’ve saved money on wear and tear, it works for me,’” August explains, “then you may say, ‘OK, maybe that won’t be too bad, I’ll try it next week.’”
With many of the riders working for state agencies, the next step, August says, is getting the state agencies to participate in the federal commuter benefit program so individuals could benefit from the tax credit.
“Everybody will not have a car. Everybody does not want a car,” she says.
As a retirement state, she mentions the senior population is growing by the day with people moving from the northern states down to the warmer weather of South Carolina. She says this increases the expectations of transportation.
“If you have people coming from Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey; they have an abundance of transportation options on that end.
“I get calls at least once or twice a week asking, ‘how often does your bus run out here?’ And I’m saying, ‘well, our bus doesn’t run out there.
“We have a paratransit vehicle that can pick you up at home, dial-a-ride, 48-hour notice, that kind of thing.’
“They say, ‘I thought I could just walk out to a corner and a bus would be by in about half an hour or something.’ But no, it doesn’t work that way.”
She stresses, “Those are the types of things we are trying to get people to realize, especially the councils.
“We understand that sewer and water is important. We also understand that they are trying to bring developers into the area. But we also want them to understand that part of bringing developers into the area is trying to get them to understand that companies need people to be able to get to work.
“We want them to really look at the economic impact of public transportation overall and how that plays into the enhancement and growth of an area.”
In 2004, a partnership between the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), SWRTA and Central Midlands Regional Transportation Authority (Central Midlands RTA) developed an alternative option for commuters, SmartRide. “Our state is no different than a lot of other areas that are more rural,” August says. “People have a love affair for their cars.”
SmartRide was operated free for nearly six months to see how many people would park their cars, get on a commuter bus and ride to work. SWRTA offers two routes originating from Camden to the Columbia metro area, and Central Midlands RTA offers two routes from Newberry.
“We started one route with a 13-passenger vehicle. Now we have a 20-passenger vehicle on that route. On the second route we have a 45-passenger vehicle,” says August. “It’s started to pick up even more of course with the gas prices vacillating back and forth.
“Public transit service is not a one-size fits all,” August says. “We try to tell them, give it a try, even if it’s just one time, to see how much fuel you save.
She emphasizes, “We try to get people to realize that every service that we offer is only providing them with a mobility option.”