The first time I called to speak with Ron Baumgart, executive director of River Cities Public Transit (RCPT), the woman on the phone tells me he will have to call me back because he’s out working in the garage.
It’s not too often I hear that on the other end of the line.
When I asked him about that and about wearing multiple hats at a small agency, he laughs. “Let’s put it this way, my picture probably won’t be in a suit and a tie.
“With my 30-some years of experience in machinery and fixing things, it’s probably one of the reasons I got hired here,” he says. Baumgart farmed and ranched for 30 years then decided it was time for a change.
He had been a Hughes county commissioner in central South Dakota for 12 years and enjoyed his involvement with the community. In 2001, when the executive director position of a very small transit agency opened up he thought it would be a good way to be involved.
Speaking again about where he’s at now, “You usually catch me in a pair of blue jeans and a transit shirt around here.” With an increase in grant writing and other office work as ridership increases, there’s less and less time that he spends in the shop, but he still enjoys doing it once in awhile.
Spending time in the different departments keeps him connected to what’s going on at the agency, he says. “I like sitting with the dispatchers once in awhile, working with them and visiting with the drivers. That’s how you get a feel for the system.” He adds, “Just getting out and riding the bus and visiting with some of the riders to see it from their perspective on how things are going.”
When he came to RCPT, he explains it was far from where it is today. “I took over a very struggling agency. Very far in debt, didn’t give many rides and vehicles were not maintained.”
In more recent times, it has a lot to show for its efforts. The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) awarded RCPT the 2006 Rural Transit System of the Year. In 2006 it also received the FTA Administrators Award for Outstanding Public Service in Rural Transportation.
An open mind and a progressive board of directors are what he attributes to the successful turnaround. “They allow me and my employees, fairly free reign to do things, to try new ideas, to provide better transportation throughout our central area of South Dakota.” He quickly adds, “Certainly the struggles of getting there are tough.
“When I first got here we had some employees that struggled with the fact that we were going to go 50 miles out in the country and pick somebody up to bring them in for a doctor’s appointment.” He says laughing, “A couple years later I heard a couple of them in the hallway and one of them said, ‘you know what the boss is going to say, he’s going to just say do it.’
“That’s what we do. We just do it.”
What it is They Do
Not only do they do it, they do it any time. “We basically offer all types of public transportation services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We never close,” Baumgart states.
“It’s a lot of work,” he stresses. “I have employees that always have to work holidays and weekends. But those are some of our busiest days, when individuals want to get to somebody’s house for Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving dinner.”
RCPT nearly quadrupled its ridership between 2003 and 2005. The agency operates primarily demand-response service, but it also has job shuttles, Head Start and after-school service.
“We go door-to-door,” Baumgart explains. “We pick you up at your door and we take you where you want to go and then back home.” He adds, “As our ridership has grown, that has become quite a challenge, but we’re still doing it.
“We really try to put ourselves in the shoes of the people that ride our system and I think that’s what makes us stand apart.”
The job shuttles start about 50 miles out and bring people into the city of Pierre for work. “We’re heavily government here for a small community,” he explains. And that translates into a lot of Monday-through-Friday, 8-to-5 jobs. “It’s easy to pick some times that we can run some routes in from the outlying communities for employment.”
With the tremendous increase in ridership, fixed routes could be in the future. When asked how the operations could be changing going forward, he mentions, “In the near future I don’t see a lot of change other than possibly a very limited fixed route through the very busy part of the two communities we serve.”
The Right People for the Right Job
Getting the right people is an integral part of any agency’s success. With little money, it has been a challenge for RCPT. “We certainly have some struggles in finding the right people that like this kind of work,” Baumgart states. “This is something new to the area. In 2001, when I came to this job, there were five or six employees, and some of those were part-time.” He continues, “Not many people knew about being a bus driver or a dispatcher or something like that, in this community until the last couple years.”
Another challenge RCPT dealt with was what it was offering. “We’re in a community that’s state, federal and county governments all here. All those entities have good retirement benefits, good health benefits.” He adds, “Basically we offered none of that prior to my time, or even about the first year I was here. We just couldn’t afford to.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out that if we were going to get the kind of people we wanted to represent us in the office or represent us as a driver out in the community and represent our community, we had to, as a board and as a director, offer some benefits.” RCPT now offers health insurance, dental insurance and a simple type of retirement plan.
The Right People and the Right Equipment
With demand response service being provided every day, 24 hours a day, the right equipment makes it possible. Baumgart explains how it used to be, “The way it was prior to new development, they had to write all these rides. Then, we still had to enter them in the computer the next day.”
With 5309 grant funding through its Department of Transportation, RCPT facilitated an acquisition of scheduling software, GPS and mobile data computers for itself and several other agencies in North and South Dakota.
“It was a little more than we had anticipated from when we first took it on,” Baumgart says with a laugh. He adds, “It was a really good learning experience.
“I looked at it individually for our transit, and some others in our state and North Dakota were real interested,” he says. “The nice part about it is, if somebody has an employee that is sick or something and doesn’t have someone to run the system, the other six agencies do and in a case or two, we’ve transferred an employee to another agency to help them dispatch for a day or two.”
It’s also saved money, as they have been able to do joint trainings. “We really cut the cost and we got eight agencies with just great technology,” he maintains. In regards to the learning curve, he quickly adds with a laugh, “Everybody’s enjoying most of it, let’s put it that way.”
Working with the Community
When Baumgart came to the system, he mentions there was an effort to have partnerships. Headstart, the Boys and Girls Club, community youth centers, the YMCA after-school program; there are a variety of organizations that RCPT works with. The nonprofits in the area that have programs for kids contract the rides.
It took time and effort to build those relationships. Baumgart stresses, “It just takes trust.” He explains, “To turn something over to somebody else and have them provide transportation for your kids and their programs, that takes a lot of trust.
“Some of these were started — I probably shouldn’t admit to this — without a contract, because I didn’t want them to feel trapped,” he says. “With the Adjustment Training Center, they probably had two vehicles of ours for three or four months before we ever put anything on paper just to show we’re the kind of people you can get along with, that you can work with.”
Just this fiscal year, RCPT has fully coordinated with the Adjustment Training Centers in the area and have taken over their fleet. RCPT worked at bettering the coordination though grants and incorporated some of the rides on to its demand-response system.
“It’s certainly been a win-win for us. We can take that contract money and, of course, match federal money to keep the rest of our public transit going.”
Baumgart adds, “Coordination isn’t easy, but it certainly is the right thing to do if you look at the goal. The goal is to make sure people have the freedom to get to jobs, to get out for fun and entertainment, and get to medical appointments.”
All of these coordinated efforts also work to make people in the community more aware of the transit system. With this increased visibility and a variety of people relying on RCPT’s services, it has gained credibility in the community. “We did not have that at one time,” Baumgart states.
“People just didn’t even realize that there was a system in town.”
Feeding a Growing System
Going from 12,000 rides in 2001 to 215,000 last fiscal year, operating costs have also jumped. I asked Baumgart how he provides this additional service and he says with a laugh, “It’s a challenge.” He continues, “The reason I’m in the shop less and in here more is that’s about all I do — I write grants, stay on top of the financial side.”
As mentioned earlier, the coordination with local partners has generated money for the match. “There’s hardly anybody else providing transportation around here anymore on the public side so we’ve tapped most of those resources,” Baumgart says. “I can remember a couple years ago when SAFETEA-LU gave rural transit, I think our state went up from about $1.4 million in 5311 funds to $4.4 million and there was some concern that we wouldn’t even be able to spend that money in the state.
“Well we’ve got a very progressive transit department at our state level and two years later we’re already scraping for money,” he says.
He states, “High gas prices are our best friend and our worst enemy.” He explains. “Our gas budget this year is about $100,000 more than our total budget was the year I came on to River Cities Public Transit. But more people are riding because of the fuel costs.
“Certainly a challenge,” he reiterates. “I just know that if we work at it together and if the state realizes a need and we show the state leaders some of our new technology and how we’re trying to become more efficient…”
He stops and shares an example. “We use some ADA minivans and we’ve really pushed here with going with the Sprinter vans like you see FedEx and UPS using, which make like 19/20 miles per gallon instead of 5 or 7.” He says, “We’re doing everything we can and I think if the Governor, the state DOT and the local community realizes that, they will help us find the funds because public transit is so necessary.”
Baumgart has worked at getting RCPT connected to the community and he has gotten himself connected in the transit community. Learning form others, what makes their transit work, has provided knowledge and guidance.
“I think the more you meet people, you learn things in classes, but you also learn a lot in the hallways visiting with people,” he says. “There’s probably not a problem that somebody else hasn’t already faced and hasn’t figured out a solution. You just need to talk to that person.”
There were several examples he gave, one of them was his involvement with the Easter Seals Project Action. “We were part of the team that went to get trained on coordination some years back,” he says. “And since, I think I’ve helped about every year.” The faculty members do coordination trainings for rural transit.
“The Easter Seals Project Action has one large workshop every year, usually in the D.C. area that brings about 20 teams in throughout the United States to teach coordination and enhancement of public transit,” Baumgart says. “Then I’ll also go out and do some consulting work for them.” He’s been out to three or four visits to communities to help with public transit in their area. “I’ve learned every bit as much teaching as I did sitting in the class.”
Transit for Everyone
Technology and coordination have helped the agency grow. “We really struggled when I first came on board,” explains Baumgart. “We were just the ‘senior bus’ or we were just the bus for people with disabilities.
“We certainly are for those people, as well as the rest of the general public.” He says, “It’s taken quite awhile to open the eyes to the general public that we’re for everybody and all this coordination helps.
“You just get more people involved and they realize that.” He adds, “That is one of the major reasons we’ve seen the growth we’ve seen in the last three to four years.”