This combination of staff-led and contracted management offers several benefits to Phoenix Public Transit and the residents it serves. Cost per ride throughout the system is one of the lowest among peer agencies. Use of two fixed-route operator contracts allows the city to focus staff time on planning and development of improved routes and new service implementation. It keeps a large portion of expenditures — for vehicles and transit facilities — directly under the control and oversight of staff, but lets private companies (with the ability to recruit, screen and hire employees faster than city government) handle the largest personnel function of recruiting bus operators, mechanics and other operations staff. The use of multiple operators and facilities means an improved response time to breakdowns in service and unexpected emergencies, with the impact spread out both regionally and organizationally. It even gives the city an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to problems, by employing a new management company at the end of a contract. Considerable cost-savings can be had, too, when companies compete to create the most efficient bids.
For all its benefits, however, there are challenges that accompany a public-private partnership in transit. From a staff perspective, an entirely government-run transit system provides a measure of stability. City employees bring continuity in fluctuating transit situations. They are staff, generally with many years of experience, unaffected by slumping markets or corporate buy-outs. Additionally, working with the private sector can require extensive transition periods and extra expense when a longtime contractor is replaced. Since all of Phoenix’s bus service is provided by private companies, switching to different contracts can include lengthy negotiations as bus operators are brought into the new company, or as new management teams start their learning curve about maintenance and personnel functions.
The people at the bus stops, however, want simply to be sure their rides will arrive on time. Riders also expect easily accessed customer service, no matter who delivers it. They do not need to know ownership of some management functions resides directly with the contractor, while planning for new routes and additional service is done by staff. As an effective government agency, Phoenix Public Transit tries to make bureaucratic boundaries invisible. Under the shared name of Valley Metro, the region’s transit agencies collaborate to provide comprehensive service. Phoenix works diligently to relay concerns from customers, city council members and other stakeholders to staff and contractors. This back-and-forth can happen in everything from regular e-mails on route changes to systemwide meetings on collaborative marketing. It often requires negotiating service changes well in advance, to keep other cities aware and involved.
If the channels are built and open, strong communication systems can be the linchpin of successful public-private arrangements. Though its bus service is provided by many different organizations, Phoenix residents do not need to know how each one works individually. An effective partnership — like the city’s motto for customer care — is seamless service. If Phoenix Public Transit and its contractors each do their part, it should not matter how the buses arrive. The important fact is that they do. In the end, that is the reason Phoenix addresses its unique situation with contracted and staff service: to create the most flexible and responsive transit system possible. With more growth on the horizon, it is the best way to ensure Phoenix Public Transit has the tools to succeed now and in the future.
C. Mikel Oglesby is general manager of SunLine Transit Agency, Doran Barnes is executive director of Foothill Transit and Matthew Heil is the public information specialist for the Phoenix Public Transit Department.