Change is a way of life in the transportation industry. Things change — there are new bus and rail innovations every year.
And places change — the Nashville Metropolitan Transportation Authority's headquarters was once used by the Aviation Co. to build bombers. And most importantly, people change — three of our cover stories are no longer with the agencies they were the heads of just last year. Just ask MTA's CEO, Paul Ballard, he started off in the transit industry working as a mechanic in a college garage.
Ballard was attending Indiana University during the day, studying urban mass transportation management. He would soon become a bus driver and later on a supervisor. But in his senior year he got an interesting opportunity.
"What was really neat was the city of Bloomington, Ind., decided to start its own transit system while I was a senior actually, and they hired me as their first general manager.
"So I was an undergraduate, 23 years old, and I became a general manager of Bloomington transit. I started it up. We only started with 11 buses. And this was 1973. So that's how I got started," Ballard says.
Growing up in Boston, he fell in love with the public transportation he rode as he grew up. This love served him well as he returned to his hometown after a year as general manager in Bloomington to become the general manager of the Plymouth and Brockton Street Railway Company, which had by that time switched over entirely to bus and offered service into Boston from the surrounding suburban region.
Ballard would go on to join American Transit Corp. where he would work his way up to president of that company for several years before stepping out to start his own business.
"I started my own little consulting company and I did that for three years," Ballard says.
"What we specialized in was providing temporary management personnel for the transit systems. And so I was temporary manager in Birmingham, Ala.
"And then I actually contacted Nashville, and I've been here five years now. On a temporary assignment I came in and met with them and they made me a wonderful offer and I just said OK, I will come to work for you full time," Ballard says.
When Ballard arrived in Nashville, he found an anemic system well past its prime. Change was needed, but how to make it happen?
"[The system] had been really starved financially for a long time. And unfortunately the service and the equipment looked that way," Ballard says.
The first order of business according to Ballard was fixing the fleet. And that meant a major overhaul.
"We were running 25-year-old buses. In my very first presentation before the city council to ask for funds to replace [the buses], I told them that I was getting ready to order antique plates for the buses because they were 25 years old, and under Tennessee state law 25-year-old vehicles can have antique plates. And they remembered that."
Ballard's words didn't fall on deaf ears as the mayor and city council opened the coffers and provided MTA with $28 million to purchase 100 new buses over a four-year period. Let's put that in a little perspective. MTA had a fleet of 138 transit buses. It replaced 100 of them.
And that money came from local funding provided by the city of Nashville's general fund.
"The money actually came from a bond issuance. Four separate bond issuances from the city which are then repaid through the city's general fund. They made a huge commitment to upgrade the fleet," Ballard says.
"100 out of 138 were replaced over that four-year period. So our average fleet age now is 2.6 years."
It was so huge MTA had a "funeral" for its retired fleet. No, seriously.
"We did a New Orleans funeral when we retired the 25-year-old buses," Ballard says.
"It was kind of neat. It was picked up by the local media. We had a New Orleans style band playing a funeral dirge. It really caught people's attention. It was one of those things that never would have occurred to me. And it was really unique. And stuff like that people are interested in."
What did a change like this mean to Nashville MTA's perception among its riders? Everything.
"We primarily served the folks who had no other alternative," Ballard says.
"That was pretty much what it was. And that was the service level. And that was the condition of the equipment. And that was the mindset of the employees."
Ballard says that while the changes started with the vehicles, the next step was to change the people who drove them. And to do that the agency had to change the whole way it looked at hiring drivers.
"In the past what we would do is we would look for drivers with commercial drivers licenses," Ballard says. "Now we don't care if you can drive a bus or not.
"In fact, most people we hire can't. What we look for are people with customer service skills. Do you like people? Do you want to work with people? Do you have a customer service focus? And then we will teach you to drive. So we had to completely change the whole mindset of what we were looking for."
Ballard relates the agency to a retail business with a customer service focus. Changing that attitude went a long way to helping change the agency for the better. It also improved its marketing materials, maps, schedules and all around communication process with its customers.
"We've just improved significantly how we communicate in print and on the Internet," Ballard says.
"It has [changed the public opinion] quite a bit. We've had some good editorials recently about support for public transit. And I think it has changed significantly."
Shifting Into Gear
One of the things Ballard saw that needed change was system safety. This was a key component for them and started with the keys on the buses. In a partnership with Gillig Corp., MTA devised an innovative safety mechanism for their incoming fleet of new buses.
"You may be aware that in transit, in a lot of fleets you can go in and push a button and start the bus and it goes," says Bob Baulsir, MTA's chief operating officer.
"Now you have to have a numbered key. You have to be authorized to have it. So it is now one of our homeland security-type things. You can't just jump in one of our vehicles and take it and go. You need to be issued a key that controls the shift."
The shift-lock is on every revenue vehicle in the MTA fleet. You don't get a key until after you've received training and been cleared to operate a vehicle. And that training also explains the necessary steps to operate the shift-lock even if you do have a key.
"[You have to] put it in neutral. Have your foot on the service brake. Release the parking brake while your foot is on the service brake. Then you can turn key," Baulsir explains.
"[You] can't park this bus without setting the parking brake, and you can't take the key out without setting the parking brake," Baulsir explained as an example of how the new shift-lock also helps prevent parked vehicles from breaking free and rolling into something.
Every driver has to take the key with them when they leave the bus, but with the new shift-lock on its buses, MTA drivers can leave the bus engine running when they leave the bus — even with passengers onboard. This allows them to allow passengers to remain on a heated or air-conditioned bus safely without fear of them taking the bus for a joyride.
The shift-lock has proven so successful (no jams in two years of operation) that MTA has retrofitted all of its fixed-route buses to have it. And the keys are numbered (Ballard has No. 1, Baulsir has No. 2 – rank has its privileges) and assigned to drivers — and they can't be copied.
Other bus safety improvements include GPS and cameras on all of the buses with more to come.
"We're in the process of expanding [our automatic stop announcements]. We are just about to award a contract for voice communications. And then the next step will be AVL where we will have the display in our dispatch office and it will show where everything is," Ballard says.
"But it's mostly common sense stuff," he notes. "We added roof numbers to every bus in the fleet so that if there ever were an incident the helicopters could quickly identify the vehicle as MTA 8202 or whatever. Quickly identify the vehicle from the air. Just common sense things like that."
MTA runs its own paratransit service, which it calls Access Ride. But it's recently seen a surge in ridership which meant it had to rethink the idea of paratransit and what it meant to the system.
"We're looking at like 30 percent increase a year in Access Ride," Ballard says.
"When I came here we were doing about 10,000 trips a month and now we're up to about 25,000 trips a month. And I am particularly proud we've not had an ADA denial in more than two years, which is really something. I don't think you will find that anyplace else."
With increased ridership came a need for an increased number of drivers. This is where the system's problems existed.
Access Rider drivers weren't treated equally as regular fixed-route drivers when it came to seniority.
"We used to have two seniority lists. One for the fixed-route buses and then one for paratransit. And we paid paratransit less," Ballard says.
"So there were a couple of negatives connected to that. One is that on any given day you might have extra drivers for the big bus and be short on drivers for paratransit and the two didn't mix. And the other problem that we had was that all of the hiring was done into the paratransit and then you moved up to the big bus because that's where you got more money.
"Well the big problem with that is our customers who use paratransit like to get the same driver all the time. All of us like the same driver whether it's big bus or paratransit or whatever. But what would happen is that there would be a constant turnover in paratransit because we would hire in paratransit and they would move up to the big bus.
"So three years ago in the contract negotiations we negotiated one seniority list and we had one pay rate. So we brought the paratransit people up to the same rate as fixed-route. And now we have one seniority list.
"So if you like to drive paratransit you can come here and make the full money, drive paratransit, you get comfortable with your customers, they get comfortable with you. We stopped that turnover completely."
Ballard says that now all MTA drivers make the same money and have the same union and the same employer. And the change has worked wonders not only for driver morale, but for the system itself.
"It really works beautifully because it also gives us additional flexibility," Ballard says.
"Our schedulers now, if you're a driver you may come in the morning and drive Route 17 and in the afternoon you're on Access Ride.
"Or with your Access Ride vehicle you may be picking up paratransit passengers for the first four hours and then we might put you on a trip on a mid-day on a regular route that has light ridership because we put fareboxes and destination signs on the paratransit vehicles. [It gives us] maximum flexibility."
And MTA's recent bus fleet overhaul wasn't limited to its "big bus" fleet. The Access Ride vehicles got improved as well.
"We currently have 14 new vehicles being manufactured right now as we speak. Those will replace the oldest buses in the fleet, but what we'll do is we'll take nine out of service because that is the fastest growing segment of our service," Ballard says.
As Ballard points out, all of MTA's vehicles are outfitted with fareboxes and destination signs. This includes the paratransit vehicles, and that has led into a new venture for Nashville, BusLink, an on-call service accessible by everyone within a designated service area.
"This would run Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and it will be a direct call to the bus driver. You call the driver on the cell phone and the bus stops are established," Ballard says.
"[The area we are testing this in] is an area that doesn't have any fixed-route bus service in it. It's all residential, light density.
"This would be a unique style bus. It will be one of our small vans [with a] destination sign [and] farebox. And there are actual physical signs at each location.
"You call up and say I am at bus stop 21 and I want to go to Green Hills Mall. And the driver will say OK I will be there in 15 minutes. And you walk to bus stop 21 and the driver picks you up and takes you over to the mall."
Other systems have something of a similar nature in place such as Kansas City's MetroLink, but this is a first for the Nashville area. And it is targeting people who don't drive, such as teens and seniors, but Ballard also hopes to sway others to try public transit and leave their cars at home when they want to go to the mall.
"That's why we're including Saturdays the first time. But this is a new concept for us," Ballard says.
"We think this is a real unique way to do this because we used to have a fixed-route bus that went through here and it was very low ridership and we dropped that.
"I think this concept if it works well, there, what we'll do is we'll look at using this in other residential areas where we have perhaps a fixed route bus that maybe doesn't get the proper level of ridership.
"What that will allow us to do, because we have standing room only issues now in this town — our ridership is just skyrocketing, [is] to take buses from a neighborhood route like that and put it out on the main line where we have standing room only and use a van and make it all called service.
"It's less expensive. It's more responsive to customers because it's basically you set your schedule instead of us running a big bus through the middle of that area once an hour. We think it is a far more efficient way of doing it."
Music City Central
Every system needs a heart. For some systems, especially those built along rail lines, that heart is easily defined; that transit hub where all the lines come together and riders can transfer from one route to another effortlessly. In others, it's a little more difficult. Take Nashville for example, the heart of the system is Deaderick Street in the heart of the city's downtown area.
"Right now Fifth and Deaderick is a mess," Ballard admits. "We create a traffic jam every 20 minutes downtown. It's awful."
And the traffic is only one consideration. Right now MTA only has open air shelters on Deaderick Street. The lack of a real station is a much larger issue.
"People freeze in the winter. It's hot in the summer because they are just standing out on the sidewalk. We have no control over who is there. It's a public sidewalk. You know if people want to hang around and cause problems, we really can't control it because it's a sidewalk."
But Ballard and the MTA are looking to solve this problem with the creation of a new heart for the system called the Music City Central. The land for this multilevel facility has been purchased and it will cover two parking lots on a five-acre square of land.
The project total with land acquisition and everything is about $48 million, which MTA has already set aside. About 80 percent of the funding is federal earmark money and the rest is made up of a combination of federal, state and local funds.
"What we've done is we have bought two existing parking lots right next to the state capital," Ballard says.
"We will join them into one parcel and then we will build this basically on top of it. So we will end up with about 750 parking spaces for automobiles as well as having our Music City Central.
"And that is part of the financing package, because half of those spaces will be leased long term to the state in return for $6.5 million of capital money so that we can build it. We had to be pretty creative in pulling money from all the different pots to build this."
Ballard says the five-acre site will have two different elevations connected by escalators and elevators. The plan is to have 12 bus bays on each level of the facility — and more importantly to have them in the downtown core.
"Building it here, what it does, is critically important, is that it preserves the one seat trip into the heart of the central business district. That's why we fought so hard for it. We are going to significantly improve this neighborhood with our facility.
"When we control this property we will be able to protect our passengers much better. They will have warmth in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Restroom facilities. We don't have anything like that down there right now.
"There will be of course ticket sales, a waiting area, restrooms. We are designing retail space [for it]. So we are hoping coffee shops, newspaper stores, dry cleaners — those types of things that people who use transportation tend to use.
"We'll have public meeting rooms on the second floor. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is interested in moving their offices there because they are just in an office building downtown. So they would like to be located there.
"And customer service functions, those types of things. We'll also do our Access Rider certification process, photos for IDs and things like that."
Ballard admits that while the thought of moving MTA operations into the Music City Central station had been a consideration, it really wasn't feasible.
"It's been discussed and probably just customer service will be located there. So much of what we do here and being close to the fleet operations is more important at this point. And it's really not designed with all of the office space that we would need."
Seat of Funding
The staff at Nashville MTA was kind enough to provide me a wealth of information on its system before I visited. One thing that caught my attention was that it had made a concerted effort to replace the 700 benches in its service area. Benches? So I had to ask Paul Ballard about this.
His response was a big grin, "The benches are where the money is at."
"Under our charter we have the exclusive rights to putting benches out in Nashville for advertising. We generate about $700,000 a year in advertising revenue. $500,000 comes from the benches alone. The benches are the big seller in this town. A half million dollars a year in advertising, that's what those 700 benches do for us. It's an important part of our revenue.
"You can lease them for as short as 30 days. For example, when it is really popular – we have a lot of political advertising.
You can come in just for the campaign season and rent it. I have some politicians who rent it for 30 days, the 30th day being the day of the election. It's real target specific. If you are in the 27th District, you can just buy the benches in the 27th District."
So why would you replace them if they are so profitable. Ballard says simply they were getting old. They were a 20-year-old plastic style showing its age and were pretty ugly.
"We just went out and selected a whole new bench style and we are replacing all of them. I think of the 700 we've probably done 450. We're well over halfway to get them all. [They are] much superior."
A half million dollars in revenue from benches?! So is MTA planning on expanding and trying to get more milk from this cash cow?
"700 is probably the limit of what we can do because we are pretty well saturated on our bus routes. It's pretty much the limits I would think," Ballard says.
"What we need to do now is expand our shelter advertising because we don't have a lot of advertising on the shelters. We have some sold, but that would be next. Then we will expand that.
"We have a lot of shelters, but we've been concentrating on benches first. Then we will go through and start expanding the shelters. But the benches needed to be done first because they were the oldest and in the poorest shape."
Ballard prides his agency on being quick to change and adapt to new situations and technologies. One of these new technologies soon to be tested by Nashville MTA is a farebox that will be able to accept credit cards with a single swipe as you enter a bus.
"We are getting ready to start accepting credit cards on the buses. We've really developed all the fare media. But one thing we've got to crack now is so many people in today's society who don't carry any money," Ballard says.
"The difficult point is the transaction fee. It has always been so much a purchase. That's why not too long ago you might see these smaller merchants say minimum credit card charge will be $5 or $10.
"What they do now is they have what they call micro-purchases. Because we can't pay 50 cents on a dollar per board charge. So now what they have is micro-purchases. And with the technology today you can bill the company one time and submit all of your purchases and they only charge you a few pennies per transaction.
"So you will be able to get on with your MasterCard or Visa and swipe it in the slot. And we can give you a receipt if you want a receipt right there. And then what we will do is at the end of the day when the bus comes in we will download all that data. The only drawback is that it's not a real-time transaction, so we can't do debit cards.
"It's something we've been working on for a long time. And I can even see having that little MasterCard sticker by the door as you get on the bus, because that's how we need to crack that market. We've got to develop different approaches to different markets. In the old days of the bus service, you get on, you have exact fare, you put your money in the box and that was it. But it's different stuff that appeals today."
For more information on this new technology, check out our Focus On… section at the back of this issue written by MTA's chief financial officer, Ed Oliphant.
Outside of new technologies for his system, Ballard doesn't see any major need to look toward adding additional modes of transit to the system, citing the lack of enough real density in the urban area to warrant adding, for example, a light rail line.
"[The population is] about 650,000 in the city, but of course the urban area is about 2 million when you count in the surrounding counties," Ballard says.
"The city itself is about 550 square miles. That's a lot of territory to cover with 200 revenue vehicles. It's tough. But we have a good basic structure. But I think what we would look at is of course continuing to expand the growth of the commuter rail because of the growth in the collar counties.
"But BRT is definitely the route that we will go. And over the years it's a lot easier to convert a BRT corridor to light rail. So what you do is basically lay the ground work and you can do it in increments and you might even do it by increasing the frequency and improving the bus stops. Then go to Q-jumpers and then go in certain areas to exclusive lanes. And I think we have several corridors, the West End corridor, which would be ideal for that. We have some very heavy corridors here for ridership that we think would work very well.
"And the new buses that we will be ordering will be hybrids and will be artics. We think that is the kind of equipment that we would assign to BRT.
"But we also have our downtown area booming with residential. We have 3,500 units under construction in the immediate downtown area," Ballard notes.
As we toured the system he pointed out several places under development that the system could take advantage of. And that's just what they are planning to do.
"We are working with the chamber of commerce and we are working with developers to make sure they consider public transportation as they do all this," Ballard says.
"A large part of this is that we are in the right place at the right time. We are generating a lot of new ridership through our partnerships with the state government and private employers, but it's just Nashville's time to start really growing and developing."
As we walked, I asked Ballard about their project, the Music City Central and the other developments and the loss of surface parking lots. With so many workers in the downtown core at the state capital, you would think they would be furious about this. But he saw this as an excellent trend.
"It's a wonderful opportunity. It's super. The more surface parking that can go away downtown, the more people have to ride our buses," Ballard smiled.
"People will always complain about lack of parking. The whole downtown could be parking and people would complain that it's not in the right spot. So you are always going to hear that.
"Parking does not make a vibrant city. It's what goes on in the city that makes it vibrant. We just need to make sure that as we grow and develop here that people have the alternative, they don't feel like they need to take the car downtown."