Automatic Vehicle Location, automated passenger counters, Mobile Data Terminals and Vehicle Logic Units are not what you expect when you think of a small transit system, but Beaver County Transit Authority (BCTA) in Rochester, Pa., utilizes that technology for Phase 1 of its intelligent transportation system program. General Manager Mary Jo Morandini has nothing but great things to say about the program. "It's a very well-thought-out system and all the pieces are interoperable." With a federal earmark, state bond funds and technology by Siemens, implementation of Phase 1 started in 2000. "Phase 1 included the Automatic Vehicle Location system that provides real-time information to our customers about bus arrivals and departures," explains Morandini. "It included automated passenger counters, a new radio system and a kiosk at our facilities and electronic signs that provide real-time information to customers."
The program was challenging, being one of the first small agencies undertaking such a project, but BCTA did its homework and the learning process has strengthened the technology department. BCTA is looking on to Phase 2 and expanding the program to the region. "We have been a participant on a steering committee to look at a regional ITS program," Morandini says. "Our program here at BCTA was selected as the prototype for the small systems of our region."
Planning a Career
Morandini's educational background is in geography with a concentration in urban and regional planning. During her studies, she got her first taste of politics while doing an internship with the housing authority with the Venango County planning commission. "I was led to believe I would get a position with the housing authority after my internship was completed," she explains. "I was very disappointed that I didn't get that position." A couple of months later there was a position for planner advertised for the county transportation system where she was living at the time. There she began her career in transit.
"I moved into a management position there," she says. "I served as an assistant executive director and executive director at that agency before I left." She adds, "I've been doing [transit] ever since and really love the business."
After a reception at a legislative event in Harrisburg, the state association members decided to go out to dinner. Morandini sat next to Bruce Ahern, BCTA general manager at the time. After enjoying endless hors d'oeuvres at the reception, they were not too hungry as they looked over the menu so they decided to share a slice of cheesecake. That was the first time they had met and a couple months later, Ahern contacted Morandini about a position at BCTA. "He contacted me about a position to manage the paratransit service." She continues, "I accepted the position and ended up working with Bruce Ahern for about 15 years." When he moved on to another position, Morandini took the helm as general manager.
"When the organization was formed we didn't own vehicles or any facilities and contracting for service was a good decision," Morandini says. BCTA has transformed as now, "We own the fleet of buses and we own two facilities, including a terminal here in Rochester and a state-of-the-art maintenance facility in Center Township." She explains, as the organization matured, it had the leadership ability and the skill set necessary to operate the service directly, so that decision was made.
Continuing Quality, Continuing Success
"I think what really makes the organization successful are the people," Morandini states. Contributing to that success is the staff and board longevity. "We have a very strong board and they provide the foundation of success for the organization. Our board chairman, Richard Ober, he has a very long history with our organization. He's been the chairman for more than 20 years," she says. "He has been a great asset to the board." She also stresses the board has the best interests of the community in mind and is supportive of the staff.
The staff's professional development has been one factor to its success. One story Morandini shares is of BCTA's transportation manager, Rose Sutter. Sutter started out as a driver under a county transportation program around 1980. Today, she fills the third highest-level position in the organization. Sutter took advantage of the BCTA employee development program, went back to college, earned a bachelor's degree in human resources and went on to obtain a master's degree in organizational leadership. "She's come a very long way and has become a top-notch manager and performs at a very high level in our organization," stresses Morandini.
One staffing challenge they have experienced is retaining drivers. With a comprehensive driver's safety program, many have used BCTA as a training ground before moving on to higher-paid driving positions with commercial businesses. Morandini says, "That's been a challenge of the organization and one that I think we are overcoming. "This is a new organization so we did hire a lot of new drivers when we became a self-operating agency." She continues, "We do have a lot of drivers on the lower end of the pay scale unlike other organizations that have been around a long time."
Morandini expresses the team effort at BCTA as another factor to its success. The development of the new Web site illustrates how they pooled their resources together to create something that has worked out so well for the organization. "We charted a cross-functional Web site improvement team comprised of employees from planning, customer service, operations and IT," she explains. "They evaluated a comprehensive array of small, midsize and large transit agency sites to identify best practices." She stresses, "They also surveyed our customers to determine what they liked and didn't like about what was on the current Web site."
With a diverse group working on the Web site, they had a variety of perspectives as to what it should be. Morandini says, "Pooling those resources together, that diversity together, I think they did launch what is an award-winning Web site." The first phase of the site recently went up and she is happy to report they have gotten a lot of positive feedback on it.
Most directors or managers may say their agency is the best but BCTA has APTA's Best Small Agency award from 1998 and 2005 to back it up. Contributing to the success of the agency has been the Continuing Quality Improvement (CQI) initiative started back in the early 1990s. "We're never really satisfied with where we are today," Morandini explains. "We really attempt to establish standards in every area as a business. We benchmark ourselves internally and against other organizations and are always looking for improvements.
"We're always looking to change things, to reinvent ourselves as an organization so that we can continue to maintain a strong focus on customers and provide a very high-quality level of service." She clarifies, "The customer not only includes the rider, it includes the employees in the organization." She sums it up that data-driven decisions and a team-based environment define the CQI at BCTA.
Funding the Future
Looking ahead, funding is going to be the big concern for BCTA. "Pennsylvania is a very progressive state in terms of funding transportation," Morandini says. "Virtually every county in Pennsylvania, more than 60 counties, has some form of public transportation." She adds, "Relatively speaking, Pennsylvania contributes substantially to public transportation.
"State aid has been relatively flat since the mid 1990s and many parts of the state have lost federal funding because of losses in population and so funding has been a major issue for many of the transit systems in the state.
"The governor decided about a year and a half ago to form the Pennsylvania transportation funding and reform commission to evaluate transit across the state and make recommendations to improve our public transportation systems." That set of recommendations will identify how to fund the needs of public transportation in the state.
The initial findings illustrated, to improve mobility statewide, agencies in Pennsylvania need about $800 million of additional funding. The commission will release the final report in November. What BCTA is hoping for is a source of predictable, dedicated funding for public transportation. "Without a dedicated source of funding, it's extremely diffi cult to run a business because you're just basically planning from year to year and you don't really have the ability to think longterm," Morandini says. "The work of the commission is not only very important to BCTA but to the rest of the state as well."
BCTA is moving forward with its technology. Phase 2 is currently underway and Phase 3 is in the planning stages. Phase 2 of the ITS program includes various system components including wireless LAN, smart card technology, electronic signage and new paratransit scheduling software from RouteMatch that adds another layer of management to the scheduling software and an upgraded telephone system. The new system will provide call takers an electronic sign showing how many calls are in sequence for reservations, how many are on hold, how many are for cancellations, how many are for pickup times. With the management layer, the supervisor of the center can monitor that activity in real time throughout the day.
"With that advancement in technology in the paratransit program we have actually kept on staff a temporary full-time position that we had hoped would not have to be filled with a permanent position," says Morandini. "We're going to keep the temporary person on staff for a couple of months and then we'll be able to save that full-time staff person with this new technology."
Planning for the Community's Future
The other project underway is the Transit Revitalization Investment District Grant (TRID). "That legislation provides a very unique framework to support the integration of land use and transportation and support or encourage the creation of livable communities in distressed municipalities across the state," explains Morandini.
"Pennsylvania is losing population in many parts of the state," Morandini says. She describes the situation in Pennsylvania, "While the southwest Pennsylvania region isn't growing, about 43 acres a day of green space is consumed for new development." She stresses, "I think the state, through this legislation and some other initiatives, is attempting to reverse that trend and do more infill as opposed to more urban sprawl."
BCTA worked at bringing together numerous key stakeholders in the county to create a common vision for the Borough of Rochester. Morandini says, "I think one of the reasons the state really liked this project is because we already had all these partnerships in place by the time we submitted the grant." Some of those partners include the Borough of Rochester, Beaver County Community Development, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, the Rochester school district and the MPO.
The Rochester Transportation Center is the hub of the BCTA, housing a bus terminal, a park-and-ride facility and a customer information center. All of the fixed-route buses in the system are at the terminal on the half hour. As Morandini explains it, "If you get to Rochester you know your bus is also going to be here when you arrive to take you on to your next destination." She adds, "If you get to Rochester you can get to anywhere in Beaver County, you can get to Allegheny County and Pittsburg so it also provides for regional transportation as well."
The TRID utilizes the successful transit investment that is existing and hopes to build upon that to rebuild the community. Morandini explains some of the additional planning activities, "We have taken other planning districts and integrated them into the TRID area including the Main Street Planning District which has a separate funding source to improve the streetscapes, the business facades in the downtown area.The Elm Street Planning District is the residential piece to this and the Bridge Replanning District is the commercial part of the TRID area.
"The scope of work in the study includes looking at the infrastructure within the TRID area, a traffic analysis," she explains. "Also doing market research, that's a critical component of the planning study to determine what is the best use of the existing property within the TRID area." BCTA is looking at constructing a joint parking facility that would include a park-and-ride and additional space needs by the Borough for the existing and new development to come. That new development will be mixed-use but those involved in the planning are anticipating a strong residential component to it.
Morandini explains, "The TRID really permits tax increment financing to support transit-oriented development with the option of utilizing new tax revenues to support new transit capital investments within the TRID area.
"If we generate new tax revenues through a private public partnership with the developer, part of that tax revenue can come back to the transit agency in addition to the usual beneficiaries which are the county, the school district and the Borough of Rochester."
Morandini stresses that the other thing they are trying to do with the TRID project is to think regionally so the program is successful across the state. "We have had a kick-off meeting and we are going to hold a public meeting later this month," Morandini says. "Try to get the public input as to what is their vision for the community, what quality of life issues they would like to see addressed."
She explains the strong educational outreach component they are working toward with this project, "We're definitely thinking beyond Beaver County borders in trying to educate the public in terms of integrating transportation and land-use planning." The Board of Leadership Pittsburgh will be organizing a breakfast event specific to this topic to draw other leaders in the community and educate them about the importance of this issue.
Between the ITS and TRID planning, BCTA has enough keeping it busy as it moves forward. That does not stop Morandini from making more plans. "There's already a developer who's interested in redeveloping a Brownfield in the southern part of the county in Ambridge so there's a great opportunity for another TRID project there." BCTA is also working with other agencies to develop a concept for a more seamless regional transportation system to coordinate service, fares, marketing and new technologies that would be a benefit to the customer.