When I talked to Larry King, general manager of Muncie Indiana Transit System (MITS), I was expecting more of a cavalier review being that it was the recipient of APTA's 2005 Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award. King instead gives you a pragmatic description detailing the agency's achievements without vainglorious additions.
When asked about the agency's achievements that earned the award, he tells me unvarnished of the inessentials, "There's a statistical part to that selection process and I think our numbers are pretty good in terms of productivity and efficiency." He adds, "Everything we do, the recognition program, our policies, our financial management, is geared toward putting out that basic service and making it as good as we possibly can." As he simply explains, "We do the basics very, very well." Those basics mean vehicles and facilities are clean and well maintained and service is safe, secure and dependable.
It has not been without support that MITS has achieved all that it has. A strong board and strong community support have contributed all the way. King says that the community has responded positively to MITS and he adds, "If they try us, they're pleasantly pleased and stay with us." He stresses, "There's one thing that makes everything we do possible and that is, we just have an excellent board of directors." He emphasizes, "It is a very supportive and proactive group. They have given us direction based on their individual talents and what they think is the best for the community."
It was one thing after another that led King into the world of public transportation with MITS. With a degree in urban and regional planning, King was senior transportation planner for the local MPO and doing a long-range transportation study. Public transportation was one component of that study. "At the time I was doing this, [MITS] was still a private operation and one of the recommendations that came out of that long-range plan, was to publicly acquire the private operator," King says. The city asked King to head that effort, to make the transition, both in finding facilities and doing grant work to get new equipment. "Once the public takeover was completed I was asked by the newly formed public transportation corporation if I would be interested in being a project administrator for a new facility they were planning on building." After that process, he says, "I was asked if I would be interested in becoming their assistant general manager and really fell in love with the business." King adds, "I've been here ever since.
King has been with MITS since 1984 as a First Transit employee. "My assistant and I are First Transit employees," King says. It has been a positive relationship with both sides pleased. "At a small agency I'm very fortunate to have a talented and innovative staff, but that staff is small. I don't have expertise in all of the various areas that you might encounter," he explains. "It's reassuring to know if there is something that we cannot deal with locally, I can go to First Transit and explain the problem and ask for assistance.
"Either through central staff or them bringing in an expert to help us, I've always got that support."
He also shares how the networking capabilities allow him to call other employees at the same company, and discuss similar-type problems. "I think the transit management is a good idea for a community, especially a community the size of Muncie."
Providing Basics Well
JobConnection is a service MITS provides as a supplement to the fixed-route service. Riders can preregister to get bus service between their home and place of employment when bus service is not normally available. It is available throughout the city limits and to the industrial center. JobConnection provides fl exibility for the riders so they can use transit anytime.
MITSPlus is the paratransit service and it has been tracking 20 to 25 percent over last year's numbers each month. "Maybe people who relied on family members or friends for some of their transportation needs, because of the cost of gasoline, they were not available or could not afford to take them. Maybe they did not want to ask to be taken," rationalizes King. "There is no other explanation we see for that demand." He adds, "I know a lot of other communities in Indiana that are our size or larger and are carrying a third to half of what we carry."
Very popular with the community and with tourists is the turn-of-the-century rubber-tired trolleys. The mayor organized the Downtown Development Partnership to revitalize the declining downtown area. Parking concerns and traffi c congestion were major issues downtown. "One of the solutions that came out of this group was to come up with some way of getting people, especially workers in downtown, to park around the periphery, not to drive their cars," King says. "We went to the local community school corporation, asked if we could use the parking lot of its stadium and basketball arena that was not used during the week." The school agreed so MITS purchased some trolleys and developed a route to hit the major government employment areas as well as most of the retail businesses. The parking and the trolley ride are free. "People love the trolleys," King emphasizes. "People go down there just to take a ride on the trolley."
King attributes much of MITS' success to the staff and employee relations. Maintaining basic practices has led to the strong team environment. From keeping employees informed to maintaining a close relationship with the union, the daily practices have created the atmosphere.
Each month there is a meeting with the union and top management to discuss current issues of concern. This practice has led to an understanding between the different perspectives. "The fact is, the last time we negotiated a contract, we had no outside parties. We sat down with the union with no representative on our side and they had no representative on their side," King explains. "We were able to come up with a very good contract that both sides were happy with." He shares that it has not always been that way. "Six years ago we had a contract negotiation process that totally stalled and went to interest arbitration," he says. "As a result of that, the fi ndings of the arbitrator did not favor the employees. A lot of negative feelings came out of that." He continues, "I think that is unfortunate. Trying to heal those wounds on both sides, we got new union leadership and we had to sit down and work out some of the problems." In the sixyear period since, it has been nearly a 180-degree shift from where things were. "The attitude and atmosphere around here is just an unbelievable change from what it was."
King explains the straightforward performance recognition at MITS, "We recognize good performance and we penalize poor performance." He continues, "It's non-punitive, we try to counsel people. They don't get days off, they don't get penalized in that fashion, but if their performance doesn't improve after so many violations, they still lose their job.
"I think that has been a positive and improved relationships. It didn't make sense to me to give a guy a week off because he has had poor attendance." This has been in place for several years now and, King says, has proven successful for MITS.
Permanent teams meet periodically to discuss various topics of concern, striving to make improvements. "We have a safety and maintenance team, we have a wellness team," King explains. "The wellness team takes a very proactive stance in terms of trying to offset some of our health insurance costs and its negative impact on our budget." Involving staff in the different areas has improved relations because of the team atmosphere it has cultivated.
"It seems like more people are interested in employment with us. They're better qualified and they seem to be sticking with us longer," King says. When talking about the operators at MITS he mentions, "We pay the same for a fixed-route driver, a trolley driver or a paratransit driver, which is kind of unusual in the industry. "We looked at it, there is just as much demand, stress, talent and expertise needed to handle the clientele on a paratransit vehicle as there is to operate a fixed-route bus and it seemed the right thing to do.
"In fact in some cases they offer a lot more personal attention to the customer than the fixed-route driver will, and still have a tight schedule."
The future holds rising costs, declining local and state funding and an increasing demand for service. King keeps his usual reposed attitude when he talks about plans in the future. He says, "Right now everything is going good, we don't have any major changes planned. The community is not a rapidly growing community and there is nothing to indicate that that is going to change." For the future of MITS, getting back to basics sounds like it will be key, as he says, "I think the biggest thing that we are going to have to do to change is to try to be able to do more with less to maintain what we have and meet increased demands."