It was by accident that Carlos Tobar, transit system manager for the City of Elk Grove Transit (e-tran), ended up in public transportation. Starting in the private sector, he moved to the public transit sector in 1993. After finishing school at the University of California-Davis, he started working at the Dalla Transportation District. "I was surprised by how varied the job duties were," Tobar says. "I was intrigued by all the different things I was doing. I was dealing with politicians, boards, planning and grant applications and operations." He adds, "I was very excited that I could do a lot of different things and those were all very interesting tasks and that's still the case today, I get to do a little bit of everything."
When the city of Elk Grove posted the job opening, Tobar jumped at the chance to work in his old hometown. From 1971 to 2000, the Elk Grove area was a participating member in the Sacramento Regional Transit District. From 2001 to 2005, the city contracted with the Sacramento Regional Transit District for fixed-route service and paratransit. In January of 2005, the city assumed operations of fixed-route and paratransit services as e-tran. It was in February that Tobar came on board as transit manager.
Much of e-tran's staff is contracted by MV Transportation and Tobar is happy with who they have working. "MV has done such an outstanding job of hiring and training drivers." He explains, "If you look at the passenger survey that was done last year, the drivers received rave reviews from our passengers." He explains the hiring philosophy as getting people with great personality and teaching them how to be a transit bus driver. "I think it's a lot harder to teach somebody how to be nice than to teach them how to drive a bus."
Tobar summarizes working with MV Transportation, "Contracting service has allowed us to offer more services to our public because they provide a cost-effective service." As an example, he points to the diverse fl eet that the mechanics have had to keep pace with. "It's been very challenging for their mechanics," he says. "They've done an excellent job on keeping on top of this diverse fleet."
Keeping up with Demand
With a burst of population growth in the community, it has been difficult meeting the growing demand of public transit. Tobar stresses, "Our greatest challenge is going to be handling the growth, getting the buses in here to handle this growth and managing our funds prudently to afford to put out more service." Working with the Sacramento Regional Transit District to open more corridors for Elk Grove is also something they are working on.
He explains how being in the alternative fuel path in the region has created the challenge of acquiring alternatively fueled buses. "The Riverside Transit Agency, it has leased us three of its CNG buses," he says. "South Coast Area Transit in Oxnard, Calif., it also came to our aid by getting us a couple of its older buses." He adds, "We are utilizing the fleet the best we can." He also mentions e-tran recently received a grant to get CNG commuter buses from Orion that will be arriving in 2007.
E-tran also has some gas electric hybrids. Tobar says, "We had 21 buses manufactured by Complete Coachworks, they're mostly used for local service now and they perform very well in town." As one of the first agencies in the country to use a gas-electric hybrid system for service it has gone through the expected shakeout period of issues but as Tobar says, "nothing that hasn't been taken care of, a couple of things they're looking to improve. The 21 hybrids have already accumulated well over 1 million miles of service."
Up until last year, there was one local fi xed-route servicing a population of more than 121,000. The priority of e-tran was to provide coverage for the area. "As the population grew here and new subdivisions were built out, we already had some pre-existing commuter service but we provided more commuter service to those new neighborhoods," Tobar says. "We have more than 90 percent of the population within half a mile of a transit stop now," Tobar states. "Because we're using alternative-fueled buses, we don't have to worry about how many stops there are," Tobar says. "They force people to drive to park-and-ride lots. We don't subscribe to that philosophy." He adds, "We want them to leave their cars in the garage and walk to the bus stop. We don't want them in their car." He summarizes, "Know where your passengers want to go and provide good frequency."
Working with the individual subdivisions has been a tremendous help in building customer relations and serving the community's needs most effectively. As Tobar explains, e-tran works with the different subdivision community groups. He tells me about e-tran's relationship with the Stone Lake Community. The contact person with that subdivision has kids that ride the bus. With the intranet service in the subdivision, they have instant communication with a large group of people. "We had some overcrowding last year on one of the routes and we added another bus to reduce overcrowding," Tobar says. "The next day there were more students out there because the word had gotten out on the intranet the community has." He stresses, "That has been really great for us to work with those homeowner's associations and community groups."
Being responsive and communicating with the riders has been what has helped e-tran most through the growth spurt over the past year. When Tobar started, he talks about the first six months being piles of emails from the Web site's comment/suggestion section. "If anybody wants to make a comment, a suggestion, a complaint, I receive those emails and go through them." Wearily he adds, "It took me approximately two hours every day for six months just to go through all those emails and respond back to them." Tobar adds, "We had a community that was very involved and very interested in transit." He adds that since rerouting they still get email concerns from residents but much less than in the past.
Numerous advances on the e-tran Web site improved communication with the riders. Employers can download sales order forms to sell passes and riders can plot their route on an interactive map. Recently e-tran has developed a rider's alert program. He explains that the city Web site e-tran is a part of, sends anyone that signs up an alert when there is an update. After speaking with Escudero Services, the Webmaster, the rider alert system was established and running within a week. "Last time I checked we had more than 800 people that were make adjustments based on how we're doing." Tobar adds, "It's been a great success. The passengers really welcome it, especially our commute riders."
Attracting Choice Riders
E-tran prides itself on providing comfort to the riders. Striving for that "luxury ride" attracts choice riders to leave their cars in the garage and catch a ride on the bus. The buses have comfortable, padded seats, some are high back reclining and some are mid-back. Some buses have Wi-Fi and some have satellite TV through Direct TV.
With extreme temperatures in the central valley, e-tran has come up with some unique ideas for the riders. Tobar says that there are about 60 days in summer that are above or around 90 degrees and at least 10 of those are over 105 degrees. "We had some issues with the air conditioning on our buses. We were trying to work them out but had a lot of failures happen all at one time, computer issues," he explains. "The air conditioners were working fine when they left the yard but would shut down on the way home." To provide relief for the riders in this type of heat, e-tran came up with a solution. "If It was over 105 degrees we would give out free water to all of our passengers. If the air conditioner goes out in the summertime regardless of what the temperature is, we provide coupons to all of the riders so they can get a free 44-ounce drink at Raley's, a grocery store here."
It is just one more example of innovation born from adversity at e-tran. "I think we're very responsive," Tobar says. "We are not perfect here, but we try to be." He adds, "We're not satisfied with where we are. We are always looking to improve things." Not only is there the growth in ridership to show the success e-tran has had, there are also several awards received this year. The city of Elk Grove received the Helen Putnam Award for Excellence, which recognizes cities that deliver the highest quality and level of service in the most effective matter, and the California Department of Transportation's (Caltran) Excellence in Transportation Award for Intermodalism. With such a great start, it will be interesting to watch where the future takes this agency.