Matbus: Two Cities Operating One System

It’s the first time we’ve had two people as a cover story, but the Fargo Transit Administration and the Moorhead Transit Administration have a joint powers agreement and a Metro Area Transit coordinating board to operate Matbus. Matbus serves the communities of Fargo and West Fargo in North Dakota and Moorhead and Dilworth in Minnesota.

Leading the Fargo Transit Administration is Transit Administrator Julie Bommelman and Transit Manager Lori Van Beek leads the Moorhead Transit Administration.

“We are pretty unique,” Van Beek says of the arrangement. “The joint power agreement spells out how we share costs and how we work together.”

And the MAT coordinating board is made up of elected officials that guide the process. Van Beek explains, “They’re a recommending board to our elected officials so that they can work with us on a smaller level and see what’s going on and try tocoordinate everything. Then, we bring it to our separate governing bodies to move forward with recommendations.

Van Beek and Bommelman explain they are equal managers and do a lot of coordination. A lot of the policies and the driver’s manual are written together and they go out for bids together, even though they will have separate contracts: one with the city of Fargo and one with the city of Moorhead. The cities of Fargo and Moorhead request proposals for driver services jointly and currently contract with First Transit.

“By sharing one contractor, the two cities have reduced the staffing needs for training and supervision and share a larger workforce,” Van beek said.

The Metro office and transit garage is owned together, with Fargo owning two-thirds of the transit garage and employing all of the maintenance staff and technicians that do the vehicle preventative maintenance and cleaning.

The office space, furniture, equipment and supplies are provided by the cities. They also own and maintain the vehicles, facility and equipment. Van Beek says, “this public-private partnership is cost effective for all parties, with fewer start-up costs for the contractor and national expertise for the cities.”

Operating together under Matbus, there’s one fare structure and they share revenues. While a pass can be used anywhere on the system, the fares are separated based on ridership. “We have a lot of interesting arrangements like that,” Van Beek says. “Our spreadsheets to separate costs and bill each other are pretty interesting.”

Van Beek started as a secretary in the community development department for the city of Moorhead and one of the functions of that department was to oversee the transit system. “I did all the ridership statistics, answered the phone and gave out route information,” she says. After five years she got promoted into a job as a community development specialist, which was working with the federal grant program and all of the federal regulations. In 1990, she was promoted to her current position, transit manager.

Bommelman had applied for a job with the city of Fargo and got offered a different job, one in transportation. After about a year, the manager left and she was promoted to transit administrator. “I’ve been in the position since 1999,” she said.

Efficient Operations

Bommelman says the growth of the area with students, housing growth and low unemployment has put the area in a position of a higher demand for transit in the metropolitan area. “We have grown considerably over recent years and continue to see growth,” she said. Though with parking not being an issue in the community, they do have the challenge of making transit appealing to choice riders. However, transit use among that segment has increased significantly, she says. “People recognize the importance of keeping transit vibrant in the community.”

Van Beek mirrors that with, “More people are realizing the benefits of transit to the community’s economy and environment. I see us facing greater demands for transit, especially for an aging population, but with less financial resources available.

“Part of it is that when the economy is struggling, that’s when people need us most,” she says. “What they normally use is getting more and more expensive to use, so people are looking to us and to increase services to have more frequency at a time when no one wants to tax anybody and the federal funding has changed.”

Increased service demand and tighter funding has required some new approaches for Matbus, such as replacing flag stops with designated sign stops. “This strategy, often used by larger transit systems, is estimated to reduce stops and keep the route performance on time,” Van Beek says. Fargo-Moorhead is a regional medical center and there are many people moving in from rural areas as they age. Van Beek says, “Meeting the transportation needs for this growing population will be a challenge in the near future. With our cold weather — snow and ice — the elderly are at risk for injury and disability, so demand responsive service to the door, which is more costly to operate, will no doubt increase.

“Innovative approaches and partnerships will be even more needed in the future.”

“Effective route frequency for a small transit agency is usually more difficult to achieve,” Bommelman says. “In our agency, we use a hub-and-spoke system, which can impair the ability to provide more frequent service.

“Of course funding issues also contribute to the inability to provide more route frequency.”

As is common with smaller agencies, at Matbus folks “wear many hats.” Bommelman says, “In our organization we have four staff responsible for marketing, purchasing, operations, federal and state reporting, grant management, safety and security, emergency preparedness, human resources management, ridership, and accounting.” And when it comes to the challenge of reporting requirements, she says Matbus falls under the small urban category, yet many of the same programs, thresholds and reporting requirements are the same as the larger agencies (more than 200,000). “With the small staff, it is challenging to meet the same level of requirements as a larger agency, at times.”

Generating Revenue

Matbus utilizes advertising revenues from benches and the vehicle interiors and exteriors to provide local match revenue for state and federal grants. Matbus has stretched its marketing dollars by entering into trade agreements for advertisements with radio, newspaper and other businesses. Schildberger explains, “In an atmosphere of declining revenues and increasing marketing demands, Matbus has developed substantial trade agreements with local radio stations and athletic teams. These agreements have allowed Matbus advertising to be front and center on the area’s highest-rated radio stations and at the region’s most attended events.

“The agreements are annually valued at more than $50,000 per year. In exchange, the radio group and athletic teams are given free bus wrap advertising.”

Schildberger also says that Matbus has forged a strong partnership with one of the regional medical centers to encourage its employees to utilize transit. By marketing its services to the choice rider, Matbus offered the medical center a reduced bulk rate on passes and individual trip-planning services. “Through this collaborative and innovative venture, Matbus has enjoyed a 400 percent increase in the number of program participants and the medical center has found a resolution to its lack of parking.”

Matbus is also beginning to partner with the local visitor and convention bureau to afford transit a place at the table when bids are being assembled for meetings and conventions. “Matbus is striving to make its service a viable option not only for our residents but also for the area’s visitors.” Schildberger adds, “Additionally, we are collaborating with our downtown business groups to showcase the fantastic service we provide to our community’s revitalized and burgeoning downtown core.”

Regional Resource

Van Beek says Matbus is the largest transit provider in North Dakota and in Minnesota, outside Minneapolis/St. Paul, they’re in the top 5, size-wise. Matbus is able to be a resource for many of the smaller agencies.

“Our procurements are good examples,” she explains. “We went out for RFP for fareboxes and the city of Bismark piggybacked on us and that happens frequently for things that we do.” She continues, “It’s just easier for them. They have small staffs and instead of reinventing the wheel, they piggyback on a procurement we’ve done before.”

They also serve as a source for training. “We’ll do training, wheelchair training for example, and the other systems will come in here and use our facility,” Van Beek says. They also serve as a location for product demonstrations. She says smaller systems will come to the Metro Transit in Fargo and companies will come to demonstrate equipment. “We can all go in one spot and they can show us their products and things.”

Marketing and Outreach

Fargo Tranist Planner Gregg Schildberger explains the recent marketing rebrand. “Matbus adopted a new unified name, logo and tagline. This has allowed the separate city transit systems to effectively unite under one name and logo.”

He says brand recognition and loyalty have increased dramatically in just a few short years and they have been better able to utilize their financial resources to promote Matbus services.

While the system takes part in many outreach events to remain connected to its passengers, on the university campuses they take part in more than 20 orientation sessions each year. This allows them to “introduce a culture of transit to each new student as they first set foot onto campus,” Schildberger says.

They initially encourage students to familiarize themselves with the university campus routes and, once the students feel comfortable, to try the system off campus, as well.

“Staff members foster strong relationships with student and university leaders, in addition to serving on advisory boards to student groups,” he says. “Matbus vehicles are a featured entrant in several parades each year and we routinely create marketing plans specifically targeting university students.”

One of the marketing plans was the “210 in 2010” campaign, which featured 210 students, staff and faculty members who were transit riders and their reasons for riding Matbus, instead of driving. The campaign won two first place AdWheel awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

Matbus has implemented a variety of strategies and innovations to reach passengers, including SMS text alerts, blogs, email alerts and outreach events. Schildberger says all of the vehicles feature on-board automatic vehicle location technologies and Matbus has deployed several kiosks in high-boarding location sites throughout the metro area. “In the next year we are looking forward to introducing real-time bus tracking abilities on our website and our passengers’ smartphones,” he says.

As part of a contract with Route-Match, Van Beek says the AVL system they’re implementing includes new resources for riders of pushing out information to smartphones, Google transit and their website. “That’s part of this contract that Moorhead has signed and that Fargo is working on the funding, to get.”

Matbus has a successful U-Pass program that began as a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant. In 2011, more than 2.1 million rides were given and 53 percent of that was university students. With the GFI Odyssey farebox, students run their ID through the magnetic stripe reader and the farebox reads and knows which university it’s from.

“As a small urban [system] with four colleges/universities, we have developed U-Pass programs specifically targeting students,” Van Beek says. “Integrating student ID cards with our current GFI farebox system makes trying transit easy and spontaneous for students, increasing the likelihood that they will ride with us.

“The fareboxes also help us track where and when passengers are riding.” She adds, “In addition, the colleges can ask us to block of ‘bad list’ a specific ID for riders that are no longer students.”

Matbus has also created how-to-ride videos to make riding easy for new passengers.

“One barrier to using Matbus is riders failing to understand how to effectively use the system, especially people with disabilities, seniors and people new to the community,” says Schildberger. “Through its mobility management program, MATBUS has developed a bus familiarization workshop series to provide travel training on a more personal level with human service providers and agencies.

“This ‘train the trainer’ series is designed to increase the number of people who can provide assistance to new riders.”