“Nobody, including me, for awhile there thought we could pull this off and the fact that we built it, built it well and it’s operating as a success has elevated our own image here.” – Keith Jones
What a way to start the year. A phone call on New Years Day from your biggest political transit supporter breaking the news to you that they have other issues to focus on and that they cannot do anything transit-related for the year ahead. That may instill consternation in others but not Keith Jones, executive director and general manager of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CAT).
Well, maybe it did just a little. After recounting the story, he mutters with a laugh, “Retire now.” I am not sure if it is just part of that southern charm and hospitality but after spending a couple of days at CAT, it was clear that nonchalant attitude has been with Jones throughout his career and 19 years with CAT. And, despite that troubling news at the beginning of this year, there are big plans for the future.
You would never know the dire state of the agency when Jones started by looking at it today with its inviting transfer center, modern maintenance facilities and, of course, its acclaimed streetcar. Examining photos of the previous maintenance facility, I stood there agape with wonder as to how they got to where they are today. As Jones says, “It was a trip. The mechanics that worked over there in those conditions for like 15 years, it’s amazing they got the fleet out everyday. It was incredibly bad.”
He isn’t exaggerating. There were not any lifts, any jig hoists and lighting so bad the mechanics had to carry trouble lights. Betty Wineland, CAT’s Deputy Director adds, “They didn’t even have wheel chucks. They borrowed them from this trucking company that rented another half of the building.”
Not only was the headquarters in dire condition, the state of the buses were in rough shape as well. “The average age of the fleet was about 13 years. When we got the Neoplans in, the rest of the fleet was so bad that we ran most of them day and night, all the time,” says Jones. He emphasizes, “If they could get them running just to get them out on the streets — we were operating one of the oldest fleets in the nation.”
Now able to laugh about it, Jones describes the system back in the day, “We had to do a complete realignment of the bus route. We hired consulting back in ’88 or ’89 to look at the routes and they recommended a hundred changes. We did about 95 of them. There were more changes in a small system then they had ever recommended before.”
Part of the comprehensive operations analysis was to follow all the buses. He explains, “There were bus routes that actually did figure-eights. There were two trippers nobody knew about except the drivers and some of the supervisors,“ With a cautious laugh he adds, “We’ve had two COAs since then and I tell them go follow the buses, you never know.”
GETTING ON BOARD
The scenario might have been one that most people would run from. Jones looked at it as an intriguing challenge. He recalls, “I worked for the MPO back here in the 70s, my first year after college. It literally bought CAT just as I came there so I had always been curious about CAT and said if it just had good money it would really be a fun system.”
When CAT reorganized in 1986 it contracted with the MPO to keep running it for a year. “I started talking to the folks who were on the board there, some who I knew and some I didn’t, and they ended up hiring me in ‘87 with one of the Reagan privatization demogrants to see if we could get some privatization here. “
Jones recalls, “When the board had hired me there were lots of long-standing problems. Well for one thing, the MPO, the transit system was sort of a stepchild — there were only two or three cases in the country where the MPO owned the bus company and so they just didn’t have anybody dedicated fulltime to pushing things along.