Metro: A Different System

“You have to come in with a private sector mindset and look at your return on investment. It’s the bottom line,” said Metro CEO and General Manager Terry Garcia Crews about running a transit agency. And she attributes her background in the banking industry for that mindset that has helped her in the transit industry.

Garcia Crews started out in bank marketing and figured if she could market a checking account, she should be able to market mass transportation.

For 13 years she was the director of marketing in Tucson, Ariz., and what was really good about that position, she said, was that it really helped her understand the business. “If you’re going to market the product, you have to truly understand the product so it helped me understand how our operations worked, how maintenance worked, labor relations, political, the whole community flavor.”

After 13 years, she went to Pima County as the community information administrator, a public information officer. This position helped her understand community dynamics, what it takes to message to massive groups, to really understand media relations.

Garcia Crews started her own national transportation consultantbusiness after that. “That really fostered a lot of background for me,” she said, “because not only was I able to go in and problem solve and troubleshoot, it also allowed to see best practices.”

She worked with small, medium and large systems and had clients from the east coast to the west. It became difficult being a national consultant and always traveling while still being a mom. To bring back that work-life balance, she went back to Tuscon as the assistant general manager. From there she started doing the CEO track and was in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Lexington, Ky., Austin, Texas, to where she is now, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Coming from the banking industry, she said she has come in with a private sector mindset and is always looking to do things more efficiently, to generate additional revenue and ways to be more profitable. “I think that’s critical,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to hold on to.

“That’s what the taxpayers and our board of trustees and the elected officials are looking for.”

The other piece from her background that she said has served her well is the people part. As a consultant she had the opportunity to work with many people in the industry across the country. “We’ve got a lot of talented professionals in our industry.” She added, “That was really good to work with that level of talent.

“I always tell those individuals who are coming into the industry, if you don’t like people, transit is surely not the place for you because we are a people business,” she said.

 

A Plan to Move

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority is governed by a 13-member volunteer citizen’s board of trustees. SORTA operates Metro, which provides about 17 million rides per year. Nearly 50 percent of the budget comes from the earnings tax, about $47 million. Fares pay for about one-third, 10.2 percent comes from federal, 1.8 percent from state and the remainder from contract services.

“The fact that we’ve been able to balance the budget in 2010, 11, 12 13 and 14, balance it without a fare increase or a fare increase or service reduction is huge,” Garcia Crews said. “Collectively the team as a whole, we’ve looked at ways to streamline.” As she explained, they’ve worked to build the system to be a different system.

In 2012 Metro created its go*Forward transit plan with short-term improvements and a long-term vision for the future. The plan has clear definition with specific goals for every level at Metro. The five strategic priorities of the plan are: financial sustainability, operational excellence, ridership growth, community engagement and board governance. “Everything that we do hones in on those areas,” said Garcia Crews. “If it doesn’t fit in to those organizational areas of focus, we don’t do it.”

These priorities are married into everyone’s performance reviews so that, as Garcia Crews explained, everyone moves the “flywheel” in the same direction and as the flywheel goes around, the more you start moving in that direction and the faster it goes.

To get this started, they had brought in a professional facilitator that worked with the team and the board of trustees doing a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT) analysis, throwing up a flip chart and asking what each of them wanted and then getting to the point where there were about 25 priorities. After everyone hones in on the top three, the six priorities resonated to the top. In the first year, 2013, they did 90 percent of the plan so now, Garcia Crews said, they have to continue to grow it.

For an objective look at its operations, Metro sponsored the UC Economics Center’s “A Peer City Public Transportation Review” to evaluate Metro’s operational efficiency. The 11 peer cities were identified by Agenda 360 and Vision 2015, the regional action plans for Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

When compared to the four peer cities with bus-only transportation systems, Metro is the most operationally efficient, provides the most service and receives the least amount of local and state public funds to support its operations.

Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber Vice President for Regional Initiatives and Executive Director Mary Stagaman said there is a stated need in the community for more effective ways to move people through the community. “We have great partners in Metro; we think they’re doing an astonishing good job considering the resources they have and they serve within the city boundaries really well, but when you get beyond that, there are challenges.” She added, “When companies move into a region they often move outward and they tend to leave transit behind.”

The long-term transit plan shows where Metro needs to go but based on existing funding resources, she said that’s not doable. Garcia Crews said, “There’s going to be a point and time that we’re going to have to decide, are we comfortable with what we are or do we truly want to be regional and work with the Agenda 360, with the chamber and explore that regional flavor …”

Sallie Hilvers, executive director of strategic communications, said, “Funding is the biggest challenge. People want more but we just can’t meet the need.”

 

Service Upgrades

When talking with members of the Metro team it is apparent everyone is proud of the accomplishments it has made despite its limited resources. Metro*Plus, a pre-BRT demonstration project currently provides 1,500 riders per weekday; the Uptown Transit District with multiple boarding locations, custom shelters and real-time information will open in spring 2014; the Glenway Crossing Transit Center and Park & Ride opened within six months to provide faster, easier transfers in Western Hills; and Metro has been able to utilize new technologies to improve efficiencies and customer convenience.

Metro*Plus limited-stop service was introduced in August 2013. Ten BRT-style Gillig buses run on the route, which has specially branded shelters and it operates 15-minute service between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

“The ridership is already beyond projections for 2016,” Garcia Crews said. “I call it my head-turner bus. People look, ‘What was that?’” she laughed. Metro Chief Operations Officer Inez Evans explained many in the transit industry may have taken a ride on one of their buses at the American Public Transportation Association’s Bus Maintenance Roadeo last year. Prior to delivery to Cincinnati, Gillig drove the bus as a shuttle between the roadeo and conference hotel. “It’s very distinctive in style,” she said.

Garcia Crews said she also calls it a precursor to bus rapid transit because it doesn’t have the dedicated right of way or the light synchronization but that it is basically a faster service.

The BRT conversation came in to play when Agenda 360 came together and they formed a group to start talking about how they were going to make transit regional. A Parsons Brinckerhoff study showed there were six corridors within Cincinnati that could support BRT.

“We decided to use the Montgomery-Kenwood area as well as Silverton to Uptown because we really didn’t have a direct way to go from the Kenwood area to Uptown,” explained Garcia Crews. “People had to come downtown. So it’s now more of a direct link to 50,000 jobs. It’s incredible.”

And people are asking for more. In the long-term vision there is a BRT network of where Metro would like it to be in the future. If there is that long-term funding, there is a plan of what it could look like.

“With our existing budget, we’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing,” Garcia Crews said.

The Uptown Transit District is composed of four locations that will offer many amenities, including distinctive shelters, real-time information, integration with employer and university shuttle services, rider information kiosks, and enhanced streetscaping.

Garcia Crews said, “What I communicated to the folks here is that when we build that, I want it to feel different. I want folks to know that this transit district is something really beautiful and has great ambiance.” She added, “We’re providing the different connection points for people to really get to where they need to be for employment and academics.

“Whether it’s technology or looking at the service and redesigning the service to be different, that’s exciting.”

Evans said, “We’re truly beginning to change the landscape of the areas we’re serving. To make places where people can congregate.” She added, “Making transit a lot cooler.”

Also making transit cooler in the area is the upcoming streetcar. The city is responsible for the construction and in December, the SORTA Board of Trustees voted to assume responsibility for operating costs.

On a tour of the future streetcar route, Chris Eilerman, assistant to the city manager, and Metro Rail Services Manager Paul Greher pointed out areas where utilities are being relocated and areas where track is currently being laid. The city has selected CAF USA for the vehicles and they will be CAF’s first 100 percent low-floor designs operating in the United States. Kansas City is piggybacking off of the Cincinnati contract.

The 3.6-mile route was designed to connect the downtown with Uptown through the historic Over the Rhine neighborhood.

The new farebox system allows Metro to take different passes, particularly stored value passes. And now there is also the ability to purchase those online. “You may think that’s not all that innovative,” said Garcia Crews. “But we have to get the system to where it needs to be and one of those things when I came in 2010, was getting back to basics and making sure that we were doing transit the right way.

“Now we’re in the ‘go forward’ concept,” she continued. “We’ve got the basics down; now let’s move forward.”

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