Better Relationships Means Better Regional Transit

March 6, 2015
Building better communications between MPO's and transit agencies can improve service and lead to robust transportation systems where transit plays a pivotal role in moving people.

For Valley Regional Transit in Meridian, Idaho, providing direction on regional transportation planning isn’t a new concept or a process others find themselves frozen out of.

Kelli Fairless, executive director of the agency, said when she first came on staff and the Boise urbanized area population popped over 200,000, the region’s metropolitan planning organizations, the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS) gave her a seat on its policy board to provide input for planning efforts.

And this given was well before MAP-21 became a reality.

“It gave transit not only a voice, but a vote,” she said.

Many transit agencies and MPOs have a longstanding tradition of butting heads with each other when it comes to planning efforts and making sure public projects aren’t freezing out alternative modes of transportation in favor of wider roads. But with proper collaboration and a willingness to build relationships agencies and MPOs who work together are seeing successes in moving their regions forward.

Leveraging strengths

Matt Stoll, executive director of COMPASS said the relationships between the two agencies predates their own existences. The county MPO in place in the 1990s helped put together information about a state plan to allow for the creation of regional transit authorities, which allowed VRT to form.

Idaho is one of two states in the nation without a dedicated transit funding source, so the MPO put together information on creating a funding mechanism and Stoll said he and Fairless toured the state together and bonded.

“It was really during those long drives that a personal relationship — a friendship — formed, which created a form of trust because we were really able to discuss the planning process for the transportation system,” he said. “That includes roads and public transportation and also bike paths, pedestrian facilities and pathways.”  

In the Dallas-Fort Worth region, cooperation between the MPO and local transit agencies is credited with improving transportation services across the region.

Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCOG), said the region of 6.8 million needs diverse solutions to meet the growing metropolitan area’s transportation demands. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) and Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA) were all given MPO board seats with voting powers along with highway departments, tollway authorities and the airports.

“We won’t solve the transportation problems on the backs of the roadways,” he said. “The region has grown by 1 million every decade since 1960, so we recognized early on that transit had to be part of the mix.”

Fairless said when VRT and COMPASS started drafting joint powers agreements, they determined the clear responsibilities of each organization to make sure they’re using their strengths and roles in a mutually beneficial manner. Fairless said they determined COMPASS has strengths in long-term planning, project prioritization and certain kinds of technical capacities to benefit VRT.

VRT has better ability to handle short and midterm planning for projects.

“It’s just something we do every day, to zero-in on a project ,” Fairless said. “I guess it filters down to staff that this is how things are going to be and we embraced this from the beginning of our working relationship.

“It comes down to personalities and relationships. And it’s just a natural fit.”

In 2012, the two agencies took their relationship to the next level and decided to cohabitate in the same building, so now they can talk and meet without having to leave the building.

“One of the positive outcomes of not having the local funding source is VRT is very reliant on federal funding and in turn because a lot of the federal funds go to the MPO, they’re used as part of prioritization processes,” said Walt Satterfield, associate planner for COMPASS. “I think that builds a pretty strong interest on how the money is used and it forces us to be on the same page.”

In 2009 and 2010, Fairless, said the two agencies did a lot of work on mobility management planning and shared funding to start a pilot program. COMPASS included a portion of the funds to include mobility management in its long-range planning process.

“It’s an opportunity to leverage resources more effectively,” Fairless said. “Again, we’re sitting down and deciding on things that need to be done while building on each other’s strengths to find a really good mobility management project. COMPASS provided the technical support data and demographics to support these projects in the region and filling gaps in transportation.”

Both VRT and COMPASS have smaller staffs and not a lot of resources, so they have the same goals to meet with the same challenges in meeting them. But working together allows for good relationships to build organically. It also keeps costs down for both entities.

“We don’t have to have a demographer because we can rely on COMPASS,” Fairless said. “So our planning efforts focus around serving the local jurisdiction.”

Mending Fences

Communities in South Florida face a litany of transportation, climate and social issues, which need to be addressed, but when Greg Stuart arrived as chief executive of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2009, he found himself in a region divided.

 “It was a real bad relationship,” he said. “There was a real bad relationship with transit agencies, bad relationship with the state DOT and just really bad relationships with everybody.”

In car-happy Florida, the Broward MPO not only has to focus on meeting the needs of drivers, but also coordinating with four major transit operators and 13 minor systems. Stuart said in the region of 1.8 million, ridership is still small on systems like Broward County Transit, but the MPO is working with them to find ways to increase customer satisfaction and make transit a more appealing option.

The MPO has put members of the transit agencies on its board and Stuart said the organization even shares phone lines with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority’s Tri-Rail system.

The MPO’s offices are located on top of a Tri-Rail station in a suburban office park and Stuart said they’re working with the agency to increase signage to direct workers to the station after seeing so many of them searching for the platform.

Stuart even sits on the board of the Sun Trolley in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

When he joined the MPO, Stuart said they worked to find low hanging fruit between projects that incorporated transit service expansion if funding was found in five to 10 years and to build on top of it.

“Staffing is key. We have a really dedicated staff now,” Stuart said. “I mean, even right now, I’ve got a staffer on vacation in New Zealand and they’re sending out e-blasts today. That’s how dedicated they are.”

Stuart said a lot of the issues between MPOs and transit agencies stem from a lack of communication.

“A lot of times the relationship between the MPOs and transit can be awkward, but for the most part they’re trying to achieve the same goals and that’s really important to understand,” he said. “Sometimes I hear from peers at other MPOs around the country that ‘oh, well, transit is only focused on the operations and they really don’t care about the future,’ but no, really, if you look at it and talk to them, you’ll see they really actually do care and they’re actually thinking about what tomorrow will look like.”

To bridge the gap of communications, Stuart said the MPO talks with board members and policymakers in the area to let them know the importance of transit issues. Staffs also communicate with one another, with having transit engineers come see what their MPO counterparts do for a day and vise-versa. That way they understand the challenges each other faces.

“Policymakers will sit there and will be throwing stones at each other and get mad at each other, but you have to create a sense of trying to explain to someone that ‘this person is saying this, but they actually mean this,’” Stuart said. “That took from my end a lot of spending time with elected officials and talking to them about why they’re there and what their common goals are and how they can get to that goal.”

Fairless said in the past five to eight years, COMPASS staff has embraced more intermodal transit plans, so the relationship has steadily grown. Part of that evolution is due to staffing changes and a lack of money to keep expanding roads.

 “At the board level, it’s a little more of a challenge because that doesn’t always translate into being in the interest of the board,” Fairless said. “People tend to be comfortable with what they’re familiar with and in our region most elected officials are familiar with roads. Transit is a newer thing for many of them.”

When Broward got $36 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it looked at funding a project slated for fiscal year 2014, then went and helped Ft. Lauderdale fund the streetcar to leverage the dollars in the best way possible. It also gave $10 million to another agency and told them to buy bus shelters. 

“There always can be some animosity between city engineers and county engineers and the DOT and animosity between transit engineers and roadway engineers because they have a different world view,” Stuart said. “So literally, day after day, you have to have conversations with policymakers and hire staff with good communication skills so they can have conversations with each other. Find staffers who speak engineer-ese, because operations speaks a different language and you have to keep that conversation going.

“Even within the engineering world, then there’s the DOT engineer versus the county engineer versus the city engineer and even they speak very, very different languages and have very different conversations going on in their communities,” Stuart continued. “The city engineer is going to be closest to the citizens and resident’s concerns and it moves up the food chain from there.”

Efforts Pay Off

The use of communication in Broward has paid off. Stuart said the MPO and agencies have worked on solutions to build new infrastructure and create better connectivity to bus stops and between systems, including a new streetcar in Ft. Lauderdale and the incoming All Aboard Florida.

The MPO even found a way to communicate between transit agencies now working on a way to find a common fare medium used via smartphone that will work within each system.

“Even there, when we can in there seemed to be concern that the MPO was trying to dictate their fares,” Stuart said. “But, no, really we’re trying to communicate that you still control your fares, but it’s a fare system that can be used on each system.”

With the collaboration in Dallas, Morris said solutions were created to problems, such as building and funding light rail lines, finding ways for suburban communities to pay their fair share for use of stations near their communities and solutions to building rail lines in highway corridors to make sure the designs had the greatest economic impact possible.  Money from a tollway contact was used to build light rail for DCTA.

When engineering silos started appearing, Morris said NCOG put all the planners and engineers on one technical committee to foster cooperation between all of them.

The region has worked together through the MPO to implement the positive train control federal mandate.

 “It all starts with them having voting rights on the MPO board,” Morris said. “That’s imperative.” 

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Associate Editor

I came to Mass Transit in 2013 after spending seven years on the daily newsbeat in southeastern Wisconsin.

Based in Milwaukee, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter with the Waukesha Freeman from 2006-2011, where I covered education, county and state government. I went on to cover courts for, where I was the main courts reporter in the Metro Milwaukee cluster of websites.

I’ve won multiple awards during the course of my career and have covered some of the biggest political events in the past decade and have appeared on national programs.

Having covered local government and social issues, I discovered the importance of transit and the impact it can have on communities when implemented, supported and funded.   

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