Early in an interview with Dinero’ Washington, chief executive officer of Shreveport Transit Management, Inc. (SporTran), in Shreveport, La., the conversation turns to the impact transit has on a community. Washington shares a story that drives why transit’s ability to connect residents to opportunities matters. SporTran added a bus route to serve the Port of Caddo-Bossier in November 2017. Shortly after service began, Washington was approached by a woman who told him her husband had held a series of jobs that paid no more than $8/hour, but her husband was able to switch to a $23/hour job at the port due to the new transit service. In an area where the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the average hourly wage as $19.23, Washington rightly describes the impact expanded and improved transit service can have: life changing.
“We hear those stories about how public transit is changing people's lives and how the things that we're doing, the routes that we're providing, are helping them not only boost their daily living, but provide a better quality of life for their families,” said Washington.
Washington feels each of those stories, in part because he is a believer in community engagement, but also because SporTran serves his hometown.
“I feel indebted each day I step in the office. I have that conversation with our staff weekly and we feel this is not just about us coming to work to do a job. This is our mission. We’re doing things that will change people’s lives,” said Washington.
Washington was appointed interim CEO of SporTran in September 2014 before being named to the position permanently in December 2014 and officially taking the helm in early 2015. He and his team have executed an ambitious series of improvements that have delivered better service, boosted ridership and have set SporTran up as an example of what can be accomplished at a system serving a small to medium urbanized area.
It begins with a plan
Developing a bold idea takes vision; delivering on that idea takes planning. SporTran’s Move Northwest Louisiana Forward served as a combined strategic plan and transit development plan meant to act as a roadmap toward an evolved transit system.
To answer the question of what an evolved SporTran could look like, Washington turned to the Shreveport-Bossier community.
“One of things we’ve done in the past five years is get out in the community and hear from riders [about] what they actually need and what they want and then use that feedback to push technology, build facilities and do service upgrades,” explained Washington.
Washington says the agency worked with its Transit Improvement Committee, incorporated rider and employee feedback and developed goals for the Move Northwest Louisiana Forward plan that included safety, customer experience, growth, sustainability, financial stewardship, transparency and quality technology.
SproTran’s bus network was one of the first elements to get the bold vision treatment following a quarter century without major adjustments. Ridership on the system peaked at 3.5 million trips and, like other systems nationwide, saw a steady decline over a 10-year period.
“I like to call [the bus system redesign] The People’s Plan,” said Washington. “We did more than 100 public meetings to determine what our new service would look like.”
It was determined that the old spoke-and-hub system would be replaced with a true grid system that Washington says allowed for SporTran to build additional hubs. Those hubs included the SporTran Intermodal Terminal, which incorporated rider amenities and bays for Greyhound and Amtrak, and the Southwest Transit Hub. The new service brought additional vehicles online to the network during peak hours, increased day and night services, added a downtown circulator service and improved efficiency and connectivity.
Despite SporTran’s best efforts, Washington says the initial rider reaction to the relaunched system and hub openings in November 2017 was not positive. He explained the reaction wasn’t a complete surprise given riders were put through a lot of change at once. SporTran staff worked closely with the community and riders during the first six months following the relaunch to train customers on how to use the new network. Now, more than two years after the new system came online, what do riders think?
“If I tried to take some of the riders back to the old system, they would probably hate me,” said Washington.
The “charge” of a good challenge
Implementing a redesigned and completely rethought network can be enough of a challenge for many systems, but SporTran also became the first transit agency in Louisiana to launch battery-electric buses. In keeping with the ambitious nature of SporTran and Washington’s approach to business, those buses were introduced on the same day as the new network and hub openings.
“It was a challenge,” said Washington. “But we’re always up for a challenge. We changed every route in the city after 25 years, we opened three new facilities and introduced battery-electric buses all at the same time. If we can do that, we can do anything.”
The plan to redesign the network was well underway when SporTran was awarded federal funds to procure battery-electric buses. SporTran utilized a consultant, Center for Transportation Excellence, that performed route following to suggest the best routes on the new network to place the five Proterra E2 buses, as well as when and where the buses should be recharged.
Another partner in the successful deployment of the electric buses was SporTran’s power utility Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO). Washington says SWEPCO studied the entire system from where SporTran wanted to station the buses to where the agency wanted charging infrastructure and provided feedback regarding when to charge the buses, which transformer to use and which meter to put the buses on.
“[SWEPCO] was very helpful because they convinced us to put the vehicles on our main office, which most of the time, is powered from eight to five in the daytime. At nighttime, a lot of things are shut down in the building,” explained Washington. “[SWEPCO] was able to connect our electric buses to our main office circuit [to charge at night] so that our building and average chargers are actually meeting what we would have seen if we had built a whole new circuit.”
In October 2019, SporTran was awarded a state grant with matching funds from SWEPCO to install an overhead fast charger and supporting infrastructure. The E2 models have fast charging capabilities and will be able to recharge to about 75 percent in under 10 minutes.
In addition to being first in the state, SporTran has the largest transit fleet of electric buses in Louisiana and Washington has been working with peer agencies in Baton Rouge and Lafayette to share SporTran’s experience and help others find their way along their battery-electric bus journey.
Another part of SporTran’s evolution required a shift of thinking and organization to integrate a focus on planning.
Washington explains that SporTran’s transportation department included both safety and planning responsibilities, but he wanted to establish a dedicated planning department to allow the agency to better self-manage. While he notes it can be unusual for a small to medium agency to have a dedicated planning department, he says the advantages of the restructure have paid off. For one, the planning department provides an agnostic set of eyes to data when evaluating what element in the system is or is not working and providing suggestions of how to remedy it. Washington says this is helpful for when SporTran takes a case to city leaders or the agency’s board and can provide data and trends to help make that case.
To keep the SporTran staff in a planning-focused mindset, the entire operations department gathers once a month for a discussion. Washington believes these monthly meetings have changed culture at SporTran for the better, bolstered understanding throughout the organization and enhanced the staff’s insight into what they can deliver.
One of goals of the Move Northwest Louisiana Forward plan was to develop and empower technology that provides benefits to SporTran’s customers and employees.
“One of the weaknesses that I think we had was really providing that technology [such as] the Where-is-My-Bus-type systems apps and agency maps,” said Washington. “A lot of things, the majority of things, were done on paper and the system has progressed to become more data-driven.”
The technology integrated in the past five years serves both the customers and operations. Washington offers the example of tracking on time performance where, previously, supervisors would be stationed at a corner to track routes that passed by that corner. Now, these supervisors are equipped with laptops and tablets monitoring performance in real-time. This real-time monitoring allows for issues to be addressed quickly and can be correlated with other data sets to determine trends.
Riders have quickly adopted to the new features, especially those that can save them time, such as the online bus tracker.
“They love it. It's amazing,” said Washington. “For a system our size with a little over 2.6 million trips a year, to have over 300,000 hits per month on the Where is My Bus system is incredible.”
As a small to medium system operating in a space where technology is advancing rapidly, the question of when and what new tech to invest in can be tricky to navigate.
“I believe those decisions shouldn't be made at my desk. I believe those decisions should be made in the community,” explained Washington. “A lot of those decisions are made by executive staff at other places, but we sit down and talk with those stakeholders who serve on our Transit Improvement Committee. When we start looking at what's going to be our next innovative idea or next creative idea, we always go back to that committee.”
Looking to the future
Washington shares that SporTran met every strategic goal that was placed on the agency for the strategic plan. In addition to new technology and a more customer-centric system, ridership has grown by more than two percent each year following the network redesign and the oldest vehicle in SporTran’s fleet will be a 2015 bus, but Washington doesn’t see the agency slowing its progress anytime soon.
“We’re getting ready to create a new strategic plan that’s going to focus on how the agency can move the rural areas into the community,” said Washington. “Shreveport is one of those cities that is kind of growing around the outskirts.”
In the second quarter of 2020, SporTran will begin offering an on-demand service to the rural parts of the community that will also take a hybrid approach to paratransit and be operated by Ecolane. Washington explains SporTran’s current paratransit service, LiftLine, will be rebranded.
“The reason we're looking to rebrand the LiftLine service is because everyone knows it as the ADA service and to take that market and those vehicles and try to do this new, on-demand-type service, I believe people are going to say ‘well, that’s the ADA van.’ We will be rebranding the paratransit service and mixing this on-demand service with it to be more effective and more efficient,” said Washington.
SporTran is also working on its next facility project: The Multi-Modal Transit Resource Center. The agency purchased three historical properties located east of its Intermodal Terminal, which it plans to renovate to include a food court, transit mall, a training facility, a technology and planning center, an employee wellness center and an Amtrak platform for potential future passenger rail service.
“A lot of funding is in place to make this happen,” said Washington. “We’re designing the facility now and will hopefully be in construction in about two and a half to three months.”
The new Multi-Modal Resource Center will also house SporTran’s Autonomous & Light Duty Maintenance Facility. Yes, autonomous vehicles will be part of SporTran’s network in the near term.
SporTran’s Intermodal Terminal sits right outside the downtown core and Washington notes there are several choice districts around the terminal where autonomous vehicles would be a good mobility option. The Shreveport area has seven riverboat casinos and a vibrant entertainment district that are close geographically, but not connected. The autonomous connector will change that and should be ready for launch this year, but Washington does not want to give a specific date until he knows SporTran and its vendors can deliver the service.
“We want to be innovative and it is definitely a fun project,” said Washington.
SporTran has a lot of development and a lot of excitement building around the agency, but when asked about the future, for Washington, it comes back around to the community.
“I get most excited about two things, from two different sides. I get excited more about the current riders who have more access to opportunities and a better quality of life. [It’s] not taking forever to ride a bus and some of those resources that are spread throughout the city are now in smaller offices right there in our Multi-Modal Resource Center,” said Washington.
“But I also get excited about the technology that's being added and the things that we're doing to bring on new riders who are not normally transit riders,” he said. “You may not ride the bus all the time because you have a vehicle, but you're now using the bus to take an autonomous vehicle in our parkway to different casinos or you're using us for last-mile transportation to get to where you're trying to be. The more we grow the system, the more we provide opportunities to improve the quality of life for the people who are in our Shreveport-Bossier market, I think the better off not only my life will be, but I'm fulfilling the mission that I'm put here to do.”