From The GM – County Connection

GRATEFUL FOR COUNTY CONNECTION HEROES

Looking Back at 18 Months of Pandemic Public Transit

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit us with a solid one-two punch in March of 2020, public transit had no idea what was about to happen. Eighteen months later we are still regularly responding to new things for the first time. But, what we have been able to do and what we have learned along the way is nothing short of extraordinary.

How It Began

On the first Monday morning of original Lockdown, senior County Connection staff met via a phone call with top Contra Costa Health and Emergency Services staff. We were informed that the County and the Governor had proclaimed public transit an Essential Service. We were debriefed about how the pandemic was expected to play out, what full Lockdown really meant, and more important to us, what was expected of us by the County. It was during this call that I had my first moment of realization of just how profound this virus was going to be and how little was known about it, other than it was hyper contagious and unacceptably lethal. I may have gone into a bit of shock at that moment. Among the things we were told was that that the worst of the pandemic was going to last over the next six to eight weeks and that if we didn’t all pull together, maybe 2 million people or more in this country alone might die. That call took place over 18 months ago.

During that call we were asked to do many things with our transportation resources that we had never done before. My natural inclination was to push back a bit. After all, public transit is not well known for turning on dime and it would be at least a few days before I would realize just how large of an emergency this pandemic really was. The County health and emergency response leadership firmly, but calmly, said this was not a choice for us and offered their complete support as we set out to do what was required of us. This was the start of a partnership that has become one of the most rewarding I have experienced over my long tenure at County Connection. Since that day, we have only built upon it as we have navigated the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic.  While there are too many folks to thank in this posting, I must mention that former Deputy Health Director Rohan Radhakrishna, Senior Emergency Planning Coordinator Meredith Gerhardt, and Transportation Planner John Cunningham were incredibly helpful to County Connection as we fulfilled many unexpected and crucial transportation roles during the hardest days of the pandemic.

Mitigation Protocols

By late April of 2020, all of our fixed route buses had plexiglass driver shields installed, were being fogged daily – sometimes twice a day, and had new MERV 13 filters installed. Smoke tests at this point demonstrated that our buses were completely recirculating the air inside the cabin every two minutes. The driver shields were installed over a couple of weekends. We “manufactured” them at the bus yard using materials from Tap Plastics. This was an idea that came from our Facilities Superintendent, Steve Muhlestein. The shields and the new air filtration systems will outlive the pandemic and will become permanent features of our bus fleet.

An Essential Service

So how did we respond to the pandemic crisis? First, we kept as much of our fixed route service going as we could, given that at one point, over half of our bus operator ranks went out either because of a need to be extra cautious with COVID-19 or because they actually had it. As last summer moved forward, we gradually returned to about 85% of our budgeted bus operator positions being actively covered. During our significant bus operator shortfall, our planning department devised a hierarchy of service, primarily driven by serving essential workers making essential trips. As we lost workers, who had to stay at home for various COVID-19 reasons, we reduced services accordingly by cutting services determined by the hierarchy. This ensured that we did the best job possible, given the circumstances, in providing essential services to essential workers. What this approach meant was service schedules were changing every day. We used our web page and social media to keep our customers informed as to what was happening. I cannot thank our bus operator’s union enough for the tremendous flexibility and cooperation they gave us in executing this very fluid way of scheduling buses.

Secondly, we completely repurposed our paratransit services. At the onset of the pandemic, 90% or more of our daily paratransit demand disappeared practically overnight as most of that ridership demographic fell into the extremely vulnerable categories relative to COVID-19 risks. This resulted in a great unused resource for the County to call upon. Between mid-March of 2020 through this summer, County Connection completely reworked our paratransit services. Related directly to COVID-19 needs, our paratransit program did the following:

  • transported homeless away from crowded and unsafe outdoor living spaces to various hotel rooms across the county,
  • transported COVID-19 positive homeless or folks living in congregate living places to medical sites and hospitals for treatment,
  • transported frail seniors to vaccination sites, and
  • transported seniors to grocery stores at prescribed times for senior only shopping.

In addition, with many seniors or people of need sheltering at home for much of last year and early this year, County Connection began to deliver things to people. In many cases these services replaced the work of senior volunteers that likewise had to Shelter-in-Place. Among the things we provided were:

  • County Meals on Wheels,
  • School lunch deliveries to students in need who were attending school via online instruction,
  • Contra Costa Food Bank deliveries to low income families, and
  • Delivery of basic supplies to home-bound seniors.

Innovation & New Training

These temporary programs flipped the traditional approach of transporting people to places to one of taking things to people in a manner that kept them safe from COVID-19. In order to transport the COVID-19 positive individuals from congregate living sites or homeless camps, the paratransit drivers had to agree to do these trips and received special training from the County. Our paratransit is provided via contract by Transdev North America (Transdev). Transdev employees also received training from the County on how to separate a sub fleet of vehicles dedicated to these COVID-19 exposure trips, as well as how to clean and disinfect these vehicles after each trip. Without the great dedication and cooperation from Transdev and its employees, we could never have done these special paratransit services on behalf of the County.

Another innovative paratransit program emerged during the pandemic. This is the “One-Seat Ride” pilot project. This project involves four East Bay suburban transit systems: County Connection, Livermore-Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA), Tri-Delta Transit, and WestCAT. The pilot is testing the benefits and feasibility of providing paratransit customers with a single seat ride from origin to destination within the combined service areas of the four transit systems, regardless of which system a trip originates with, effectively reducing touch points for not only the passenger, but for operators too. Prior to this pilot, riders would have to transfer among vehicles at points near each transit operator’s borders. While tackling this pilot project had been in discussion for a few years, the onset of the pandemic created conditions to get the pilot implemented quickly and with urgency. A number of bureaucratic items seemed to fall by the wayside within the context of the emergency of the pandemic.

Almost all the things we have done during the pandemic that are listed above would have been very difficult to do in so-called “ordinary times.” This is in great part due to how we define public transit from a federal and/or state rule and regulations perspective. We are grateful to our federal and state partners who quickly waived or temporarily changed many rules and regulations that would have ordinarily prevented us from doing many of these things.

What Have We Learned?

We have learned that public transit is an essential service. It is a service that essential workers use to get to and from essential jobs that serve us all. We have learned that we are all “Transit Dependent!”

We have learned that women and men that operate transit vehicles and maintain transit vehicles are essential workers who are dedicated to their craft and often do their work at a rate of pay that was less than they might have received on unemployment throughout the Lockdown period.

We have learned that when public transit operators are allowed by the regulators to do so, they can be nimble, innovative, responsive, and most importantly….crucially integral to any response during a mega public emergency crisis, such as the one presented by COVID-19.

We have learned that if we enable our public transit operators to do so, they can be invaluable providers of all sorts of services to the public.

Overall, we have learned that great public transit is truly a huge benefit to any thriving community. So while it has been an incredibly tough 18 months for everyone, I think I can speak for the entire public transit community when I say it has been a difficult and challenging time, yet rewarding. I am immensely proud of all that County Connection has accomplished and of all the people that contributed by stepping up when it was most needed.

County Connection’s Ramacier Stepping Down By Year’s End

Assistant General Manager of Administration Bill Churchill to become new GM

County Connection General Manager Rick Ramacier has announced his intent to step down by the end of December following 32 years with the agency, 24 of which he served as GM. Bill Churchill, identified early on as a strong leader for the agency, will be promoted to GM upon Ramacier’s retirement as part of the agency’s succession planning and leadership training. Churchill is currently serving as Assistant GM of Administration and has more than 23 years with County Connection.

“On behalf of the Board of Directors, we thank Rick for his years of outstanding service and significant contributions,” said Keith L. Haydon, Jr., City of Clayton and County Connection Board Chair. “His unwavering dedication to County Connection, along with his ability to build a
strong leadership team, will leave County Connection resilient and well positioned for the future.”

“I have been honored to lead County Connection and proud to be a part of the many ways in which our services improve people’s lives, and most recently positively impacting more than 2,200 essential service riders every day,” said Rick Ramacier, County Connection General Manager. “Having worked closely with Bill for many years, I am highly confident that under his leadership, the team at County Connection will continue to innovate and provide a variety of mobility choices for our customers. His appointment demonstrates the strength of our succession planning and talent pipeline, and I look forward to working with him during the
transition.”

Ramacier will remain as GM until his departure date in December.

CC Innovations – Future Thinking Part 2

In my last blog, I shared highlights about the history of innovation at County Connection. This second entry continues on the theme of innovation at County Connection with a focus on the past ten years, where we have been innovative in our labor contracts, our equipment, and computer-based passenger amenities.

County Connection has three labor unions that together, represent roughly 80% of our workforce, each requiring its own labor contracts. Public sector labor contracts are often full of annual guaranteed wage increases for all members of a bargaining unit that are covered by the contract. Historically, the related contracts have had guaranteed annual wage increases that are typically between 2-4%.

As the 2008/2009 economic recession began to recede in 2010/2011, there was concern at County Connection about including guaranteed wage increases in multi-year labor contracts going forward. This is because in 2008, 2009, and 2010 – while County Connection lost 25% of its revenues – we were contractually bound to give out annual wage increases we could not afford. Generously, all three of our labor unions voluntarily gave up wage increases in many of those years, allowing us to freeze wages for all employees over a three-year period, and helping us to avoid workforce reductions.

This is where we get to the innovation part. As the economy picked up in 2011, County Connection was to negotiate new labor contracts in 2012 and 2013. The Authority (our governing body) was reticent to commit to annual wage increases in new contracts out of concern of another economic turndown. On the other hand, after three years of wage freezes, the employees and their respective unions wanted three year contracts with annual wage increases included. What to do?

We came up with an innovative concept that to this day is rarely seen in the public sector. We call them the economic triggers. In simple summary, these triggers work like this: Should one of our key funding sources drop from year to year, the following year, any wage increase can be permanently withheld. Likewise, if County Connection has to endure a significant increase in fuel costs or in pension costs from year to year, the following year, any wage increase can also be permanently withheld. This allows County Connection a contract-based authority to not give out wage increases in response to unexpected significant economic blows. Again, this is something you rarely see in public sector labor contracts.

Another area of recent innovation was the introduction of Wi Fi capability on all 121 of County Connection’s fixed-route 30- and 40-foot buses. This has been the case now for over six years. Thus, customers of County Connection can be on the Internet while riding transit in central and south Contra Costa County. Moreover, we will be starting in 2018 to replace all the routers on all of our fixed-route buses to move to the next level of router technology. This will make Internet usage on County Connection buses even faster and more reliable.

Also within the last ten years, we have implemented a feature we call Bus Tracker. Bus Tracker uses software to track every County Connection bus at all times. This lets County Connection management better oversee the system for on-time performance and service quality. Even better, not only do we know where every bus is precisely at a given time, but also our customers can similarly track the whereabouts of any bus at any time by accessing our webpage, or on an app via a desktop, laptop, pad, or smartphone. Thus, customers can reduce their wait time by only arriving at a bus stop a few minutes before the bus comes.

The last highlight I want to share is about our state-of-the-art buses. County Connection introduced its first four battery electric buses in late 2016 and by the end of 2018 we will have four more in operation for a total of eight battery electric buses in our fleet. These are the first battery electric buses manufactured by local (Livermore) bus manufacturer Gillig. And, they are the first to be inductively charged while on route.

Inductive charging in the field allows for a bus to be out in service for much longer periods of time than a traditionally charged battery electric bus. Inductive charging also promises to extend battery life – saving County Connection the expenses related to battery replacement.

With the State of California about to mandate the purchase and usage of zero emission-based buses (battery electric or fuel cell powered), finding innovative ways to extend battery life and range is going to be critical in making compliance to this mandate work. County Connection – with its innovative inductive charging – is already doing just that.

These are just a few of the innovative approaches that County Connection has implemented to enhance rider experience and improve how the agency delivers its service. As 2018 comes to a close, we are proud of how these past innovations are helping us to lay the foundation towards adopting new technologies and meeting mobility demands in the future.

CC INNOVATIONS

Future Thinking.

Part One

County Connection has been providing public transit service to the central and south regions of Contra Costa County for nearly 40 years. During those years, County Connection has constantly been innovative, forward-looking, and at times the first-to-implement new technologies, all of which allows us to continuously provide better service to the public and/or promote greater efficiencies in our operations.

In this and in a few future blogs, I will review some of County Connection’s past progressive efforts. The final blog in this series will look at where we expect the next opportunities for public transportation innovation to be found.

I’ll start with two things we did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Making Transit More Accessible

Did you know that County Connection became the first public transit system in America to deploy a fully accessible fleet of buses on its fixed-route services?

In the 1980s, County Connection set out to install wheelchair (we now say mobility device) lifts on every bus. It should be noted that through the 1990s, most transit buses had high floors that required the use of stairs to board and alight the bus. At the same time, a lot of transit providers did not offer mechanical lifts to allow people with wheelchairs to get in and out of standard transit buses, which made it impossible, in many cases, for them to use public transit.

With the high floor and stairs barriers, County Connection saw the need to serve those folks who used mobility devices with its fixed-route service network, so it set out to install lifts on every bus. By early 1989, County Connection completed its installation of lifts and became the first public transit system to do so. This forward-thinking approach to make transit services more accessible to all riders turned out to foreshadow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in September of 1990, which among many other things, mandated that public transit outfit all of its buses with lifts by the end 1996. County Connection was way ahead of the curve.

By about 2000, most of the new buses in North America were designed with a low floor eliminating the need for a wheelchair lift.

Technology Adoption

In late 1989, County Connection became the first transit system in America to procure and install the Trapeze fixed-route scheduling system, a first-of-its-kind highly computerized scheduling software exclusively made for scheduling fixed-route transit buses.

One of the innovations that Trapeze allowed us to take advantage of early on is how it facilities – through computerized scheduling – the practice of interlining routes and buses. This is because Trapeze scheduling software was the first such software to rely on complex algorithms to create a system schedule based on inputs and parameters set by the scheduler. Interlining is the practice of using one bus for multiple routes as opposed to having one bus run just along one route. This creates operating efficiencies such that with interlining you can provide the same level of service in terms of hours of service with fewer buses and lower operational costs.

After we installed Trapeze in early 1990, we began to increase our interlining of buses over time. This led to significant operational efficiency gains at County Connection. Without the computerization, complex interlining becomes extremely time-consuming, as well as challenging for people without advanced math degrees.

Today, Trapeze fixed-route scheduling software is used by at least half of all public transit systems in America. Once again, County Connection was ahead of the curve.

Innovative Spirit

These are just a few examples of what we have done at County Connection that reflect our innovative spirit. Did both of these innovations meet the test of: Does the innovation either make the service better for the customer or create cost savings in our day-to-day operations? In the case of installing wheelchair lifts and implementing a highly computerized software package, the answer is yes. Innovation paid off very well.

LINK Gives Back

LINK Gives Back

When the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) became law, it meant that all public transit operators were required to provide special service to persons whose disabilities prevent them from using fully accessible public transit. At County Connection we call this ADA service LINK, which offers demand response location-to-location service for seniors and those with disabilities. A person’s ability to use LINK for all or for some of their transit trips is based on an individual’s specific condition(s). You may or may not know that County Connection contracts out the operation and maintenance of our LINK paratransit services to a private transportation company known as First Transit. This includes approximately 50 First Transit employees assigned to work according to a County Connection contract with First Transit. These hard working folks have been doing a great job for us for years. They have consistently maintained an excellent safety record, while providing a high level of customer service.

In addition to the regular work these First Transit employees do for us, many of them are involved in our community in other ways outside of work. While it is springtime at County Connection now, a great example of the dedication First Transit employees have to their community comes from this past holiday season, specifically on Christmas Day. To be sure I get the facts correct, I’m going to share with you what County Connection’s First Transit Site Manager Tim McGowen wrote about this particular event.

“Christmas is a special time when most of us get together with our loved ones. For many people, enjoying Christmas dinner with family and friends is a tradition that goes back through the generations. For some; however, the dinner table may be set for just one.

Christmas for Everyone (CFE) is non-profit volunteer organization with the goal that no one in Contra Costa County should go hungry; be without a present, or be alone on Christmas. CFE has been serving people in need during the Christmas season for the past 30 years! Through the generosity of local businesses, associations, churches, and others in the community, CFE has provided a Christmas experience for about 2,500 people per year.

For the past 15 years, First Transit’s Concord, California location, in collaboration with County Connection, has partnered with Christmas for Everyone to transport Contra Costa County residents for a Christmas celebration that includes dinner, gifts, entertainment, and great fellowship.

First Transit drivers Sonia Craig, Tyree Barnes, and John Higashi volunteered their time this past Christmas Day to transport more than 50 guests to the event. I have to say that it’s incredible to work with such great people. My team really believes in giving back to the community. It truly shows through this project.

CFE Executive Director, Mary Perez acknowledged the work and resources provided by First Transit and County Connection and said, “First Transit and County Connection have been so generous to us in the past, contributing the use of vehicles and amazing drivers who picked up those who cannot drive to CFE. We are blessed to have them as partners on this project.”

As the General Manager for First Transit in Concord, I extend my personal thank you, to our drivers Sonia, Tyree and John, for spreading some heartfelt Christmas cheer to many people who otherwise would have spent time alone on Christmas. This is a great example of the dedication and commitment to the community that our First Transit operators give on a daily basis and it is greatly appreciated. 

I join Tim in acknowledging this volunteer work, and add our appreciation for the work that County Connection LINK drivers do to make better access to our community possible for our LINK customers.

FOR MORE

About LINK: Download an application to assess your eligibility for the County Connection LINK paratransit service.

About Christmas for Everyone: Visit their Facebook page or call 925-228-2233.

Mobility

Mobility Management

Buses, Trains, Pods, Shuttles, Bikes, Pathways, Planes, Autos….It’s All About Mobility!

With the New Year comes resolutions, and one of my resolutions is to return to writing this blog. I am committed in 2018 to more regularly post about County Connection and about the public transportation industry in general.

I believe 2018 will be an exciting year for the public transportation industry. Across the country we are seeing a growing interest in public transportation. But not just any public transportation. The growing interest is in how we can leverage and take advantage of transportation technologies to deliver more sustainable and effective forms of public transportation that not only uses technology where it makes the most sense, but also in ways to best keep pace with our rapidly changing world. I agree we should benefit from technology advances, but we also must make sure that our core mission remains intact. To me, that core mission is providing an opportunity for those who can’t or do not want to drive with a basic level of service to get around.

In fact, I would say that this core mission needs to broaden beyond traditional public transportation. Public transportation should be about providing efficient bus, rail, or paratransit* services, but it also should play a role in ensuring that ALL people in our society have full mobility. Mobility is the ability to be where you need or want to be when you want or need to be there. I would say that mobility is necessary for complete freedom and is necessary for a more fulfilling life.

Mobility is served by walking, bicycle riding, running, driving, sharing rides, buses, trains, boats, planes, phones, the internet, etc. Throughout our history, mobility in all of its forms (even horses!) has been challenged by congestion and pollution. If we do not want congestion or pollution to overtake our mobility, and thus our freedom, we need to continue to find better ways of creating and supplying mobility. This is where the pursuit for autonomous zero-emission vehicles is capturing the imagination of so many people. Ensuring we all have mobility is why public transportation needs to be working hand-in-hand in these innovative areas. As an industry, public transportation will be needed well into the future and it is vital we transition to where the technology is going, not for the sake of the technology itself, but for the sake of optimal mobility through flexible transportation options.

With these transition challenges in front of us, County Connection has put into service four all electric buses and plans to introduce four more into service later this year. While battery-electric propulsion buses are still not developed to the point where they need to be, these eight buses will give County Connection a good foundation to build upon as we pursue electrification in the future.

In addition, early this spring, County Connection will introduce a small pilot project in the Alamo Creek area just east of Danville. This project will test the introduction of shared mobility transportation concepts used in public transportation. In short, we will be using a smartphone app that will allow customers to schedule a curbside pickup using a small County Connection vehicle. This demand response type service will be available within the Alamo Creek defined area to take users back and forth to the Walnut Creek BART Station. Thus, this service will have many of same features as an Uber or Lyft service. As we get closer to implementation of this pilot project, I will dedicate a blog to this topic alone.

These are just two new ways in which County Connection – like many public transit operators across the country – will be adapting, updating, and evolving their services in order to continue to provide mobility to a society that is built around good and accessible mobility options.

* Paratransit is transportation for people with disabilities who are unable to use regular, fixed-route transit services.

Springtime at County Connection

Springtime Activities Abound

Late winter and early spring are always busy times around the County Connection bus yard. Our spring schedule for the fixed route system is implemented usually sometime in March. In February and March legislative proposals that will impact public transit are often in full play at both the state and federal levels. We are also in the thick of budget season as staff puts together the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

This year, we have the added tasks of setting up and conducting temporary detours largely due to road damage caused by the heavy rains this winter. This often involves working with a local jurisdiction as they make emergency pothole repairs. These will come up unexpectedly and require a quick coordinated response, as well as regular follow through. There are also the more significant, but less frequent, issues that pop up such as large sinkholes. These are longer term events and require a longer term commitment to an appropriate detour.

In addition, we also continue to experience a very strong job market in Contra Costa County. While this is great news, it means we are constantly in recruitment mode to ensure full staffing. This comes at a time when we are in the middle of a mini retirement wave. County Connection has been blessed with a well-experienced and veteran workforce. Lots of these folks were hired in the late 1980s, so now many of them have begun to retire after years of excellent service. So, in the midst of a hot job market, we find ourselves working hard to find suitable replacements.

It has also been a very active period in terms of various potential initiatives on transportation. A number of unrelated interests are nearly simultaneously pursuing or examining ways of making improvements to the transportation system. As such, we are expected to (or have an interest to) participate in these various efforts. County Connection continues to view itself as an important piece of the transportation network in Contra Costa County. Thus, to maintain that place, we are fully engaged in these assorted efforts.

As you can see, springtime is indeed a busy time at the bus yard. However, we thrive on being busy and active. This is where we want to be as an organization. Public agency inertia inherently leads to poor public service. Good public service needs to be supported by active, engaged, and energized people dedicated to performing such service.

Bus Transit Post-Election 2016

What Happens Now?

No matter what proposition or which candidate you may have voted for, I think many will agree if nothing else, it has been an interesting election season. As the General Manager of County Connection, I am often asked these days: What will the election possibly mean for public transit? The short answer is: We really don’t know, yet.

Overall, for transit the election is a mixed bag. In the Bay Area, BART’s Measure RR passed with over 71% of the vote in favor. This means BART will be able to raise much of the funding it will need to rehab its aging system. Users of BART will benefit greatly from this. Locally, Santa Clara County passed a sales tax measure that will support both roadway improvements, as well as transit improvements. AC Transit was able to renew an existing parcel tax that has long supported popular bus routes throughout the inner East Bay. However, for us here in Contra Costa County, our Measure X just barely failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote needed to pass. Thus, the projects and programs for all modes of transportation that the measure would have supported are going to be delayed in many cases.

At the state level, there were no transportation measures among the many state propositions on this year’s ballot. Moreover, the state legislature will look very much like the last state legislature. So, I do not anticipate any major changes in state transportation policy approaches in the next two-year session.

We could, however, see further legislation regarding transportation technology developments. Activity towards autonomous vehicles is picking up in California and the legislature may want to start doing what is reasonable to support that. Also, it would not be a surprise to see the legislature work to solidify and shore up the state cap and trade programs. These programs have the potential to provide significant assistance to public transportation programs. On a less than positive note, given that the new legislature looks similar to last one, I do not anticipate that we will see a large transportation funding package emerge from it. This remains a heavy lift – particularly the debate on how to pay for such a package.

Finally, we arrive at the federal level. This is going to be interesting to watch and perhaps hard to predict. First off, a current federal transportation authorization was just enacted late last year. Thus, we have nearly four years of authorization left. So, on one hand, very little needs to happen, if only to maintain the status quo for now. However, while we have four more years of federal transportation authorization, the main funding source of that authorization, the Highway Trust Fund, is projected to go broke within two years or so. If that holds true, the new congress and President will have to come to an agreement about how to tackle this funding shortfall.

So far, it is looking like it could be an interesting set of debates. President Elect Trump has talked in broad terms of a 10-year trillion-dollar infrastructure package. What portion – if any – of this would be marked for public transit is not known. However, both congressional leaders (Senator McConnell, and Speaker Ryan) have not yet warmed to the idea of making infrastructure a funding priority. Any of this will likely run up against deficit reduction talks in Washington.

So, as you can see, much remains at stake for public transit after this election. It will likely be months, if not years, before we learn how the 2016 election ultimately affects public transit.

A New Generation of Advanced, Non-Polluting Transit Buses

County Connection – Moving Forward

In late July, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced that County Connection is one of 20 transit agencies in the United States to be selected as the recipient of a competitive grant of nearly $2.7 million to contribute towards the purchase of four 29-foot all battery-electric buses. This news comes as County Connection is about to introduce its wireless all electric trolley in downtown Walnut Creek this fall (exact date to be announced soon). Both of these projects are the result of the unique and innovative partnership between East Bay Area manufacturer GILLIG Corporation, New York-based BAE Systems, and Salt Lake City-based Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification Inc. (WAVE).

These three American companies have come together to build a 29-foot electric bus that is inductively charged while on-route and while sitting at the bus yard. This ability will greatly extend practical operating range and battery life. Adequate operating range and battery life cycle costs are two of the biggest challenges facing transit today when asked to begin to transition from conventionally fueled buses to zero emission-based buses. By effectively making progress on these two challenges, County Connection’s two projects will demonstrate opportunities that could transfer these innovations throughout public transit agencies in this country.

trolley-1-resizeOnce we take delivery of the last of the new buses in late 2017 or early 2018, County Connection will have eight all electric buses – which will represent approximately 8.7% of our peak bus deployment.

Of course none of this would be possible without the funding supplied by the FTA. Our first project received over $4 million from the FTA in Clean Fuels funding from the Safe Accountable Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETY-LU). This was awarded to us because the wireless electric trolleys that we are purchasing are using a unique and original prototype design.

The July announced funding is through FTA’s Low-No grant program, which is supported in the recently enacted Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST). These funds will augment other FTA funds that we receive on a formula basis, as well as state transportation funding. Without these critical federal funds, County Connection could not integrate a new generation of advanced, non-polluting transit buses into our fleet.

The application process for the Low-No Emissions funds was extraordinary. Out of the $55 million awarded nationwide, County Connection beat out a large number of applicants to secure $2,684,311 from this program. All of us at County Connection are grateful to those that helped us put forward a winning proposal.

The project application was a joint effort between County Connection and The Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE). CTE is a non-profit organization that offers an array of services to help transit operators determine when, where, and how they should consider implementing zero emission based buses into their services and fleets. CTE was instrumental in helping us determine some of those factors and using that knowledge to feed into our application. CTE is doing this all over the country. As a result of CTE’s work, the public transit industry is able to effectively and smartly move more quickly into the world of zero emission-based buses.

Also instrumental in the application process was BART, PG&E, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), GILLIG Corporation, BAE Systems, WAVE, Inc. and Congressmen Mark DeSaulnier, Eric Swalwell, and Mike Thompson. Through this strong partnership of many players, County Connection is going to be able to deploy eight all electric buses over the next two years. This will reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases. At the same time, these projects are being managed in a way where our services will not be at risk of being diminished. Rather our service will be enhanced, just like our other technologically advanced projects implemented over the past few years.

Your Technologically Advanced Bus

Buses today are very different from the buses that were on the road 30 years ago. They have been through many technological advances and improvements. As far back as the late 1980s, buses began to change in ways that particularly increased accessibility for many riders. Recently, buses have seen changes that take advantage of the internet and wireless communication. Now, we are on the cusp of seeing great advances in zero emission buses, as well as driver assisted buses. Finally, we might (sooner rather than later) see the emergence of an autonomous bus! However far off that may be, today’s buses have come a long way since 1986.

A vast majority of buses once had stairs that had to be navigated in order to board. In 1990, buses with boarding stairs were called high floor buses. Today, almost all buses are low floors buses and boarding stairs are gone. This makes getting on and off a bus much easier and allows for people with disabilities and for many seniors to use bus transit. In a related technological development, wheelchair tie downs first appeared on buses beginning in the late 1980s. That is now standard equipment on all buses.

As we entered the new century, technological advances on buses really took off. It is now common:

  • To find buses that are fully Wi-Fi compatible.
  • For bus stop announcements to be automated.
  • To see exactly where buses are located in real time.
  • For customers to use their laptop or smart phone to see exactly when their bus is going to arrive at the bus stop they want to use.

In addition, electronic ticketing has made using multiple transit systems across the Bay Area much easier; and a single fare instrument can be used to make multiple system trips.

At County Connection, our entire fleet of buses are now fully Wi-Fi equipped, and they will accept the Clipper card. This follows up on the completion of our Bus Tracker project in 2013. Bus Tracker allows a passenger to use their laptop, smartphone, etc. to determine when their bus is coming to their stop. This means that a rider can use Bus Tracker to determine when to board a bus, which is low floor with the latest and greatest in vehicle safety features, that will get them to a BART station in time to catch a train, all the while using their Clipper card on both systems. Moreover, they can work or surf the net on their device of choice, as they ride their bus and BART; perhaps into San Francisco.

As to what is coming next, County Connection has begun to move its technology with buses towards the realm of zero emissions in the form of electric buses. This fall, we will deploy the first of our electric buses in Walnut Creek on our downtown trolley. More projects of this type are in the works and will be available in the future.

Perhaps just as exciting is the likelihood of driver assisted buses coming along within the next five years. These buses will assist the driver in pulling in and out of bus stops; alert the driver to blind spot hazards; assist the driver in negotiating tight lanes; and more. Finally, the transit industry is watching the rapid development of autonomous vehicles very closely. As this progresses, the development of an autonomous bus or bus that can be put on “auto pilot” may not be all that far off.

With all these advances, it is clear that today’s bus is not anything like yesterday’s bus. And, tomorrow’s bus promises to be even more evolved than today’s advanced bus. While it is rewarding to be a part of public transit and watch the transformations this industry is striving towards, and it is also very good for the public we serve.