Strategic Planning in a High-Performing Transit Authority

by Michael A. Mogavero, Ph.D.

Public discussions on the effectiveness of a transit authority quite frequently center on issues of financial dependency upon the community, quality of service, mishaps and perhaps labor relations. The emphasis on these issues, while they are each truly important, tends to deflect away from the mission of a transit authority.

The mission of a transit authority evolves from its role as a quasi-public good — an authority financed by a combination of user fees, local government subsidies, marketing revenues and state funding formulas producing a service that provides affordable ridership to citizens of the community. High-performing public organizations develop strategic plans that are derived from their missions and produce results that are a win-win scenario for taxpayers, riders, tourist agencies and local businesses.

In contrast, communities and authorities that choose to be led by suboptimal planning processes will result in greater inefficiencies and greater costs to the local taxpayers. In some cases, the forces of inertia in such communities tend to lead toward the suboptimal results. This has not been the recent case in Erie, Penn.

The following case study examines effective strategic planning and its outcomes in a rustbelt community. Aggressive vision, leadership and foresight accompanied by a comprehensive planning process have led to results that stimulate economic development, provide greater service and do so by being less of a burden to local taxpayers.

Before the Comprehensive Planning Process
The Erie Pennsylvania Metropolitan Transportation Authority (EMTA) was experiencing financial, operational and serious working relationship issues. The EMTA had been losing riders at an alarming pace for years. Between 1979 and 1999, ridership had decreased by roughly 72 percent (7,007,599 to 2,699,201). During that time the fare increased from 35 cents to $1.10. The paratransit organization, which is also managed by the EMTA, was hemorrhaging badly financially, and was on pace to have an annual deficit of more than $1 million. In addition, there was present a workers’ compensation liability of more than $1 million per year, which represented more than 10 percent of the budget.

The authority existed as its own entity. There was little effort to reach out to potential strategic partners. This is in direct opposition to good planning, which seeks to identify and implement win-win scenarios for previously unrelated agencies by uniting efforts to better accomplish the missions of both.

There was labor unrest because no labor agreement had been in place for more than one year. The relationship with the union was problematic at best; there seemed to be little accountability relative to performance of workers and there was little emphasis on human resource development. All of the above described an authority that was in need of a reengineering of its strategic functions. The authority had the choice of continuing the structure and methods of operation that had been in place for many years or embark on a path of discovery and entrepreneurship that would strengthen its financial makeup.

Role of Leadership
The opportunity arose for EMTA when it was in the process of seeking a new executive director. The board sought an individual who recognized the importance of strong planning to commence the reorganization. Politically, it would have been catastrophic to make these changes by directive of the executive director. Instead, a cooperative effort of the board, the executive director and the community became the body which led the impetus for change.

Effective leadership begins with carefully assessing the environment in which the authority is located. It looks for strengths and opportunities and it gathers information on what areas can be improved. Quality leadership does not begin with imposing a vision that has worked elsewhere or is one that the executive director has a bias toward. Rather, effective policy will eventually be the result of what is particular to the needs of the community and the opportunities that are proper to it alone. An effective leader recognizes this and puts in place the structures and takes the actions necessary to begin the change process. Good foresight here will have the effect of building consensus and assure the subsequent initiatives will be well received.

In the case of Erie, Penn., a new executive director was hired in 2001. He set out to discover the principal opportunities and threats. He was keenly aware of the danger of further declining ridership and subsequently, declining revenue. The picture that he uncovered included that there was also inertia in several arenas. The route structure had not changed significantly in some 50 years, despite the movement of the population from the center city to surrounding suburbs. In addition, despite being located on a beautiful tourist location, the transportation authority had little connection with tourist organizations. Likewise despite the fact that the nature of the community’s economic structure had changed from manufacturing to education, there was no outreach to, or no partnerships with educational institutions. In summary, the authority was simply operating and the result was that its service to the community was sub-optimized and its financial well-being was being threatened.

Role of Planning
The executive director, along with the board, made a commitment to planning and continuous improvement. Planning took place in a series of venues. No matter where the effort or who was involved, the temptation to impose initiatives that were not grounded in the environmental analysis was never one to determine any outcome. Planning sessions with the board, the community, riders and employees were undertaken. This democratic planning process was the essential tool in the transformational process that was occurring within the authority. It was always data driven. With so much inertia being inherited from the previous culture, the subsequent efforts could easily have been diffused by a backlash of too much change too quickly had not these inclusive efforts been put in place.

New Initiatives
The result of the environmental scans and the planning process was a series of initiatives designed to better accomplish the mission of the authority and subsequently strengthen its financial position. The following initiatives were adopted by the board of the authority:

1) The purchase of five new trolleys for intercity travel and to develop a partnership with the convention center for travel to and from the central city. More than just the purchase was the change in culture in the EMTA, including drivers, board members and political leaders that complements the growth of tourism in the downtown Erie market.

2) The redesign of the route structure to better follow the changing demographic trends.

3) The development of a partnership with the local port authority for the construction of an intermodal transportation center.

4) The formulation of partnerships with local universities for bus service on campus as well as to and from campus to central locations.

Edinboro University Partnership
Edinboro University is a sprawling campus in the southernmost portion of Erie County. It had no campus bus service. It is located in a region of the country and of Erie County that is prone to severe winter weather. Students would have to walk long distances to and between classes. Edinboro was interested in exploring the possibility of having bus service and the new leadership of the EMTA was interested in finding new sources of ridership. The EMTA, representatives of Edinboro University and the Edinboro University Student Government Association met to explore means to better serve their respective constituents.

The result was that EMTA would provide two routes; one a campus loop and the other a route from the campus to local businesses. New bus shelters were constructed and a vehicle locator system was initiated. After one year of service, bus ridership was expanded from the Edinboro main campus to satellite campuses in Erie and Meadville, Penn.

The partnership also developed a student driver and student internship program. The former provided an opportunity for students to defray some of the cost of their education.

In return for service, Edinboro University and  the student association contribute almost $200,000 annually. Ridership has grown from 54,000 in the first year of operation (2004) to 74,000 by the end of 2006. Ridership for the 2007-2008 Academic year reached 104,762. The EMTA’s financial position was strengthened by this influx of revenue as well as by the increase in matching funding.

Currently, plans are being considered to further develop the partnership. Students are asking for the service be extended to include evening hours and the authority is exploring having Edinboro serve as a hub for service from the previously underserved southern portion of the county to other underserved communities.

The partnership with Edinboro University is an example of many of the tenets of good strategic planning being implemented. For instance, it reflects the proper use of environmental analysis in identifying new viable markets for service. It reflects the development of partnerships which seek out and actualize mutually beneficial opportunities. It also reflects the commitment to economic development. The businesses in the community are beneficiaries of the increased traffic and students have their purchasing choices expanded.

So successful has been this partnership that several mirror images have been developed for other colleges in the region. This has further raised ridership and strengthened the financial position of the authority.
The operating officer for the Student Government Association (SGA) made the following observation: “The ‘Edinboro Express’ bus service that we have here at Edinboro University really means a lot to me. I have been around to see it come from its infancy stage to the point now where it has become a staple to the University. The Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority has been wonderful to work with. From the very beginning, it was EMTA that applied and received a Penndot grant for two years which allowed us to run the service at a much lower cost to the students. It was also EMTA that listened and understood our ever-changing demands and met them with little to no complaints. The bond and friendships that I have made with members of EMTA is one that I never expected to make but am glad that it has happened.
“I can’t say enough good things about the staff and management at EMTA along with the cooperation of the Crawford Area Transit authority as well. This service would not be where it is today without them.

Was I skeptical that the service would grow and become what it is today? I always saw the service potentially taking off and becoming what it is today, I just didn’t think that it would happen so soon.
“The service was first met with some resistance as we were combating convenience over health as many students felt that the campus was not big enough to support bus service. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the convenience was definitely worth it. The service has allowed students to get to class and local destinations safely and at no cost. Now, in today’s economy, the service also allows students, faculty and staff to take the shuttle to class or work at no cost to them.

“The service has also connected the main campus here at Edinboro to the branch campuses in Erie and Meadville allowing us to truly become one university. SGA, along with the admissions office, is now using the shuttle bus service as a recruiting tool and it has proven to be beneficial to new students coming to Edinboro University as safety and convenience have been major concerns to parents of college students.

“I can honestly say that this is one of the most important things to me as I, along with others, have put in numerous hours of hard work to make the service as successful as it is. It has been four years since we launched the service and I don’t think any of us would know what to do if it were to ever go away.

“The service has become very much a part of campus life and I am pleased to have been a part of making it happen. Truly ‘Great Things Happen Here!’”

Due to these efforts and partnerships, ridership on the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority has risen significantly and it has not had to raise fares in the last 11 years. During the last seven years, these efforts have resulted in overall ridership growth of more than 10 percent. In addition, it is anticipated that ridership will grow another 10 percent over the next three years.

All of these new initiatives have resulted in a local match increase of 27 percent, which continues to allow EMTA to capture more federal and state grant funding to put to good use in the Erie region. One use in particular involved the complete restructuring of its routes last October, at which time it undertook a large service expansion. This was the first evaluation and restructuring of the entire system conducted in modern times.

The paratransit’s financial problems have been largely overcome, and in fact, it has grown from roughly 42 vehicles to 60 during that time period. The authority helped develop 35-foot modern low-floor trolleys and they are running successfully and have had a tremendously positive impact on the community.

Had these initiatives not occurred, ridership and revenues would have continued to decline. However, by embracing a comprehensive and inclusive strategic planning process, the EMTA is poised to serve the next 100 years as well as it did the first.

Dr. Mogavero has served in many roles at Edinboro University. The majority of his responsibility has been to serve as vice president for planning and continuous improvement. He is a nationally recognized expert in planning in the not-for-profit sector and serves on the board of directors of the EMTA.

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