Bus Stops

The Winding Routes (and Future) of TransIT Service

By Andrew Schotz | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.01.15 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

The times, they are a-changin’, and so is Frederick County’s bus system. It’s embracing digital technology, through electronic ticketing and GPS tracking. It has revamped a popular city route. All-electric buses are coming. But if you’re wondering when you can ride a Sunday shuttle, expect to wait at least a few years.

County officials have heard the calls for Sunday service, more peak service and new bus routes in underserved parts of the county. However, for now, the TransIT system will focus more on upkeep—in particular, replacing buses.

TransIT, like other county services, has been caught in a tug-of-war over governing philosophies. Frederick County’s majority-Republican county commissioners changed the standards for bus replacement and privatized maintenance. Now, under a new charter form of government, a Democratic county executive is rolling back those changes.

“We hear over and over that people are happy with the service, but want more of it,” — Nancy Norris, director of TransIT Services for Frederick County.

“We hear over and over that people are happy with the service, but want more of it,” says Nancy Norris, director of TransIT Services for Frederick County. In the most substantial change to a bus route in several years, the East County shuttle—along East Patrick Street and Md. 144—has been broadened and renamed the East Frederick shuttle.

On Aug. 24, the route expanded from two to five days a week and has new stops, such as the Motor Vehicle Administration and Frederick Community College’s Monroe Center. The enhancement is appreciated at Spring Ridge Senior Apartments, whose residents now have more buses departing on more weekdays.

Alice Schwartz, who has lived at Spring Ridge for 13 years, says she used to live on Manhattan’s West Side, where public transportation is obviously standard fare. “To me, a car is, like, for people who live out of town,” she says. Schwartz, 85, loved that TransIT came along, letting her stop relying so much on her daughter, Rachel Sorenson of Lake Linganore, for rides.

Douglas Martin, another Spring Ridge resident, was content to get around by driving his own van. But, when the van needed repairs, Martin, 74, tried TransIT-Plus—or paratransit—an on-demand service often used by people with disabilities or other mobility problems.

Martin is a double amputee and he was impressed with the care his paratransit driver took loading and securing him and his wheelchair on a bus. He plans to keep using the bus for almost-daily trips to the nearby Weis grocery story. “I can’t drive my van as cheap as I can go in that,” he says.

The expansion of the fixed-route East Frederick shuttle helps take the pressure off paratransit, which only runs 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, says Collette Camper, the community manager at the apartment complex. “It lets everybody be a little more flexible,” she says. The Spring Ridge complex also contracts with a private transportation company to provide twice-weekly rides along routes that vary each day.

“It lets everybody be a little more flexible,” — Collette Camper, Community manager, Spring Ridge Senior Apartments

To supplement paratransit, TransIT is adding a pilot taxi access program that will let people schedule rides outside weekday hours. In the City of Frederick, it will cost $10 for $60 worth of taxi fare. In the rest of the county, the cost will be $20 for $120 of taxi fare.

Jamey George, the executive director of The Freedom Center in Frederick, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities live independently, says paratransit service needed attention. It’s useful, going door to door throughout the county, but limited hours prevents people with disabilities from getting all-day employment. “If you’re supposed to be there until 5, you’re not going to get that job,” George says.

The taxi voucher program will help — but not people in wheelchairs. George says they’ll still need to use paratransit service during its day hours. “We feel that the TransIT-Plus hours should be extended to match the taxi voucher program or the voucher program should operate on the same hours as TransIT-Plus,” George writes in an email. People “should not be segregated because they must use a van with a wheelchair lift.”

At the same time, George and others at The Freedom Center are pleased with the new range of the East Frederick shuttle. The expanded service let the organization move in October from its current home Downtown on West Patrick Street to Highland Street, off Monroe Avenue. A bus ride will be easier and cheaper than parking Downtown, George says.

TransIT is trumpeting its digital upgrades, such as a smartphone app that lets customers buy ride tickets electronically. A new feature coming soon will be aimed at entities that make bulk purchases of tickets, such as a school or jail. They can have bulk-purchased tickets automatically forwarded to the smartphones of the end users. For example, the college could compile a list of students who will get tickets and directly provide them as soon as the tickets are purchased.

Adrienne Moretz, TransIT’s community relations manager, says Frederick County’s system might become the first with that bulk-purchase feature.

That add-on is part of a contract with TripSpark Technologies of Cleveland, Ohio. Instead of paying for the service, TransIT lets TripSpark collect 5 percent of the fees collected through the app, Moretz says.

TransIT expects to wrap up a request-for-proposal process this fall for another technological advance. It will be an automatic vehicle locator system in which riders can use GPS to follow a bus’s exact route in real time. Riders can set an alert to head to their stop a short time before a bus arrives. Moretz says the same contract includes an automated passenger counter, giving TransIT more accurate ridership numbers.

Frederick County Councilman Billy Shreve, a Republican, isn’t impressed. “The technology has been there since the mid-‘90s  …” he says. “It’s not innovative at all.”

“The biggest complaint I get is: Why are we always running around with TransIT buses empty?” — Billy Shreve, Frederick County Councilman

Shreve says the county needs to think more about how to overhaul the bus system, which he thinks is underused and mismatched to public needs. “The biggest complaint I get is: Why are we always running around with TransIT buses empty?” he says.

Shreve wants TransIT to have more of a European-style loop system, in which riders hop on and off, rather than fixed end points, which he considers inefficient. Then, there’s a seventh day of service, which the public is keen to get, he says. “The world doesn’t shut down on Sundays anymore.”

Ronald F. Harley can relate. He relies on a TransIT shuttle to get him from his East 9th Street home to his job at Sonic, near the Wal-Mart on Guilford Drive. If he was scheduled to work on Sunday, he’d take a taxi, which is much more expensive than a bus.

Norris is eager for Sunday service, too. But TransIT isn’t quite there yet. “We absolutely will,” she says. “It’s a matter of timing, though.”

First, TransIT will need to replace vehicles that are wearing out. Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, a Democrat, says this is necessary because of policy changes the last board of county commissioners made.

One was a decision to lengthen the period for an acceptable useful life of a vehicle. TransIT owns 44 vehicles, which were funded by grants, according to Norris. For those, TransIT follows Federal Transit Administration standards for useful life. TransIT’s shuttles can expect to last six years or 200,000 miles. Larger buses less than 35 feet long can be expected to run for 10 years or 350,000 miles. Buses longer than 35 feet are expected to last 12 years or 500,000 miles.

Norris says TransIT also uses eight buses that belong to the county’s Fleet Services that acts as a vehicle rental agency for other county departments. In 2008-09, the county expected its fleet buses to last six years or 180,000 miles. The last board of county commissioners bumped the life cycle to eight years, then 15 years, says Patrick Hannah, director of Fleet Services. A diesel bus would be expected to last as long as 200,000 miles.

But buses won’t last 15 years, he adds. Under the new policy, buses required more maintenance and broke down more frequently, he says, so Fleet Services took in less money for the use of its vehicles. Gardner says the county commissioners also privatized repairs, sending vehicles to a shop in Baltimore.

Norris says TransIT had to send two drivers each time to retrieve a bus after it was repaired. She recalled a bus breaking down on two separate trips back to Frederick before the right repairs finally were made.

Outsourcing also meant fewer county maintenance positions. Hannah says three mechanics were assigned to TransIT and a fourth filled in as needed. When one of the three mechanic jobs became vacant, the commissioners didn’t fill the position.

Now, under Gardner, the vehicle-life policy and privatization are being undone. Shreve is peeved, arguing that privatization is an established practice for state agencies and keeps costs down. He says he never heard of specific examples of it doing any harm in Frederick County and Gardner seems intent on reversing everything the commissioners did.

The differing philosophies directly affected Fleet Service vehicles, but also funding and replacement for TransIT-owned vehicles, even though they weren’t covered under the policy of expanded vehicle life. That’s because the commissioners might withhold the 10 percent match needed for grant-funded purchases, Norris says.

The Transportation Association of Maryland, a trade organization, has honored Frederick County TransIT twice in recent years. In 2012, the award was Best Fixed Route System, out of about 17 in the category. The organization cited TransIT’s 97 percent satisfaction rating and 10 percent increase in ridership as other systems’ declined.

The 2013 award was Transit System of the Year, in the large category, which included about 14 systems. The association praised TransIT’s fare structure, plans for a taxi voucher program and success in getting paratransit grant funding. For TransIT, 2012 was a peak year. Ridership steadily increased from 553,000 in 2005 to 909,000 in 2012.

“The rule of thumb, is that a fare increase leads to a drop of about 4 percent in ridership.” — Nancy Norris, director of TransIT Services for Frederick County

The next three years, there was a backslide. Ridership is expected to drop to 761,000 for 2015.

Norris says usage falls nationwide when gas prices drop and commuters resume driving.

It was acute in Frederick County, though. Norris says TransIT was asked to cut what it gets from the county by 30 percent—which had a domino effect of reducing connected federal and state funding.

TransIT raised fares to make up for cuts. A standard one-way trip rose from $1.10 to $1.25 in 2010, then to $1.50 in 2014. “That’s pretty significant,” Norris says. The rule of thumb, she says, is that a fare increase leads to a drop of about 4 percent in ridership.

Norris says TransIT has done well in other ways, such as revenue for ads on buses and shelters.

Also, the county will save money on maintenance and fuel and get greener by purchasing five all-electric buses making Frederick County the first system on the East Coast with these vehicles—stripped down, reconfigured diesel buses from California. Because of ad revenue and state grants, Frederick County will need to put up only 10 percent of the overall $564,000 cost of getting the five electric buses.

Roger Boothe Jr., the vice chairman of the county’s Transportation Service Advisory Council, says Frederick County TransIT is doing well for a system and community of its size, especially in Frederick. Under the current routes, he says, there’s coverage from every major residential area in the city to every major employment area. He says people ask for expanded service, but they also want to be sure their regular weekday routes are reliable—thus, the need to replace aging buses first.

Boothe, who works for a traffic engineering firm, sees another way for local transit to grow–by connecting Frederick County to other metro areas, such as Montgomery County’s Ride On bus system, for commuters. It’s an important avenue to consider, he says, because Census data shows that about 45 percent of Frederick County residents who work travel to jobs outside of the county.

Lib Rood, the chairwoman of the advisory council and a transportation planner, says federal funding is a challenge as long as Congress keeps approving short-term extensions of the transportation budget.

Frederick County, which is aging faster than Maryland, Florida and the U.S., will need more, says Gardner, who spoke highly of TransIT for doing what it can.

TransIT’s service is bound to expand, Rood says, but “I think it’s just going to take some time.”