Company Reports - Miami-Dade Transit
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Written by Sarah Wolfe
If you were to scan through summaries of the nation's public transit systems, Miami-Dade County's would be sure to grab your attention.
One of the most dynamic transit organizations in the nation, MDT boasts the longest bus rapid transit line - a 20-mile corridor connecting the southern exurbs to Metrorail - along with a fleet of 891 buses operating on 95 routes. The transit department also oversees the Metrorail - spanning more than 22 miles with 22 stations; Metromover, a 4.4-mile free automated people mover; and Special Transportation Service, MDT's on-demand paratransit service for the disabled.
Though Miami-Dade County is ranked among the most congested regions traffic-wise in the nation, MDT has poised itself to meet the ever-increasing needs of residents, commuters and visitors who rely on public transportation. The organization is overseen by Director Harpal Kapoor, who leads a team of experienced transportation industry professionals. Kapoor himself has 28 years in the industry - 22 of them in public transportation and 15 with MDT. He also previously worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
As head of the 14th largest transit property in the US, appointed by Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Kapoor has been proactive in his efforts for MDT to meet its full potential.
"We are changing our internal business so we can be more efficient," he says, "and it's translating into better service for our customers."
This focus on efficiency is especially important in the economic downturn, which has made it necessary to reduce the budget. The department has ensured minimal impact to customers as it aims to live within its means.
Many of MDT's improvements come thanks to the People's Transportation Plan, a half-penny surtax voters approved in 2002. Since then, it has allowed the Metrobus fleet to grow by 40 percent, enabling free transit service to Miami-Dade seniors, Social Security recipients and low-income veterans through its Golden Passport and Patriot Passport programs - as well as free service on its downtown Metromover system.
This same surtax is providing most of the funding for a $526 million rail extension to the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) adjacent to Miami International Airport. MDT broke ground on the project on May 1 - exactly 25 years to the month after Metrorail welcomed its first passenger. Five of the original train operators and mechanics were invited to cut a giant anniversary cake at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Passengers will connect to the airport from the MIC via a people mover. The Metrorail extension will serve as a vital link for millions who travel to and from the airport every year - eliminating the need to battle traffic, pay for airport parking or call a taxi.
"Passengers will have the ability to get on and off the Metrorail and take other modes of transportation, like Metrobuses, Greyhound, Amtrak and the tri-county Tri-Rail commuter system - with a centralized car rental facility in the mix," says Albert Hernandez, Assistant Director of Engineering, Planning and Development.
The Florida Department of Transportation is contributing $100 million toward the project. Oderbrecht, Tower and Community Asphalt are handling the construction.
Other upcoming projects include a refurbishment of MDT's central control room, purchasing new rail cars and a new test track.
"We're also trying to do forecasting in our financial plan for future Metrorail extensions. We're exploring public/private partnerships," Kapoor adds.
A DRIVE FOR EFFICIENCY
Unlike Washington DC's transit system, which gets more than half its revenue from fares, MDT's fare recovery ratio is 21 percent. This is due to the fact that 75 percent of passengers ride free or at a reduced fare.
"Approximately 25 percent of our riders pay full fares and the rest have discounts or don't pay any fares. We're unique in that way," Kapoor says. "We have the most active Special Transportation Service at 6,000 boardings per day. Those are the kinds of costs we have. With congestion mitigation, having efficient operations and technology are extremely important to manage it all."
In 2008, MDT increased base fare by 50 cents - its second fare increase in 15 years. In addition, future fare increases were set to be adjusted automatically every three years according to inflation.
"Other than MDT, only a few other transit properties in the country have been able to implement this," says David Clodfelter, Chief of Budget, Audit & Reporting. "They're set to increase once every two years and we'll be increasing once every three."
At the same time, MDT recently unified its budget to allow PTP surtax funds to be used for overall transit operations. Previously, surtax funds were restricted for use on new projects only. This has allowed the department to allocate resources more efficiently.
Streamlining operations has been a major emphasis under Kapoor's leadership.
"We saved more than $20 million last year from increased efficiency. Our on-time performance has gone up to 80 percent this past year," Kapoor says. "We're trying to restructure our routes so they're more efficient and more data-driven; we're trying to reduce the operating costs and increase efficiencies."
THE EASY CARD
Technology is playing a major role as MDT strives for greater efficiency and improved service. This is certainly the case as MDT gets ready to implement its EASY Card automated fare collection system. The department is replacing its fareboxes and faregates with new equipment that will automatically deduct fares from a reloadable smart card embedded with a computer chip. The $42 million system, designed by Cubic Transportation Systems, is scheduled to be fully implemented later this summer.
The new system will reduce fare evasion, enhance customer convenience and improve the accuracy of ridership data, helping the department to plan its routes more effectively.
"We'll use data by bus stop to see where the highest ridership is," says Rosie Perez, Senior Chief of Information Technology. "We're also looking at geographical data to help us better plan our routes."
MORE TECHNOLOGY UPGRADES
In 2007, MDT unveiled its Train Tracker system, which allows customers to check the arrival times of the next Metrorail train from their computers and mobile devices. MDT's new Rider Alerts system also is utilizing technology to improve customers' riding experience by notifying registered customers via text message or email of any service interruptions that could affect their ride.
MDT also plans to implement wireless capability at its Metrorail stations, and eventually on the train itself. The goal is seamless wireless connectivity for an entire trip.
Add to that state-of-the-art cameras on buses that will feed live video to central control.
"What you'll also get is seamless video streaming, allowing real-time views for better security," Perez adds. "Having seamless data recording will help in disaster recovery."
The hardware will be in a lightspeed building, which will also accommodate a remote system that will kick in if the rail's main system goes out.
CUTTING COSTS, CUTTING CARBON
MDT is very active in its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. All 900 of its bus shelters operate 100 percent on solar-powered lighting. These soon will be introduced in a slim-line design so they can be installed at bus stop locations that cannot accommodate full-size shelters, thus offering more passengers protection from the elements.
The department also plans to transition its fleet from conventional diesel to cleaner burning, fuel-efficient hybrid buses. The County Commission has approved the purchase of 13 NABI 40-foot diesel/electric and 25 New Flyer 60-foot articulated hybrid buses - expected to arrive in January of 2010.
The Federal Transit Administration will provide full funding for 16 of the 60-foot hybrid buses to be used on the new Interstate 95 Express Lanes. These lanes involved re-striping the highway and converting the HOV lanes into all-electronic tolling lanes. Bus passengers can enjoy all the benefits of faster travel on the new lanes while avoiding the tolls. Half the funding for nine of the 60-foot hybrids will come from the state for the Kendall BRT Lite project, which will involve traffic signal prioritization for express buses beginning this year.
"Overall, we expect 800 cars to be taken off the road during rush hour," Kapoor says.
By MDT's estimates, fuel consumption is projected to drop 20 percent by using fewer, higher-capacity buses. The signal prioritization is also expected to reduce idle time in traffic, cutting carbon emissions.
Customer safety is one of MDT's top priorities. Trained guards provide security at Metrorail stations and throughout the transit system. To ensure security officers are doing their jobs, MDT will be implementing a biometrics-based monitoring system which will require guards to punch in and out at their posts using their fingerprint.
MDT employees also receive considerable security training, and key personnel participate in regional training exercises on simulated disasters to identify any shortcomings in procedures.
"We hold a debriefing after," says Eric Muntan, MDT Chief of Safety and Security. "We discuss what happened during the emergency drill and where we can improve."
KEEPING TABS ON GOALS
Kapoor also has kept the department moving forward with a results-oriented approach that consists of establishing firm objectives and timelines and using scorecards to track progress.
"Each of our departments has goals and objectives and we track data on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis to see how we're achieving those goals. We believe in measuring everything that goes through," Kapoor explains.
Each time the department achieves an objective, the goal post is moved even further to ensure ever-higher levels of excellence.
"I want to see us as a performance-based and knowledge-based organization and a learning organization; we continue to learn and apply what we have learned to improve our transit system which ultimately enhances customer service," Kapoor says. "I'd like to see this agency move forward with even more of a customer focus."