Technology, better facilities and cooperation among transit authorities will be key ingredients to helping companies connect with workers in a region that's growing, said Bill Jones, the new general manager of Harrisburg-based Capital Area Transit.
If the region's four public transit agencies — CAT, Lebanon Transit, York's rabbittransit and Lancaster's Red Rose Transit — work together, they'll be able to better assist Central Pennsylvania's growing economy, he said. CAT serves Cumberland and Dauphin counties.
Jones took over daily operations of CAT on Aug. 17 and was thrust into some of the transit authority's ongoing issues, such as an aging facility in the flood plain, that affect how it meets the transportation needs of workers and companies. He will replace Executive Director Jim Hoffer, who is retiring in the spring.
Jones, 55, is originally from Sharon, Mercer County. He's a 1978 graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he studied business accounting. He's worked in transportation for 28 years and joined CAT in 2008 as the assistant director for operation.
Jones lives in Susquehanna Township with his wife, Debbie.
Q: How does public transit benefit businesses in Central Pennsylvania?
A: It's important in numerous ways. It opens up other sources of employees. (Companies) can have a wider search. It used to be that the busing industry was all local, ran up and down your local streets. If you sit here in Harrisburg today, you'll not only see Capital Area Transit, you'll see rabbittransit, you'll see Lebanon Transit, as well as many other providers, some as far away as up above State College driving down here every day. And our routes are much more far-reaching, out into Shippensburg and up into Elizabethville. So it opens up for employers that way. … It's very much returning to the days of taking people to work.
And we're an industry in ourselves. We provide jobs and all the jobs that go along with us. Not just our drivers. There's mechanics and all the people providing us fuel and paint and cleaning supplies and parts and tires.
Do you plan to expand direct transit to large employers?
We're always looking for opportunities to partner with employers. Again, it goes back to density. You like to have some way of grouping the trips. It's tough if you're picking up at 30 locations and dropping off at 30 locations, but if you can get it down to four or five locations for the pick up and one drop-off, or vice-versa, it makes sense. So anytime we have an opportunity, we will.
You look at other issues like parking in town. It costs employers. Employers may say we'll put a parking lot out there; but in 10 years, who's going to pay when that needs to be replaced? It's coming out of your bottom line. If you look at it on long term, you can offer incentives for people to use public transit to come to work and then you don't have to provide all those spaces.
What was it like managing CAT your first months, especially during the flood?
Part of it was kind of rewarding. Because we spent all Thursday before the flood taking things off the first floor and moving to the second floor and moving buses. And what really amazed me was on Saturday we started at 8 o'clock and were done by noon. It was so rewarding to see everyone work together. There was not anyone saying "That's not my job." There was no arguing. There was such a great sense of teamwork. It was fun. Was it stressful? Yeah.
Jim Hoffer focused on renewing CAT's fleet in his tenure. What will be your focus?
In the short term, we need to improve how we disseminate our information or how people find out about CAT and what's going on through real-time passenger information. We talked about the (paper) schedules and getting away from that. We need to have more of that stuff available now.
Jim admitted he was not the technology guy. He knew that wasn't him, and he was honest to himself. I like the technology, but I also know that our customers, right now, expect it. But shortly, they're going to demand it. It's becoming much more commonplace … right now we have to figure out how to afford it because there's a whole system. … There's also things like automatic customer counters, where you can see how many people are getting on and off of your vehicles. You'll be able to use that data to adjust the services to the demand.
You also mentioned a capital plan. What can we expect from that?
We're just in the infancy. Our fleet's in good shape. But we have a high degree of need in technology. We need a new facility. But it can't just be CAT and CAT administrators telling us what we need. It should be our customers. What do they see we need? With the new federal courthouse, do we need a new transfer center? Do we need better shelters?
We know we need a new facility. Our facility here is 107 years old. We've outgrown it. And it was evident (during the flood). When we should've been figuring out how to help people through a disaster, we were trying to figure out how to help ourselves out of a disaster. We need to be out of the flood plain, so that we're doing what we should. So we can be ready to react. There's a whole process. Right now we're in the process of redoing ourselves.
Where are talks on regional cooperation and potential mergers?
I don't see huge changes in the near future. There's some low-hanging fruit when it comes to cooperation, maybe trying to align our fare structures closer. I talked about real-time passenger information so if you got off a CAT bus and wanted to ride a rabbittransit bus, you could see those in one application.
Long-term, we've got to find a way to improve corridors. Is that cooperation, or is that all the way to mergers? I think everything has to be on the table to look at.