POSTED ON AUGUST 18, 2010:
Scratching a Niche
MTTA's Public hybrid transit plan awaits green light
Pilotís Progress. If MTTAís curb-to-curb service proves popular, it would provide a more affordable and timely link to locations often excluded from Tulsa Transitís fixed-route bus service.
Customers of the city's bus system may soon get to "call-a-ride" to a specific location, if a novel concept for public transportation gets the OK from local officials.
The results of a public survey gauging the demand for a curb-to-curb public transit service seem to be paving the way for a Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority pilot program, according to MTTA's top brass.
"The way I would characterize these survey results is there is definitely an interest in this service," said CEO and general manager for Tulsa Transit Bill Cartwright.
This Call-a-Ride service would allow customers to set up a time for a shuttle to pick them up and take them to their destination for a set fare, Cartwright said. Customers could use the program to travel for shopping, job interviews, doctor's appointments -- locations that are often excluded from Tulsa Transit's fixed-route bus service.
To determine if a pilot program should be tested, Tulsa Transit set up a survey on its website this past July. Out of the 151 people who participated in the online survey, 47 percent said they would use a public shuttle service if the cost was less than a taxi. About 40 percent surveyed did not own a vehicle.
After receiving confirmation from the Federal Transit Administration to move on with the program in mid-August, Tulsa Transit will soon present the pilot program to the Tulsa Transit Board of Directors on Aug. 31, said Cynthia Staab, Tulsa Transit's assistant general manager.
After confirmation, the program could probably begin within 60 days, Cartwright said.
Although the idea for the service has been discussed for years, Cartwright said Tulsa Transit began looking closely at the possible program in June.
Much of the infrastructure needed for the program is already in place, including a call-center and scheduling software, Staab said.
For the trial program, Tulsa Transit would use its existing vehicles, Cartwright said. With Tulsa Transit drivers already having chauffeur licenses required for taxi drivers' services, no additional licensing would be needed to start the pilot program.
These vehicles could pick up customers throughout Tulsa as well as the fixed-route bus service areas in surrounding cities, which include parts of Broken Arrow, Jenks and Sand Springs.
And the longer the trip, the better the savings compared to local taxi services, Cartwright said. The rate per trip would be based on distance, but with Tulsa Transit vehicles lacking meters, customers would pay certain prices for trips that are five to 10 miles, 10 to 20 miles, and so forth.
"We'll have to charge a rate close to the market rate, but we still think we could do it cheaper than taxi companies," Cartwright said.
However, the service should not be confused with an aim to drive taxi companies out of business.
"Our goal is not to compete with taxi companies but to provide one more option for Tulsa residents," Cartwright said. "The reason why we are interested in it is that we think it is one way we could increase mobility in the city."
In fact, Tulsa Transit is looking into ways to negotiate with taxi companies to use their vehicles and some services for the pilot program, Staab said. Taxi companies currently work with Tulsa Transit for its Lift Program.
However, some local taxi companies worry the proposed service would affect the struggling taxi cab companies in Tulsa.
"Do I see it as fair? No, absolutely not," said Scott Kartee, owner of Tulsa Airport Taxi. "There's no protection for a guy like me when they go out and undercut us. Why the city of Tulsa would go into the taxi cab business and undercut us is beyond me."
With Tulsa Transit covering the costs for benefits and worker's compensation for each employee, Kartee said he is unsure of how Call-a-Ride rates could possibly be lower than other taxi companies in the area.
"The only way they could do that is by tripling and quadrupling rider-ship, which slows down times," he said. "People don't want to do that. They want to get from point A to point B on time."
Cartwright said passengers on the Call-a-Ride program would often have to share a ride with others using the service. And these passengers would not be sharing a ride on one of the Transit Authority's buses.
"We have a paratransit Lift fleet that has about 45 vehicles," Cartwright said. "In order to do a pilot program at the lowest possible cost, we would use those vehicles for the pilot."
The Lift Program consists of lift-equipped mini-buses, sedans, minivans and other vehicles and offers rides for people with disabilities who are ADA Paratransit Eligible.
Once the pilot program begins, Cartwright said he will be looking for a few key signs to determine if the Transit Authority should take the next step. The program must integrate well with the Transit Authority's other existing programs.
Although a number of other cities throughout the country have a similar program to the Call-a-Ride service, most are highly subsidized.
"We don't have a federal or local grant to support it, so it would have to support itself," he said. "There must be a demand for it so it can defray the costs."
If the program is a success, Staab said a new group of area residents will have transportation options that have never been offered before in the city. According to the survey results, 47 percent of surveyors had a household income of $25,000 or less and 65 percent use public transit services. The Call-a-Ride program would be able to serve a group of people between the often transit-dependent bus riders and the customers who use taxi companies for transportation.
"Our bus system isn't convenient for everyone," she said. "We're trying to find and serve that niche between bus passengers and taxi passengers."
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