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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ground Control to Major Tom

I've got to tell you, I was beginning to flag in my enthusiasm for transportation advocacy...

As you know, I've had a rough year and things seemed to be going along okay, so I thought I could let it ride the rest of the way on its own. Then, along came Jamal....

I got an e-mail and a phone call from an enthusiastic cab company entrepeneur here in Tyler the other day. I had plenty to do, bankers to schmooze, creditors to appease, lawyers and CPA's to make happy, so I wasn't exactly looking to get involved in some new crazy wild-haired campaign to reform transportation in East Texas. I'd just about decided to let someone else worry about transportation. I'm tired.

Then, I sat down to talk a little treason with Jamal. Holey, moley, I've found a kindred spirit! In a short meeting and a lunch, we'd decided to launch an organized effort to develop a regional transportation broker system for public transportation in East Texas. Now, when I've tried to explain this concept to people before, I usually get a lot of blank looks and confusion. Jamal got it right away, then he ran with it.

I come from a background in aviation, he told me. We have air traffic controllers that....

Yeah, I interrupted. We do like ground traffic control....

After that we started talking fast and finishing each other's sentences and pretty soon we worked out a strategy for pulling together a detailed outline of how the plan would work and presenting it to the regional steering committee. Ain't regional transportation planning grand? It's the same regional transportation idea ETJTA has been pushing for more than 6 years now (and the powers that be - they know who they are - have viewed with horror).

But don't you just love the air traffic control analogy? It's perfect. Even cab companies like Jamal's are installing GPS and tracking software. His dispatcher showed me their display. When you had a customer waiting, it showed a little stick figure. It showed where the assigned cab was and how fast it was approaching the rider. When the pickup is made, the stick figure disappears and when the fare is paid, the amount is recorded. How cool is that?

So why not create a master system that tracks the whole 14 county region, all provider vehicles, all riders. You have a single number to call and somebody to hook you up. There are all kind of software solutions to do that kind of dispatching.

That way if Jamal is hauling a couple of pints of blood to Addison and someone is headed for Mineola from Lindale, he can swing by and grab the fare on the way instead of sending a huge paratransit vehicle on a special trip for one guy. What a wonderful resource it would be. Each transit provider could continue to do its own dispatching if they wanted. They'd just be tracked by the master system too so they could be coordinated and the broker could hook up the provider from its end too. If we can track hundreds of planes in the air, why not hundreds of transit vehicles, cabs and vans on the ground.

The increase in responsiveness, reduction in turndowns for rides and increased loading such a system could generate would increase ridership. To make it work you'd need some basic stuff:

  1. A funding stream to cover the service - we might have to get TxDOT or the legislature to help us figure out how to structure that and obtain state, federal and/or local funding.
  2. GPS equipment would have to be installed on every participating transit bus, paratransit vehicle, cab and church van.
  3. The broker agency would have to be able to broker rides across all participating providers and have some control over how funding gets done
  4. The broker/ground traffic controller would have to have a development capacity to promote innovation, rules changes needed to facilitate coordination and cooperative equipment maintenance arrangements.
  5. The system would have to allow all provider partners to maintain independent operation while grabbing opportunities for picking up as many riders as possible. The broker dispatch system would act as a "travel agent" or better yet be able to interact with "travel agents" from human service agencies to broker rides. The as well as traffic control system.
  6. The system would have to favor efficiency and reliability and customer service FIRST!
  7. Eventually, the system should have the capacity to "hand off" traffic to other similar systems in border regions or to hand off customers from one provider to another to piece together trips that cross service boundaries.
  8. The broker/controller would have to be trusted by all the providers to be neutral. If it's a nonprovider, consumer oriented agency, then you've got a workable solution that more nearly guarantees equal treatment of all provider partners. It's in the interest of consumers to make sure everyone is successful so there are more resource out there.

Interesting how it works when you get fresh ideas at the table.

We need to create a planning group of around 10 people from a cross section of providers, consumers, civic and human service agencies. We need to create something like a business plan for a regional ground traffic controller / trip broker and then we present them to the steering committee.

What fun....

Just one man's opinion.

Tom King

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