FAITH HARPER, email@example.com
A professional transit management company soon will take the lead over day-to-day operations of Tyler Transit.
The Tyler City Council approved a contract with McDonald Transit to provide a general manager for the department for $156,864 per a year. The contract is expected to be finalized by the end of April, said Russ Jackson, the city’s director of Solid Waste, Transit and Vehicle Services.
The company will serve as a manager for the transit department and complete some projects, including looking at methods to improve route efficiency.
The department operates using state and federal transit grants, and the firm will make sure the city is staying in compliance with federal guidelines, as well as ensure the paratransit system is meeting guidelines. Paratransit is a specialized pickup service for disabled people.
Drivers will remain city of Tyler employees, and the vehicles will stay with the city. McDonald Transit will act mostly in an administrative role.
“I want to avoid legal issues, which is where we were somewhere in the past,” Jackson said. “If you don’t use (Federal Transit Administration) funds properly, you can be visited by folks who want to put you in an orange jumpsuit.”
Tyler has never had any grant funds taken away, or had to pay any back, but it has had issues with compliance.
Part of the problem, Jackson said, was a rapid turnover in the department’s leadership.
“These were good people and good leaders, but they had to learn everything,” Jackson said. “You’d get someone in there and they’d retire or they would take another job offer. The biggest aspect of it is there’s a constant learning curve - it’s an area of sensitivity because we deal with federal and TxDOT funds.”
Jackson took over the department three years ago and has been working to make it more efficient. He’s looking toward retirement in a few years and for ways to make Transit flourish once he’s gone.
That’s where McDonald comes in, he said. The company has specific expertise in transit – the do’s and don’ts of how to tweak routes, best practices from other cities as well as finding additional grant funding the city qualifies for.
“I want someone with 30 or 40 years experience,” he said. “There’s connectivity. They have other city models that follow (Federal Transit Administration) and (Texas Department of Transportation) rules. It’s streamlining what we will do.
The city’s transit department could have used some of that expertise in the past.
For example, in 2014, the city put in new, covered bus stops, but the stands purchased were not ADA compliant, and as a fix, a seat was removed from the stops to accommodate wheelchairs.
“They did a lot of things that were a knee-jerk reaction,” Jackson said. “They pulled seats from the stops and did umbrella stands, which are not good enough for the rain or sun because they are too small. We want to turn around and put in new bus stops by getting grants to pay for it. That takes time, and it’s expensive, but we want to start over and get things going in the right direction.”
The paratransit service also had issues.
“We weren’t meeting state guidelines for our paratransit when I took over,” Jackson said. “We were turning down health calls and things that were urgent. But, we were able to do it and stay in budget (using an overflow vendor) and not turn down any calls. We went from a poor rating to a 100 percent rating.”
Jackson said the city also was behind on vehicle purchases. That problem, he said, will be corrected in a few more budget years as the city gets grants to replace aging vehicles. Newer vehicles have fewer maintenance costs.
But, Jackson has more ideas on how to improve the department. He has lots of ideas on how to improve service - including getting bus stops in apartment complexes and in grocery stores. He also wants a deep evaluation of how it uses its vehicles and drivers already on the road to improve efficiency.
The firm will help ensure those moves don’t violate state and federal policies.
The contract is for five years, with one-year renewals after that. It's also budget neutral.
“McDonald Transit’s bid proposal won't affect our current operation cost," Jackson said.
There is an opt-out if the city is unsatisfied with the work.
“They have to come in and roll their sleeves up - there’s work that needs to be done,” Jackson said. “They are coming in at a great time because we are doing the budget process. The firm needs to be a part of that.”