When Ben Capelle was hired as general manager of Laketran in July of 2017, he knew he wanted to continue to do big things with the agency, and the transition has been productive yet challenging.
Bringing 17 years of transit experience from working as a student bus driver, transit operations manager and general manager of Clermont County RTA, east of Cincinnati, Capelle was the prime candidate to replace then-general manager Ray Jurkowski, who held the position for 14 years.
Capelle, who first joined Laketran in 2012, and was promoted to deputy general manager in April 2016, was unanimously chosen as general manager by Laketran’s Board of Trustees.
He believes his all-encompassing involvement in the industry has aided him in his journey to transit executive.
“Morale starts from the bottom-up in an organization,” Capelle said. “By having experience as a bus driver, I believe it helps me relate to the drivers and understand our employee needs.”
In his first year, Capelle is most proud of expanding Laketran’s partnership with Lakeland Community College, which now provides campus shuttle service between the main campus and the Holden University Center.
Last month, Laketran and Lakeland approved a 10-year contract for Campus Loop service that will begin Aug. 27 for the fall semester. With the launch of Campus Loop, the transit agency will be adding new service for the first time in 20 years.
“Partnerships like this really just make sense, and it’s mutually beneficial,” Capelle said. “There are many organizations that have transportation needs like senior centers, health and human service agencies, employers and schools. Our goal is to allow them to focus on their core programs and services, while allowing Laketran to manage their transportation needs.
“Laketran is the largest transportation provider in Lake County, and due to our volume of service, we can often create efficiencies and improvements in service for organizations, like what we’re doing for Lakeland. We have an established labor force and the vehicles and technology to provide the scheduling and supervision. We don’t see a need for duplication in this infrastructure.”
As the regional transit provider, Laketran also leverages federal grant funding to provide cost savings to partners when purchasing buses and transit amenities — an example being the agency’s partnering with the city of Wickliffe’s beautification program to help fund trash cans at transit locations along Euclid Avenue to improve streetscaping and the waiting areas.
Earlier this year, Laketran created a stakeholders group with the city of Mentor, the Mentor Chamber of Commerce, Alliance for Working Together and the Lake County Port Authority to discuss the best way to address the transportation needs along Tyler Boulevard to improve access to jobs.
Capelle and the agency then surveyed manufacturers along the business corridor and held a focus group with area staffing agencies that provide employees to many of the businesses.
“Right now, we’re reviewing the data we received from the surveys to better understand commuting patterns, but the challenge has always been not exactly knowing where the potential employees will be commuting from,” Capelle said. “There are various solutions and some are easier and more affordable to implement than others. There’s always the consideration of a traditional route bus or shuttle connecting our Great Lakes Mall Transfer Center, but it is the most expensive to operate.
Capelle noted other solutions, including reverse commuter service using the agency’s existing Park-n-Ride routes returning to Lake County from Cleveland or working with individual businesses on establishing vanpool programs.
Laketran has been able to sustain its core services amid many budget cuts, but that leaves little opportunity to expand services and meet growing Dial-a-Ride demand.
“We have endured significant reductions in funding in both 2017 and 2018,” Capelle said.“We were able to balance the budget, but right now, expansion is not an option as we struggle with the increased Dial-a-Ride service.”
Capelle’s first task last fall was to find financial stability amid a nearly $500,000 sales tax loss due to a federal regulation change that no longer permitted sales tax collection on Medicaid managed-care organizations, and a state cut in the Elderly & Disabled Transit Fare Assistance program of $75,000 annually (nearly $200,000, including 2017 and 2018) .
Laketran was able to balance the 2018 budget by saving 14 percent in healthcare expenses and reducing operating expenses, but that isn’t an option every year, Capelle said.
“Everyone talks about how Lake County is getting older, well, we’ve seen it,” he said. “Medical and senior center trips are way up (with our Dial-a-Ride service). Over the last three years, Dial-a-Ride trips have increased 14 percent and demand continues to grow. Our grant funds to operate Saturday Dial-a-Ride service depleted earlier this year, but by lowering other expenditures we are able to sustain that service for seniors and people with disabilities this year.”
Focusing on the customer experience by launching real-time tools (bus tracking; a Google trip planner; and online reservations for Dial-a-Ride customers), Capelle said the agency is seeking to do even more to enhance the experience.
This month, Laketran, in partnership with NEO Ride, selected a service provider to launch a regional mobile ticketing application to manage fare collection.
“To stay relevant, you need to make your services easily accessible and mobile payment gives riders instant access to purchase bus passes and use them immediately without the need to carry cash,” Capelle said. “Additionally, traditional cash fare collection with a farebox adds to our operating cost. Each electronic farebox costs Laketran $13,000 and there’s also the cost to process the cash. Our goal is to go cashless, starting with our Park-n-Ride service, to reduce these costs and streamline the fare collection process.”
Laketran is also currently testing an option for Dial-a-Ride customers to pay their fares when booking trips, similar to purchasing an airline ticket. This also, Capelle added, will eliminate cost and increase operational efficiency.
“There’s a lot of conversation in our industry right now that in order for transit to be relevant in people’s lives we need to not just focus on getting people from A to B along a transit line, but to provide mobility options,” Capelle said. “Transit providers are transitioning from traditional fixed and paratransit transit to providing the mobility options, and those services may include bike programs or partnering with rideshare programs.
“One new transit option Laketran is considering is vanpooling,” he added. “While a new concept to Lake County, but very popular in other parts of the country, vanpooling is a great solution to help people access jobs along industrial corridors. People want options and that’s what I’m hoping we can provide, meaningful transportation options that improve access and quality.
“We now have employees who commute to Lake County from Cleveland reverse commuting on our Park-n-Ride buses and then taking an Uber from a Park-n-Ride to their office,” he continued. “In the future, vanpool could also provide options for employees along the state Route 271 and University Circle.”
Even before marking one year as Laketran CEO, Capelle was awarded the Top 4 Under 40 Transit Leaders by the Ohio Public Transit Association in April. He has also been recognized nationally as Mass Transit Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40.
Laketran Board President Brian Falkowski, acknowledging daunting financial challenges, believes Capelle to be a true asset who continues to bring innovative ideas to the table.
“We continue to be impressed by his vision and solutions for what Laketran can do for Lake County,” he said. “Anytime you can reduce expenses and improve customer experience simultaneously, you’re moving in the right direction.”