Laketran officials reflect on services and 2023, look ahead to 2024

by Chad Felton | News-Herald

Laketran officials have noted that one of the agency’s biggest highlights in 2023 has been the sustained hours-of-operation increase, which includes Local Routes 1-9 and its door-to-door Dial-a-Ride service.

Under the new, extended hours, the transit agency now runs weekdays from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Laketran’s Route 4 (which connects Madison and Painesville) and Route 9 (which travels between Tyler Boulevard in Mentor to downtown Painesville) now operate on Saturdays.

The expanded hours serve to “support local businesses by helping employees working earlier or later shifts and to provide access, later in the evenings, to attend social and cultural events for people who rely on public transportation,” the agency reported.

As a result, Laketran saw a 27 percent ridership increase on its Local Routes and a 7 percent increase in Dial-a-Ride trips, comparing November 2023 to November 2022 ridership.

Laketran CEO Ben Capelle said the organization is thrilled to see the positive impact on the community.

“We believe in the power of public transportation to connect people and enhance their lives,” he added. “These latest service enhancements demonstrate our dedication to fostering economic development by supporting local businesses and improving residents’ well-being.”

HQ expansion

In March, Laketran broke ground on a $22 million expansion of its Painesville Township headquarters at 555 Lake Shore Blvd.

The project will add 37,670 square feet of operations and bus storage space to the existing 162,000-square-foot headquarters. Additional upgrades include expanding the operations center that houses dispatch, scheduling, and drivers’ area, as well as an additional

maintenance bay and indoor vehicle storage space.

The expansion is primarily funded by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration for bus and bus facilities, officials confirmed.

The project was designed and engineered by architecture and planning firm Richard L. Bowen and Associates and is being constructed by Ozanne Construction Co., both Cleveland-based firms.

Phase I of the venture is almost complete and marks a substantial achievement in expanding the agency’s physical footprint, officials noted.

“Moving our key operations team to different spaces while ensuring seamless service delivery presents a unique set of complexities for our building project,” Capelle said. “This next year, we will relocate our call center and dispatch and scheduling centers that operate 18-20 hours a day. There’s hardly any downtime in these departments, so we’ll be spending a significant amount of time planning these transitions so there is no impact on our customers.”

Overall, project construction is expected to be completed in late fall 2024.

“This building expansion is preparing us for the next 30 years,” said Laketran Board President Brian Falkowski. “Both our ridership and number of employees have more than doubled since our headquarters was built 30 years ago. This (project) will allow us to expand services to meet the needs of our residents while becoming more efficient and reliable in our service delivery.”

Additional challenges

Detailing obstacles, officials emphasized that the transit industry has not been immune to global supply chain issues which they described as “overextended” for quite some time.

Capelle said it has taken almost a year to get a bus back on the road because the agency is awaiting the arrival of several parts.

“Since our buses are custom-built and often under warranty, we cannot exactly shop around for parts,” he added. “It’s probably been our largest challenge in the past few years.”

Extended lead times to manufacturer vehicles, Capelle continued, also require more diligent planning for replacements.

“We used to be able to order a Dial-a-Ride bus and it would be manufactured in about nine months — now it takes a year to 18 months,” he said.

Major milestone

Established in 1974 by a resolution of the Lake County commissioners, Laketran will be celebrating its “golden jubilee” next year.

“As we approach the milestone of our 50th anniversary, we will reflect on a half-century of service, innovation, and community impact,” Falkowski said. “This celebration isn’t just about the longevity of a public transit agency, it’s a tribute to the enduring partnerships we’ve built, the growth we’ve achieved, and the collective progress we’ve made in fostering connectivity, accessibility, and a flourishing community.”

Improving Dial-a-Ride services

Laketran is also in the early phases of discussing additional improvements to its Dial-a-Ride service.

“We are looking at a scheduling model to offer same-day service that wouldn’t require reservations, similar to a traditional ride-share service,” Capelle said. “We know, sometimes it’s difficult to schedule every trip you need to take 2-12 days in advance, but we also want to be cognizant of our tax base by making an on-demand service as efficient as possible.”

Moreover, the agency is investing in minivans to help make Dial-a-Ride service more effective.

“We continue to see more demand and we already transitioned our larger buses to propane fuel to reduce fueling costs, but now we are looking at reducing our vehicle size to reduce the purchase price of the vehicles,” Capelle added.

EZfare smartcards and transit vending machines

Laketran continues to add more benefits to its mobile fare payment app, EZfare, to make the app more accessible to all customers.

“While most customers use a credit card or digital wallet to pay on EZfare, we want to make the convenience of the app available to our cash-paying customers or individuals that aren’t comfortable using a mobile device,” Capelle said.

In 2024, Laketran will launch a new EZfare smartcard for customers who prefer not to use the app but still want access to the app’s “Tap and Ride” feature. With the resource, Local Route customers are guaranteed to pay the lowest fare, thanks to fare capping, as daily fares will never exceed $4 per day.

Laketran will also be installing EZfare vending machines at its transit centers for customers to add tickets or stored value to the app, but prefer to pay with cash.

Officials confirmed that smartcards will also be available for purchase from the vending machines.