Two years after Laketran’s sales tax levy passage, the transit agency continues to honor its mission to provide safe and environmentally-friendly transportation while increasing service improvements and innovations.
While things haven’t been easy amid the pandemic, the agency has moved forward replacing old vehicles and expanding operations and infrastructure, including the construction and renovation of area centers, all the while providing community outreach and facilitating fare options for customers.
Transit centers and electric buses
Laketran opened two new indoor transit centers this year, with one paying tribute to a local “transit pioneer” and the agency’s first general manager. The Frank J. Polivka Transit Center on the campus of Lakeland Community College in Kirtland opened last spring and serves as a central hub for the transit agency.
In October, Laketran held a grand opening of the Wickliffe Park-n-Ride Transit Center. The opening of both transit centers hosted over 100 community members and officials, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
“This past year was truly a landmark year for Laketran,” said Laketran Board President Brian Falkowski. “The opening of our two new facilities and deployment of the state’s first battery-operated electric buses was the culmination of years of planning. It’s very exciting to see the buses on the road and our riders enjoying the benefits of our transit centers.”
The two transit centers provide customers access to multiple transit routes and have indoor waiting areas, accessible real-time information, public restrooms, bike racks, and Wi-Fi, the agency confirmed. The Wickliffe Park-n-Ride parking lot also has four public electric vehicle charging stations. Both transit centers were built primarily with state and federal funding that supported the infrastructure needs to deploy zero-emissions, battery-operated electric buses.
The agency replaced a majority of its 12-year-old diesel transit bus fleet with new electric buses, eliminating diesel fuel costs, engine noise and most required maintenance, along with vehicle emissions. Operating a cost-effective, on-route charging system, the agency installed six overhead fast chargers, which can deliver up to 450 kW of power charging a bus in 3 to 6 minutes. The chargers feature pantograph connection charging so when a bus pulls up to the charger, the charger communicates with the bus, enabling the automatic connection to initiate a charge session.
Mobile food pantry
Last January, Laketran retrofitted a retired Dial-a-Ride bus, re-branding it as the Lake County Mobile Food Pantry. Each week, Laketran picks up donated produce and distributes it to low-income seniors at the Mentor Park-n-Ride. In partnership with the Lake County commissioners, Lifeline, Inc., the Lake County Council on Aging and the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the program was created during the onset of the pandemic to assist seniors in getting food safely but also continues to help those with food insecurities. Through August, the program had served over 3,670 households, officials report. “This creative program is an excellent example of how well Lake County agencies collaborate to solve problems in our community,” said Laketran CEO Ben Capelle. “Our residents should never go without food and it’s great that we have found a way to help address this together for seniors here in Lake County.”
Laketran launched a new employee benefits program for Lake County employers to offer free transportation to those who use public transit to access work. The program was funded through the Paradox Prize program, an initiative of the Fund for Our Economic Future in efforts to improve the mobility of Northeast Ohio’s workforce and generate sustainable solutions to eliminate the “no car, no job; no job, no car” paradox in Northeast Ohio. Additionally, according to Laketran, the goal of the pilot program is to test ways to reduce transportation barriers for workers and help employers access the talent they need improving recruitment and retention in the workplace. This year, Laketran has enrolled over 150 businesses and nearly 350 employees in the program.
“Our biggest challenge has been everyone’s biggest challenge — hiring,” Capelle said. “As ridership has rebounded this year, we have been challenged to hire enough drivers, mechanics, vehicle servicers and customer service representatives to fill those positions. “We’ve found success in hosting hiring events, instead of the traditional interview process, but we’ve had to spend time planning and marketing the events to recruit candidates.”
Laketran has played a key role in providing free transportation to seniors and people with disabilities to get vaccinated this year with support from the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Rides for Community Immunity grant. The funds allowed Laketran to collaborate with Lake County General Health District and other first-responders to provide transportation to mass vaccination clinics as well as individual appointments.
Falkowski said the state transportation budget and federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have improved funding opportunities for Laketran and public transportation overall. “We were able to avoid cuts in the state budget this year which covers fiscal years 2022 and 2023, and the infrastructure law will bring about $100 million of new federal investments to Northeast Ohio over the next five years,” he added.
“This funding has reversed years of cuts and required a lot of advocacy,” Falkowski said. “We appreciate the support we received from all our elected officials at the state and federal level in passing the legislation needed to support public transit services and access for our community.”
Recently, Laketran partnered with Mentor Public Schools, Wickliffe City Schools and Painesville Local Schools to allow students to ride Local Route 1-9 fare-free with the goal to improve access to after-school jobs, internships, activities, and local resources. Laketran officials hope to expand the program to remaining high schools along local routes, including Fairport Harbor and Willoughby-Eastlake schools.
In 2022, Laketran will complete its five-year propane transition project for its Dial-a-Ride (door-to-door service) fleet.
“As long as we don’t run into any supply chain issues, we plan to replace our final 18 diesel-fueled Dial-a-Ride buses with propane-fueled vehicles, converting a total of 52 buses,” Capelle said, adding propane saves the agency about 35 percent in fuel costs annually. “We’re happy to be near the end of this project.”
Laketran also improved the accessibility of its mobile fare payment app, dubbed “EZfare,” allowing transit users to purchase bus passes with cash via the app at 70 retail outlets across the county.
“It’s important to us that our EZfare app was accessible to riders even if they did not have a credit or debit card to make in-app purchases,” Capelle said. “The app is intended to make transit more convenient and now it is for all our customers no matter how they pay their fares.”
The EZfare app also aims to improve regionalism for public transit by offering one app where a customer can purchase fares for multiple transit systems. Laketran officials recently announced the Greater Cleveland RTA will be piloting the app next year, “which will assist riders who use the neighboring transit system.”