With Ray Jurkowski retiring as general manager after 14 years, Laketran knew 2017 was set to be a year of transition.
The organization in July promoted deputy general manager Ben Capelle to the role previously held by Jurkowski. But that’s not all the transit system faced — add conversion to a new fueling source; a state cut in the Elderly & Disable Transit Fare Assistance program; and a change in federal regulation restricting collection of sales tax on Medicaid managed-care organizations to the list.
But Laketran Board President Brian Falkowski believes the promotion of Capelle was the best choice in moving forward, particularly with daunting challenges to be faced.
“One of the largest accomplishments since I’ve been on the board has been being able to select someone working up the ranks, and it’s been fantastic,” said Falkowski. “Ben was able to jump into the role and tackle several large projects very quickly, hitting the ground running with new ideas of how to serve Lake County, manage expenses and create ways to grow revenue. All of the projects had the best possible outcome and helped further the organization. We’re off to a great start in this period.”
Capelle is only the third general manager in the agency’s 43-year history.
Operationally, the launch of Laketran’s propane Dial-a-Ride fleet stood as the agency’s largest accomplishment, according to Capelle.
“The installation of our 30,000-gallon fueling station and purchase of our first eight propane buses was a $1.6 million investment that will bring long-term environmental and economic benefit to Laketran and Lake County,” he said. “We’re saving 35 percent on our fuel expenses by operating propane buses, and propane vehicles are generally less expensive to maintain.”
Another highlight in 2017 for Laketran was its mobile app implementation, launched in May, which helps riders plan trips or track their bus.
The free app, which pulls GPS-enabled real-time schedule data, has nearly 1,000 downloads to date. The app also features a click-to-call feature so Dial-a-Ride customers are provided direct access to customer service.
Laketran also successfully negotiated a three-year contract with UAW, representing the company’s drivers, mechanics and customer service representatives.
“It was more like a conversation than a negotiation,” said Capelle. “It was very smooth. People come to work here to help the community, and we share a common mission. The UAW 1834 makes up 85 percent of our employees and we take a lot of pride in the relationship between the board, our administration and our union.”
Falkowski agreed with Capelle.
“We both recognize we’re all on the same team and we’re all working together to advance the organization,” he said.
Laketran was also one of six transit agencies to receive an Ohio EPA Diesel Emission Reduction Grants, a program which aims to replace public transit vehicles that are operating beyond their useful life to improve air quality.
“Being able to keep our fleet newer helps us keep costs down,” said Capelle.
Laketran’s largest operational and financial challenge remains the 14 percent increase in Dial-a-Ride trips over the last three years and how the agency will meet the transportation demand of a sizeable portion of Lake County’s aging community.
“While our grant funds to operate Saturday Dial-a-Ride service will be depleted by July 2018, by lowering other expenditures, we are able to sustain that service for seniors and people with disabilities for the upcoming year,” said Capelle. “The Dial-a-Ride demand coupled with cuts from state and MCO sales tax loss is definitely a strain on the budget, however with some prudent spending and cost saving measures Laketran produced a balanced 2018 budget.”
PLANS FOR 2018
The board approved a $14,715,370 operating budget for 2018 by reducing operating expenses 3.2 percent over 2016.
“We were able to reduce healthcare costs by 14 percent by joining a health pool of Ohio transit systems,” said Falkowski. “Laketran’s 2018 capital improvement budget, which is funded 80 percent by federal grants with a 20 percent local match, is $7,405,745. The major capital expenses for 2018 are the replacement of 14 propane buses for Dial-a-Ride and six motor coach buses for Park-n-Ride.”
With work is a primary destination for many of Laketran’s riders, the company’s additional goals in the new year will focus on service to Tyler Boulevard and mobile ticketing.
“Laketran does not currently serve Tyler Boulevard in Mentor, a corridor that is often lined with ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” said Falkowski. “We don’t want transportation to be a barrier for someone to work in Lake County. Laketran plans to spend 2018 working with community partners and employers to see how we can help them recruit and retain employees by improved transportation access to this manufacturing corridor. Working as a whole will help the Lake County economy.”
Capelle noted that the agency has been discussing fixed route service to Tyler Boulevard for some time.
“It’s the largest employment area in the county and we don’t serve it right now,” he said. “Individual manufacturers know what they need, but when you speak in the context of the whole area, there’s not a good cohesive set of data or vision for anything.
“Early in ’18, we have the city of Mentor, the Alliance for Working Together, Mentor Chamber of Commerce and the Port Authority coming together to talk about putting a survey out and engaging the manufacturers to determine what their needs are and how we can get a handle on what the demand is.”
In conjunction with the mobile app, Laketran is also looking to heighten customer experience with mobile ticketing, which Capelle describes as the next big step.
“Customers will be able to pay for their trips from a secure app, all account-based,” he said. “We will also provide Dial-a-Ride customers an option to pay their fare when booking their trip, similar to when you purchase an airline ticket. Mobile ticketing and pre-payment on Dial-a-Ride in the long run will eliminate the need for costly fare boxes and bus passes.
“One of the big complaints about transit in general, especially with younger people, is credit card use. People want convenience; they want to be able to pay with their phone. They don’t want to have to prepare to take a trip on the bus. It would save us money, also. Handling money is expensive, and any way we can cut out expenses and make it easier at the same time, why wouldn’t you do that?”
Laketran fareboxes cost about $13,000 each.
“If we can transition long-term pre-payment, it may become mandatory,” said Capelle, adding mobile ticketing will avoid preventative maintenance on the fareboxes. “Any way to cut cost and provide more efficient service is a key factor.”
Laketran will evaluate its Park-n-Ride timings, too, in 2018, to ensure improvement in performance, as the company has seen two years of growth with its commuter service.
Capelle, less than six months in his new role, remains optimistic, especially when considering the woes of other agencies.
“A lot of transit agencies are struggling around the state, which has kind of abandoned transit,” he said. “It’s up to us to come up with solutions. Happily, we’re able to continue to operate without any cuts or fare increases. Other transit systems aren’t that fortunate. We’re very happy that we don’t have to make major changes to the customers as a result of the state basically dropping the ball.”