The Greater Peoria Mass Transit District (GPMTD), more commonly known as CityLink, has provided public transit in the region since 1970. Over the years, it has continually evolved to better serve its mission: “to provide economic, social and environmental benefits to the community through progressive, customer-focused transportation service by combining state-of-the-art equipment and facilities with professional, well-trained staff.”
Doug Roelfs became general manager of CityLink on February 1, 2017, following a three-month stint as assistant general manager. Roelfs grew up in Mediapolis, Iowa, active in sports and scouting, and started his career in the Public Works Department of his hometown. Since joining First Transit Inc. in 2013, he has served public transit operations in Davenport, Iowa and Berkshire, Massachusetts, and provided assistance for transit agencies in Tennessee, Massachusetts and Texas. iBi sat down with Roelfs to discuss public transportation in Peoria and CityLink’s plans and priorities in the year ahead.
Tell us about your early career. How did your background in public works prepare you for positions in public transportation?
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a carpenter and was fortunate to find an opportunity with one of the best carpenters in the area. Then the ‘80s recession hit… There was a steep decline in work when interest rates were close to 20 percent. I was lucky to get a position in public works at the City of Mediapolis. My grandfather was city clerk from around 1965 to 1974, and when he retired my father took the position. I became the third generation to work for the City. Working for a small town, everyone is watching what you do and how you spend their money. I think this instilled in me hard-working values—and trying to get the most out of what little money you have.
When I began with the City of Mediapolis, I had to become state-certified in water and wastewater operation and follow state and EPA regulations, as well as monthly and annual reporting. This served me well when moving to public transit. I also began to work closely with the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission to stay on the inside track for available grants or programs that would benefit the City. Toward the end of my public works career, I had opened up a couple TIF districts, and the City was awarded a $400,000 CDBG grant. We also received $800,000 for repaving Main Street, which included downtown improvements with new sidewalks and beautification. Since it was a small town, I was also president of Community Development, and during my tenure we were awarded money for a housing development, as well as another grant to retain a medical clinic.
How is Peoria similar to (and different from) Burlington and Davenport, Iowa, where you held similar positions?
Unlike Peoria, the transit departments in both Burlington and Davenport were part of the Public Works Department, and they were at the bottom of the needs chart. In fact, I raised an extra $100,000 in revenue at Burlington, only to see it funneled away from transit into the general fund, which was frustrating.
Having a Board of Trustees that wants transit to prosper is very positive. It gives us the ability to focus on the needs of our passengers and what can we do for them. That is probably the one thing that is consistent across the Midwest—the population of smaller communities makes it hard to deliver service that suits everyone’s needs. The big cities can get you a bus every 10 to 15 minutes during peak service; whereas we can get one every 30 minutes during peak service, but hourly service is the norm. That can make for a long day if passengers miss the bus and have to wait an hour for the next one.
Tell us about First Transit Inc. and its management relationship with CityLink.
In 1971, GPMTD started contracting with ATE, which was later purchased by First Transit. CityLink has been associated with First Transit since 1980, becoming one of its first long-time customers. Besides First Transit, FirstGroup America also operates First Student (school bus provider), Greyhound (intercity coach services) and First Vehicle Services, which owns the vehicles and hires their own employees. Under the First Transit management design, the general manager reports to the five-member Board of Trustees. First Transit also provides an assistant general manager, but all other employees are employed by the GPMTD.
By using a management firm, the board is assured they have a capable general manager at all times. They can also pull in transit expertise from around the country. Should you have an issue in a specific area, someone in the First Transit family has certainly dealt with it and can help out.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the public transportation system in Greater Peoria? What are your greatest challenges?
The strengths are the support from the Board of Trustees and the City of Peoria in general. We also have a good core of drivers, mechanics, utility workers and administrative staff. The drivers enjoy their jobs and we have a very experienced staff.
The challenges continue to be figuring out the ever-changing needs of our transit population. We need to move as our passengers move, and grow as they grow. People often get settled into a bus being at this corner at this time, and it is hard to adjust some routes that are still configured to the Caterpillar heyday. We need to make changes, but it can be hard to determine what we should change, and the effects are sometimes difficult to control since everyone wants what is best for them. So we tend to just settle with what we have.
A weakness is always a lack of funding for everything we need. We do our best to prioritize and hope we can survive until the necessary funding comes along. We had a large portion of our fleet replaced when ARRA funding came along. We hope that type of funding will be available when our fleet hits its replacement age in another seven or eight years.
Repairing buses can be just as costly as replacing them, and the industry trend is for more environmentally-friendly vehicles, such as hybrid and electric buses, which can be one- to two-thirds more costly. We can buy a diesel bus with all the clean air emissions for around $450,000 to $500,000; the latest hybrid buses we bought were closer to $650,000. They get better fuel mileage, but is it enough to warrant the extra $200,000 over a 12- to 14-year life expectancy? That is something we’re still researching.
The electric buses are closer to a million dollars, with the additional cost of charging stations. A number of transit systems went to compressed natural gas (CNG) a few years ago, on the logic that fuel prices would continue to rise. But refueling stations for CNG are very expensive, and most were constructed with grants that became available. We’re not sure the trend of rising fuel ever made that a big money saver, although CNG is a clean fuel source. We currently use soy-based biodiesel in all of our buses. Even our older buses emit cleaner exhaust than the air they pull in.
Several years ago, public transportation ridership was setting new record highs. Has that trend continued?
The last three years, ridership has been declining. This has been a nationwide trend that seems to be caused by a number of different issues. Fuel prices have fallen from an all-time high, and the ability to own and maintain a car is more affordable with lower interest rates. I think the population decline in the Peoria area has also contributed to our declining ridership, as well as the ever-changing transit population. Another factor seems to be that people have more transportation choices today. They can use a traditional taxicab service, Uber, or even bike around town with the new “Complete Streets.” People are very resourceful and clever, and they can figure out how to get the most out of each ride and what the most affordable option is for them.
Tell us more about your paratransit service and rural transportation programs. How is managing these programs different from regular bus service?
CityLift (paratransit) and CountyLink (rural) services are more individualized and personal; the drivers and passengers tend to be on a first-name basis. There are typically no more than two or three passengers at one time, and they are going to the same appointments routinely. They also cover larger distances, especially on the CountyLink side, bringing people into the city for medical appointments and shopping; however, passengers of both services ride for many different reasons.
As of February 1st, we have combined the dispatching offices to provide a more efficient, cost-effective and rider-friendly experience, with more staff on hand to assist the customer. We contract with MV Transportation to operate both services for us, but GPMTD owns the vehicles. Within the last six months we have replaced 31 CityLift vehicles, while more than half of the CountyLink vehicles are only two years old, which means both services are operating with new, state-of-the-art equipment.
Describe some of CityLink's energy efficiency initiatives and the savings they bring.
Using public transportation is one way to reduce your carbon footprint while saving money. It takes other vehicles off the road, and passengers can rest assured knowing they are riding a clean-air bus. All 53 buses in our current fleet are certified clean-air buses.
In the past year and half, we added four New Flyer Xcelsior diesel-electric hybrid buses to our fleet, which use both biodiesel fuel and an electric battery. They can reduce emissions by up to 90 percent compared to conventional diesel-fueled buses, and they reduce vehicle noise throughout the entire operating range.
Being environmentally friendly is something we strive for, not only to save on costs, but to provide our passengers and the community with a transportation option they can be proud to use and see on the streets of our service area.
Tell us more about the current status of the North Side Transfer Zone project. Are additional sites being considered besides the Brandywine Drive location? What key characteristics are you looking for?
Of the 16 initial proposed sites, there are about four available sites remaining. We have identified another potential site, but we are in the early evaluation stages. It is a decent lot, but it initially scored on the lower end because it really isn’t near a well-established commercial area.
We were hoping for something closer to the Northwoods Mall area. This project was the result of a study in 2009, and has been in the works since 2013, when we had increasing ridership and more development to the north and west. I feel we should take a step back and determine if the North Side Transfer Zone is something we need in the current environment. I think there are options out there that could serve our purposes and are more affordable and make logistical sense. We continue to have discussions with the property owners at the mall, and I really think a “super-stop” or something in that vicinity would be best for everyone. We do not have a lot of support from developers or residents, who have expressed concerns that this facility would be a detriment to the area. We really need to educate the public on what we are trying to achieve and the benefits from it, or move on to another project.
Our buses are clean-air; they are not loud and noisy like other large vehicles. The exhaust that comes from our buses is cleaner than the air going in. What we are proposing is a transfer facility where people would be transferring from one bus to another. Depending on the location, this would not necessarily be a site for foot traffic.
We are looking for a facility in a central location so not all of our routes have to go down to the Transit Center. Then we could leave some buses further out to cut down on time going back and forth downtown. I was involved in the same issue in Davenport when we connected many routes at the mall because they no longer wanted us on their property. Our transit facility was located downtown where all the routes connected, just like Peoria. When I was leaving that location, they finally got a curb cut out along a major corridor so three buses could pull in together and transfer riders. We have yet to identify a space where this would work or be suitable.
What are the top priorities and plans for CityLink in 2018?
The top priority that has been identified recently is helping to get people to high-quality food sources with the closure of the two Kroger stores in Peoria. We currently have service to all the major grocery stores in Peoria, so it is easy to get to the store of your choice; however, it may take some time to get on the route of your choice if you have to transfer downtown. I am not sure any major route changes are necessary at this time, but we have discussed a possible shopping tripper from the area that is without adequate fresh food supply.
We plan to do some remodeling at the Transit Center this summer or fall, which is looking to cost around $500,000. Some changes will be noticed by visitors, while others will be more behind the scenes, such as electrical and infrastructure updates.
We plan to get bids on Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL) software, Automatic Voice Announcements (AVA) software and possibly Automatic Passenger Counters (APC) software. AVL would help locate our buses and relay that information to passengers so they know when the bus will be at their stop. It will also assist our customer service should a person call in looking for a particular route. AVA would assist with our ADA requirement to announce which stop the bus is at and which one is coming up. APC would assist in planning routes and telling us where our passengers are actually getting on and off the bus. Currently our information is limited to what route they are riding and general information on how a route is performing. With APC, we can drill down and tell which stops are the most utilized, and reconstruct routes based on that information.
We are also in the process of redesigning our website to better serve the needs of our passengers, residents and visitors. We plan to integrate Google Maps, including a “Trip Planner” which will make it simple for visitors to plan their trip using our bus service. There will likely not be any major changes to routes until we sort out the North Side Transfer Zone project and gather more information from the integration of APC software.
Anything else to add?
CityLink is a vital partner of the community—we take our role seriously and are willing to work with those who need us. We partner with EP!C and CWTC to help provide transportation for their employees. For the past 30 years, we have partnered with the Peoria Friendship House of Christian Service and other community partners to host the annual Stuff-A-Bus food drive to help eliminate hunger in Peoria. During the 2017 campaign, we collected more than 10 tons of donations on our classic 1975 bus.
Since 2007, we have reserved a fixed amount in our fiscal-year budget for the donation of bus passes to area nonprofit organizations. In 2009, we began distributing up to 100 monthly bus passes to Peoria Promise students attending Illinois Central College. This program is still in in place today to support students who are not financially able to purchase bus passes themselves.
The partnerships we have developed are important to the overall mission of CityLink. We continue to seek opportunities for partnerships that will help improve the lives of our passengers and the residents of our service area. iBi