Some of our readers in the Fort Berthold Community may have taken our previous surveys, used to determine the level of interest in public transit on Fort Berthold, and where public transit was needed to connect communities through safe, affordable, and reliable transportation options. And while these studies provide data that is essential in finding the right plan for Fort Berthold, the plan is only half the battle. So how does a public transit plan move from need and desire to conception to implementation? A number of pieces must first be put into place and numerous obstacles overcome before the first passenger can step foot on the bus—or boat. We pulled together a summary of some “Elements of Transit Program Implementation” from the 2012 TCRP Report 154: Developing, Enhancing, and Sustaining Tribal Transit Services to help lay out the process.

Operations Plan

Before a plan can be implemented, it first must be conceived. Routes, schedules, type of services and vehicles, hours of operation all must be determined. How will fare be collected? Will there be discounts? How will riders with disabilities be accommodated? How many drivers will be needed? These questions all need answered in order to begin implementation as soon as funding is secured.

Organization and Administration

Speaking of drivers, what other staff will you need? You need a plan to implement your plan. This implementation plan needs to consider staffing, policies, and job descriptions. Transit staffs can vary, depending on the size and needs of the community. They could include a transportation manager, a transportation or finance director, a transportation program assistant, a secretary or dispatcher, bus drivers, boat operators, and a mechanic. Finding qualified individuals to fill these positions has been a common problem in developing tribal transit systems for some tribes, and the duties associated with a given position can vary based on system requirements and budget constraints.

The policies of the transit system, parameters of the service area, and proper protocol for a variety of possible situations should be clearly set down. A description of the service, including the service area, days and hours of operation, and fares should be provided in clear language to the general public. Information about reservations, scheduling, and cancellations must be communicated. How is public safety being addressed? What are the transit system’s responsibilities to riders? How are passengers expected to behave? What if they wish to make a comment, or need to register a complaint? These questions must all be answered in writing before any plan can be implemented.

Monitoring and Reporting

Once transit services are up and running, not only are reliable monitoring and reporting required for many grant programs–they’re essential tools to ensure these services are meeting the community needs efficiently and effectively. The results of this monitoring should be made available to the Tribal Council and the stakeholders monthly, and should provide data on ridership, on-time performance, and finances. A transit system that is not meeting the needs of its riders or providing reliable service isn’t helping anybody.

Once this data is collected, a series of databases should be set up to help track different aspects of the transit system to help generate monthly and annual reports to share with the Tribal Council and stakeholders. These should include performance measures communicated in a manner that is understandable to professionals and non-professionals alike.

Planning for Hazards and Safety

Regular and adequate maintenance of vehicles, equipment, and facilities are essential to providing safe and reliable transportation. A Hazards and Security Plan and a Maintenance and Safety Plan should both be in place before operations begin.

Marketing Plan

While a public transit system is designed to serve the transportation needs of a community rather than generate revenue, much like the roads and highway systems themselves, a transit system that isn’t used isn’t meeting those needs. Marketing means more than advertising that services exist—it means encouraging people to use those services. A marketing plan must consider the services offered and to whom, and how information about the system will be communicated to those users. What if there is a delay or a vehicle breaks down? How will updates be communicated to those who rely on these services? What do the customers think of the service? Do they have comments? Complaints? How easy is it for them to provide feedback to ensure the system is working for the community?

Financial Plan and Budget

Offering affordable service is key in encouraging people to use public transit. Having a budget document allows management within a transit authority to make decisions on issues such as adding or reducing services, or raising or lowering rates. A well-prepared budget can also make a transit agency more competitive for funding opportunities. Operation costs, capital costs, and administrative costs all must be considered against revenue from fares, agency contracts, grants, or other sources. How will these costs be met? How often will assets need updated or replaced? How will those replacements be funded?

Alternative Fuels/Vehicles

While the Fort Berthold Transit Plan is hoping to start with vehicles already available to the Tribe, choosing a fuel for any additional vehicles, or choosing a type of vessel for a water taxi or ferry system also affects long-term costs and performance, which in turn affect the community’s view of the transit system. What additional infrastructure would a certain vehicle require? Or what existing infrastructure could be used and perhaps cut down on initial investment costs? What are the costs of operation and maintenance? What are the environmental costs—what kind of emissions would be released?

Vehicle Disposal

What happens when those vehicles are no longer needed, or are no longer adequate for public transit? For projects and vehicles that receive federal funding, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) regulates the service-life of vehicles based on years and accumulated miles. Transit agencies that retire or dispose of federally funded vehicles before that service-life is up can incur penalties. Only after the minimum useful life has been reached—either in years or miles, whichever comes first—can it then be used for other programs without FTA approval. The life of prospective vehicles must also be considered in developing an effective transit plan.

Legal Issues

Like any other agency created by a government to conduct a service, a public tribal transit authority is a branch of the tribal government and an expression of sovereign power. The tribal government has the authority to establish criteria under which the transit authority must operate. When creating a transit agency, tribes must consider how to balance sovereign immunity and responsibility, recognizing the liability risks to the public and transit agency employees a transit service could potentially pose. And while Congress has passed laws requiring tribes to apply to state agencies to obtain transit funding, there are no clear directives for how tribes, states, and local agencies must negotiate the terms of transit funding agreements. None of these issues are to be taken lightly, and require careful drafting and review of documents.

Insurance should also be obtained for employees, vehicles, and the transit agency itself, and must at the very least meet the minimum requirements for coverage according to the tribe, state, or funding programs.

Additionally, there are a number of contractual arrangements required to perform the daily operations of a transit agency, from program funding, to shared resources, to jurisdiction. All contracts included in the transit program require close attention from an attorney for the tribe.

Barriers and Obstacles

Even after all of the plans have been put in place, and even after funding has been obtained, it takes persistence and support to make a public transit plan a reality. Some barriers and obstacles other tribes have encountered in implementing a tribal transit service include meeting Federal Transit Administration requirements, lack of support from the Tribal Council, and changes in administration. A well-researched plan and strong community involvement throughout the process, from planning to implementation, however, can help ensure a successful tribal transit service.

In order to make the Fort Berthold Transit Plan a success, we need the support and feedback of the entire Fort Berthold Community. Stay tuned for updates on proposed service routes and schedules to make sure the Fort Berthold Transit Plan works for you!

Source:  Stoddard, Albert T. III, in association with David Sampson, Jill Cahoon, Ronald Hall, Peter Schauer, Valerie J. Southern, and Tangerine Almeida.  2012.  Developing, Enhancing, and Sustaining Tribal Transit Services: A Guidebook.  TCRP Report 154.  Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board. Pp. 118-160.