UrbanCincy’s Q/A With Metro’s New Transit Boss: Dwight Ferrell

Dwight FerrellThe Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) announced their selection for a new Chief Executive Officer and General Manager, to fill Terry Garcia Crews’ vacated position, earlier this month. Dwight Ferrell was the person tapped for the position, and will take over effective January 5, 2015.

Ferrell boasts a long a diverse career in the transit industry. He will join Metro following his service as the County Manager for Fulton County, Georgia, where he oversaw more than 5,000 employees along with the county’s state and federal legislative agenda. In addition to that, Ferrell also previously worked with Atlanta’s largest transit agency as the Deputy General Manager and Chief Operating Officer at MARTA – America’s ninth largest transit system.

Ferrell’s background extends beyond the Atlanta region and includes transportation experience in Austin, Dallas, New Orleans and Philadelphia. According to Metro officials, he is also an active member of the American Public Transportation Association, Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, and Transportation Research Board.

Prior to taking over as Metro’s new CEO, Ferrell kindly agreed to an interview with UrbanCincy. The following interview was conducted on December 22, and is included below in its entirety.

Randy Simes: Coming from Atlanta, and having worked on their streetcar project, did you and Paul Grether, Metro’s current Rail Services Manager who previously worked as MARTA’s Streetcar Development Manager, ever work together? If so, how was your experience working with him, and how might that experience be beneficial moving forward with the operations of the Cincinnati Streetcar?
Dwight Ferrell: I did work with Paul and have the highest regard for his knowledge about rail transit. Paul serves as the chair of the American Public Transportation Association’s streetcar committee, which is in Cincinnati this week to see the Cincinnati Streetcar construction.

Cincinnati is fortunate to have Paul working on this project. I am confident that under his leadership all Federal requirements will be followed and we’ll be ready to operate the streetcar in 2016.

RS: If there is one thing from your experience with MARTA that you could copy and duplicate at Metro, what would it be and why?
DF: I really believe in performance management. It’s important for the community to know how we’re doing and for us to be transparent.

RS: When Atlanta pursued federal funding for its streetcar, there was the idea that the city needed to choose between seeking funding for rail transit for the BeltLine or the streetcar. Ultimately Atlanta went with the streetcar. If presented with a similar dilemma in Cincinnati, about a second phase of the streetcar or the Wasson Line, which do you think you would be more inclined to support and why?
DF: These are local decisions based on many factors, and it’s too early for me to evaluate the merits of projects in Cincinnati. The process of securing Federal funding for rail projects requires intensive analysis and review to determine if a project would be eligible for funding to move forward. It’s a highly competitive funding arena.

RS: MARTA was dealt a blow with the defeat of TSPLOST, but gained a big victory recently when Clayton County voters approved an expansion of MARTA to their county. With SORTA exploring potential transit tax increases and service expansions of its own, what do you think should be learned from those two very different experiences in Atlanta?
DF: Each region is unique. I need to get to know what the community wants in terms of expanded transit, so any talk of funding increases is premature at this time. That said, Metro is a status quo system; if we add service somewhere, it has to be decreased somewhere else. We can’t add service to meet the community’s need for access to jobs without more funding.

RS: Metro*Plus service has seemed to be a hit since its initial launch. Metro has publicly stated its interest in establishing several more Metro*Plus corridors, but what is your take on reducing stop frequency along all routes in order to improve travel time?
DF: Limited stop services like Metro*Plus are just one tool in the toolbox, and they work great in some applications. They offer a faster ride, but speed is not always the only consideration. For some neighborhoods, convenient access to a bus stop is critical, especially for older riders and riders with disabilities.

RS: How do you envision Metro’s existing and future bus service working together with not only the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar, but other potential rail transit in the region?
DF: It is imperative that Metro bus service and other modes function as an integrated transit system without redundancy. The goal should be a seamless transit experience. This means easy transfers between modes, a coordinated fare structure, shared infrastructure like ticket vending machines and back-office technology related for emergency response and vehicle movement.

RS: The best-scoring bus rapid transit line in North America is Cleveland’s HealthLine, but it scores a mere 63/100 points. Do you think true BRT, as defined by what has been built in Bogotá and Curitiba, is appropriate for North American cities? Furthermore, would you support the development of such a corridor in Cincinnati?
DF: BRT is appropriate in some cities and some applications depending on the objective. I need to get to know Cincinnati before judging whether BRT is right for this community. Federal funding for BRT has become more restrictive in recent years and finding exclusive right of way is sometimes difficult in older cities with high density. The decision whether or not to build BRT is really about what works for Cincinnati.

RS: How does Cincinnati’s cold weather and its hills differentiate it from your past experience? How do these conditions impact how you run a transit system?
DF: I worked at SEPTA in Philadelphia, so I do have some familiarity with what winter can mean to transit in northern cities. Transit is adaptive — if a hill is impassable, we find a way around. We’re all dependent on the road conditions and we stress safety. Today we have the ability to use social media to keep customers updated on what’s happening with their service, which is a benefit.

RS: A topic UrbanCincy has continually raised up for discussion is what could/should be done with the Riverfront Transit Center. A variety of ideas have been suggested, but in your opinion what do you think is the future of that facility?
DF: I visited the Riverfront Transit Center when I was in town last week, and it is an impressive facility. It’s used every weekday, about every 15 to 30 minutes, for Metro*Plus service and it’s used for Bengals and Reds games and special events. It’s my understanding that the All-Star Game coming to Cincinnati next summer will depend heavily on this facility for staging of buses and other vehicles. That’s what the Riverfront Transit Center was built to do: serve Cincinnati’s redeveloped riverfront venues and events. Long term, our goal is to maximize its use.

RS: What transit system in the world impresses you the most and why?
DF: Each system has its own appeal. Of course, mega-systems like New York City and Washington D.C. are impressive because of their sheer size and the incredible number of people they move every day. I think the most impressive systems are the ones that allow people to move around without the need for a car.

RS: Finally, what first made you interested in transit and want to pursue a career in the industry?
DF: I was 23 when I started as a bus driver in Dallas, and I was a bus driver for 10 years. When the merger occurred with DART, new opportunities opened up for me in management. My career progressed to the C-suite and those positions allowed me to work at the most senior levels of transit management across the country. I feel blessed to have found a career and an industry that I am passionate about. Metro recently started the John W. Blanton internship to provide an opportunity for college students to experience the transit industry as a career path, and I support that effort.

Dwight Ferrell holds a BA in Business Administration from Huston-Tillotson University. He can be reached at dferrell@go-metro.com.

What can cities do to roll out BRT faster?

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) introduced its first Metro*Plus route in 2013. This type of service is often described as “bus plus”, meaning that it has some benefits over standard bus service, but is not quite up to the level of true bus rapid transit (BRT).

According to a recent post on Portland Transport, rolling out small, incremental improvements to bus service (as SORTA has done) may be more effective than focusing all effort into a small number of BRT routes. It may also be the best way to improve bus service while minimizing the number of political hurdles:

Don’t focus on “BRT” as a separate product, just focus on bus service improvements. In much of Europe, there is no “BRT”–the standard for basic bus service (at least on corridors) often involves things like greater stop-spacing, offboard fare payment, larger vehicles with all-door boarding, signal priority, and exclusive lanes (though not necessarily for the entire length of the route). […]

In many cases, do these quietly, without much fanfare, and without a big splashy project. Big splashy big-ticket projects are more likely to attract political opposition and political opportunism. As Harry S Truman said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

PHOTOS: The Impressive Urbanity of Colombia’s Third Largest City

If Medellín is the clean, gem of Colombia, Cali is the working man’s town. Visibly grittier than Medellín, Cali sports an incredible amount of assets that match and sometimes outshine Medellín.

Surrounded by mountains on one side, Cali’s skyline is more impressive than that of Medellín, while also seeming more original. Everything in Medellín is new, it seems.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

While no rail transportation exists in the city, a large and extensive system of bus rapid transit allows traveling easy. In addition to their bus rapid transit system, Cali also has a system of bike lanes, although no bike share system.

They have impressive grand boulevards and arterials all throughout the city as well as grade-separated highways more impressive than those I saw in Medellín. In the downtown area, the city capped over a highway running along the river and made it a pedestrian and bus-only boulevard, following the river on the left and providing easy access to the center city and many historical buildings.

For a city with a reputation as being dangerous, it was incredibly efficient and had an impressive number of assets, including an incredible park system affording many breathtaking views of downtown Cali and the city sprawled out around it.

In the first official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Natalia Gomez Rojas, a city planner from Bogotá, to discuss Colombia’s pursuit and implementation of bus rapid transit. The discussion also touched on a number of societal issues facing Colombia’s cities as they continue to develop and evolve in a post-drug cartel era. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free. You can also read more of our coverage regarding bus rapid transit here.

This two-part photo series on Colombia’s second and third largest cities was put together during a four-month assignment by Jacob Fessler, during which he was based out of the city of Barranquilla.

PHOTOS: The Rebirth and Hype of Medellín Does Not Disappoint

It is not hard to understand why Medellín is being considered by many to be Colombia’s gem city.

From the moment I moved to Colombia, everyone I met talked about Medellín with a gleam in their eye. I half-expected to be disappointed once I finally arrived because of all the hype. Once I did arrive in the city, however, disappointment was not the reaction.

Sitting in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides, Medellín is an impressively modern city in the midst of a country still modernizing. Endowed with beautiful weather, clean environment and efficient work culture, it is a powerful part of the Colombian economy. For a city that a mere 20 years ago was among the most dangerous in the world, the transformation is remarkable and attests to the will of the people of Medellín.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Medellín’s transportation system consists of two grade-separated rail lines (elevated and ground-level), three metro cable lines, and two bus rapid transit lines. Maps of the metro system show a future extension of the smaller of the two rail lines.

While one of the metro cable lines is mostly for tourists, the other two have transformed commutes that used to take two hours through the winding streets of the city’s informal, working class neighborhoods into a short ride above the city that connects with the rail lines below. In addition to this, the city has a public bike share system.

While I was unable to see the extent to which the system was employed, the fact that they had it was very impressive. To go along with their bike share system, the city had a clear system of bike lanes on many of the streets. The city also has several grade-separated highways and large arterial roads, a problem in many Colombian cities.

In the first official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Natalia Gomez Rojas, a city planner from Bogotá, to discuss Colombia’s pursuit and implementation of bus rapid transit. The discussion also touched on a number of societal issues facing Colombia’s cities as they continue to develop and evolve in a post-drug cartel era. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free.

UC Planning, Engineering Students Propose Hamilton Avenue BRT Corridor

Hamilton Avenue BRT CorridorLast fall UrbanCincy partnered with the Niehoff Urban Studio on an event that highlighted the work of an interdisciplinary group of students. That semester engineering and planning students focused on urban mobility and looked at bikeways and bus rapid transit ideas within the city.

Each of the student groups presented their final research and findings to fellow academics and industry experts from around the region. We then gathered a group of transit and bike experts to engage in a panel discussion about the student’s proposals and about transportation in the region in general.

Throughout the course of the day, we asked members of the public who attended to vote on their favorite proposal. The winner was a bus rapid transit corridor along Hamilton Avenue that focused heavily on a transit-oriented development (TOD) in Northside where The Gantry is now being built.

The six-person team consisted of Tyler Kiefer, Benjamin Lafferty, Christopher Murphy, Michael Orth and Michael Walsh from the College of Engineering & Applied Science and Alexander Cassini from the College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning.

First and foremost, the group said that their Hamilton BRT Line would most closely resemble Cleveland’s highly publicized HealthLine, which is the highest-rated BRT line, by far, in North America. The group also examined lines in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

One of the main reasons for the comparisons to Cleveland is the similarities between the corridors. In both Cincinnati and Cleveland, the corridors connect neighborhoods under-served by transit to institutional services, while also providing greater mobility.

“The 2010 U.S. Census has shown how the population along Hamilton Avenue has less access to quick and reliable means of transportation when compared to the stats of Cincinnati and Ohio as a whole,” explained Masters of Community Planning student Alexander Cassini. “This lack of mobility directly affects citizens’ access to essential services and employment opportunities.”

Their research found that Metro’s #17 bus route, which most closely aligns with their proposed BRT corridor, currently averages weekday ridership of about 4,500 people. Furthermore, they found that approximately 17% of the households along the corridor have no car, 10% of the commuters identify as bus riders and there are 6,387 people living per square mile.

The proposed BRT corridor runs from Downtown to North College Hill, and the engineering and planning students saw this particular corridor as a major opportunity to spread investment and attention from the center city to additional neighborhoods that would take advantage of the BRT route’s 12 stations spaced out between one-half mile to three-fourths of a mile apart that would ensure faster and more efficient service. Each of the 12 station locations, Cassini notes, was selected due to its significant population and employment nearby.

“Northside and North College Hill are historic places in the city and present a great opportunity for Cincinnati to keep growing as a city,” noted civil engineering student Michael Orth.

Orth went on to say that while one of the positives of this corridor was the amount of people and businesses it could positively impact, the area’s congestion was also one of the team’s greatest challenges, stating, “There is very little room to implement a bus only lane throughout the corridor, which would be ideal for a BRT line.”

To help address this situation the group said that they envision a bus only lane, or a hybrid lane for buses and cars depending on the hour, through the congested portions of the route. Although not recommended, if a hybrid lane was determined to not be satisfactory Orth said that further study could be done to examine whether there would be enough benefit to remove on-street parking in order to provide for a consistent, dedicated bus only lane.

Other technology to help facilitate the quick movement of buses along the corridor would include arrival detection at traffic signals so that the lights can change in order to accommodate an approaching bus.

Existing Metro bus service, they said, would largely be redeployed to avoid redundancy, but some would remain since local buses stop more frequently – potentially creating a corridor of localized bus and express BRT service.

Hamilton Avenue BRT in Metro*Plus Context
One area where the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) has already begun enhancing bus service is along Montgomery Road, which connects Downtown with the Kenwood area. That new Metro*Plus service, while not full BRT, is a step in the right direction according to the University of Cincinnati students, and has already seen ridership triple since its upgrade.

“Metro*Plus service is good but it is only the first step towards a true BRT system for the Cincinnati metropolitan area,” Cassini cautioned. “Metro*Plus service can be even more efficient, and effective if totally dedicated lanes and other additional features are added.”

Reading Road, where Metro began operating articulated buses in 2010, is actually the region’s most heavily utilized bus corridor with Hamilton Avenue coming in second and Montgomery Road third. If Metro is to continue to build out its enhanced bus service, or full-on BRT operations, then Hamilton Avenue may very well be the next logical choice.

What helped the group’s proposal stand out from other presentations was its focus on the TOD in Northside. With a $13 million mixed-use project coming out of the ground on that site now, the group reflected on their own proposal.

While the team had collectively noted the large, clean open space as being one of the huge benefits of the site, it also made it particularly valuable in their opinion. As a result, several of the group members, while encouraged about the private investment, were also a bit underwhelmed by the Indianapolis-based Milhaus Developers’ architectural design.

Both Cassini and Orth mentioned that they would be interested in working full-time in the transportation industry someday, but for different reasons. When asked to briefly compare the wide variety of transportation projects current in the planning or development stages around the region, there was a uniform response that their excitement is for the Cincinnati Streetcar.

“Although the planned streetcar line does not expand sufficiently in our eyes, we believe it would be an incredible economic development booster for Cincinnati’s downtown and overall urban core,” Cassini explained. “The overall transportation efforts around Cincinnati will eventually pay off to form a comprehensive and more easily navigable system than today.”

The Niehoff Urban Studio is currently working with a new set of students on designs for the Wasson Corridor, which runs through several of Cincinnati’s eastern neighborhoods. This is another topic that was examined by one of the interdisciplinary groups of planners and engineers last year. UrbanCincy is once again partnering with the Niehoff Urban Studio and will be organizing a similar showcase and panel discussion in 2014.