Soundings: Transit Into summer

Imagine running a service that sees demand double each year from February to April, double again from April to May, again from May to June and again from June to July. Welcome to the world of the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA), whose ridership explodes each year from fewer than 25,000 to nearly 300,000 passengers per month.

The only constant in the year for Angie Grant, administrator of the VTA, is change.

Ms. Grant is a living example of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule – the idea that the key to success is putting in the time. As VTA administrator since 1997, she hit the 10,000-hour mark more than a decade ago, but in fact her bona fides in the transit business go back much further.

She’s held a commercial driver’s license since she was 18 and driving shuttles for Island Transport. In fact, says Ms. Grant, “The seeds were planted way back, in my early teen days, on the Chappy ferry. I was a ticket taker, and that was a fabulous job.”

I caught up with Ms. Grant last week for an interview while she delivered stacks of new schedules to the inns of Edgartown. The transit authority launched its shoulder-season schedule on April 28, and will shift again to its peak-summer bus schedule on June 23.

Running a service efficiently when your daily ridership ranges from 600 people to more than 13,000 sounds like a recipe for migraines, but Ms. Grant relishes the work. “I think one of the things that keeps this job interesting,” she says cheerfully, “is the seasonal changes.”

The big news from the VTA for this summer is a new schedule for its busiest service, Route 1, between Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. That service is being expanded from 30-minute intervals 20-minute intervals for most of each day, beginning June 23. It’s all about tweaking the schedule to optimize service, Ms. Grant says.

Summer ridership on VTA buses has been climbing steadily over the years. Last July, the transit authority carried more than 290,000 passengers, up 38 percent since 2006. But the most dramatic growth has been in the off-season: Since 2006, January ridership has increased 129 percent.

The summer numbers are mind-boggling, but Ms. Grant is proudest of the way the VTA has been embraced by the year-round community. “It’s been very rewarding to watch the acceptance of transportation on the Island,” she says. And to the critic who questions those January buses with three or four passengers inside, she has a ready answer: “Our core riders need us and want us.”

The VTA enjoys a good relationship with the towns it serves, says Ms. Grant. About 20 percent of the authority’s $4.3-million operating budget comes from the Island towns via cherry sheet contributions; state and federal government contributes about 25 percent. But the VTA’s biggest revenue source is the fare box — about $1.3 million per year. In fact, the Vineyard agency has the highest fare box recovery rate, and the lowest government subsidy, of any transit authority in Massachusetts.

With its intense seasonality, its mix of routes and its varied user groups — from summer day-trippers to year-round workers, children, and the elderly — the VTA is unique among transit agencies on almost every front. Ms. Grant laughingly tells of a recent visit from researchers studying rural transit agencies, whose jaws dropped when they began to understand what the VTA faces in serving this community. “We were like, yeah, this is what we do,” she recalls.

And the vendors of fleet management systems to transit authorities across the nation come to the Island confident that their software can handle this little operation — but they leave humbled. Ms. Grant warns them: “This is Martha’s Vineyard, my friend. You have no idea what you’ve just gotten yourself into.” The software vendors have yet to figure out how to accommodate a little agency that will pull a bus from the Edgartown-South Beach run on a rainy day and throw it at whatever Island route needs it most.

Even the buses in the Island fleet are scaled to fit our unique roadscape. The VTA can’t buy buses in the standard width of 108 inches because they’re simply too wide for our streets. “We’re looking for a width of 96 inches,” says Ms. Grant, “and right now only two manufacturers make them.”

With so many challenges, what explains the VTA’s success? “It helps that we have a veteran staff,” says Ms. Grant. “We’re very good at what we do, because we’ve been doing it so long together. And on our workforce, we have a huge number of returning seasonal drivers each year. At the VTA, they don’t lose their seniority when they come back.”

From the rider’s perspective, the VTA is the ultimate Point A to Point B service — reliable, affordable and convenient. But Angie Grant understands that even as she crunches the smallest details of customer service, her agency is funded by government sources with a different agenda. “Our core mission,” she says, “is congestion mitigation and air quality improvement. That’s the big driver of mass transit everywhere.”

What’s ahead for the VTA? “I’d love to see us forming stronger relationships with the business community,” says Ms. Grant. “We need to educate business owners about the benefits of transit, for their staff and for their business. You know, if you’re parking your own car three or four doors down from your business, your customers can’t park there. If you spend $100 on an employee bus pass, you get a tax deduction and you’ve made your employee feel great.”

She’s also been thinking about all the bus pull-offs on the busy Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. “It’s great for our passengers that we’ll stop pretty much anywhere it’s safe to stop. But we’d like to have less of an impact on the roadsides, where we’re killing vegetation and degrading asphalt in some areas. It would be nice for our passengers to have amenities like benches and shelter, but formalizing bus stops has a financial, an aesthetic and operational impact — we need to consider these things and work them out with the towns.”

Finally, does Angie Grant have an opinion on the Roundabout, which her buses will be traversing almost 100 times on a busy summer day?

She shrugs and grins. “Our trip length isn’t going to change with or without a roundabout. It’s going to take us the same amount of time to get to Edgartown. The overall length of the trip won’t be any different; it’s just a matter of where we’re going to be backed up. It doesn’t matter to us.”