With Ed LAWSON & Bob SCHNEIDER
Enacted in November 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure law seems like an exciting new step forward for public transportation. Would you agree?
ED LAWSON − As with all government programs, we’re excited there’s a pot of money there, but access to it is the real trick. We have to play it by ear — submit a grant application and if comes, great. In that case, we’ll take some of the money we were going to use for that particular project and move it to another. But if it doesn’t come, we’ll continue down the road. We can’t really count on this funding but we’re always hopeful.
BOB SCHNEIDER − It’s good for the industry, and transit systems that sit at the head of the table of their own region are going to do well. However, if you’re a system like OmniRide, who isn’t a major recipient of federal funding, you’re going to be making decisions on projects without really understanding what your fiscal future looks like. We ’re not focused on that sole source of money for our success. Our success is driven by passengers in seats.
What grants have you applied for?
ED LAWSON − Mostly for bridge improvement. That seems to be one area that’s funded readily, especially in our area, which is very earthquake prone. We’ve also applied for additional funding to continue on our path of zero-emissions buses and build a new bus maintenance facility. Our ultimate goal is to be zero emissions with our entire fleet. Additionally, we’re hoping to get formula (non-competitive) funding for projects like widening existing roadways and improving safety for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) funding could also help RTC complete projects on major regional roadways in our community.
BOB SCHNEIDER − We put in a small application to start doing paratransit vehicles and staff cars, which is a slam dunk as the technologies are readily available, but we didn’t get approved for that. When you run a bus system, there’s only two things you’re really spending money on: buying equipment or replacing a facility. So far, the infrastructure deal has delivered an extra $2 million in formula funding, but ironically, we’ve got more than that from the State.
So, you're pressing ahead without necessarily relying on extra funding. What are your priorities and how do these fit with aims of the deal?
ED LAWSON − We have a 50-year plan and our priorities change as we go along, but the bottom line is expanding the system and getting more riders. For me, it’s also about cleaner air — having fewer cars on the street and more people riding electric buses. That’s good for the environment, good for the community and hopefully good for the productivity of those citizens.
BOB SCHNEIDER − I think what transit systems should pay attention to is how travel patterns have changed and what customers need. We’re starting to look at equity in services. Historically, it’s all been about how well routes perform and cutting them if you don’t have a certain level of ridership. Now we recognize that you have underserved communities that are always going to have low ridership and that’s OK. That’s one thing the new law can help fund. You can now spend money in economically distressed areas, and the question becomes: can we give someone the same value of transportation in that community that you get in a denser, wealthier area?
Can you give some concrete exemples?
ED LAWSON − One priority is our arterial roads, because most people who live in the North Valleys have to commute. There’s only one road, the I-80, so having alternate routes would help tremendously. We’ve planned a road to connect La Posada in North Sparks to the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, which would take a lot of commuting off the I-80, save traffic accidents and cut the commute time in half. It would also save about 25 tons of carbon emissions every day. Other priorities, for example, are the feeder links to the I-80 that come from the North Valleys.
BOB SCHNEIDER − Our system is predominately commuter based but we also have a free local service. Recently we debated whether to improve our Saturday service or add a Sunday service to provide access to the community seven days a week. It’s much cheaper to do more on Saturday, but because of the equity question, we added Sunday. We’re also implementing microtransit, which is basically our version of Uber, with technology that Keolis is helping us deploy. Microtransit creates a zone in which everyone has access to a transit route by taking people to bus stops.
How do you expect ridership to evolve in the near future?
ED LAWSON − The pandemic turned everything on its ear and we’re still working on how to bring ridership back. I spent a couple of days just riding the bus two months ago and it’s pretty convenient if you get out of the car-driver mindset. I think if people try public transit, they’ll embrace it. So, I’ve partnered with the principal of an elementary school to give out free bus passes for the parents to try, and that will get some increased ridership. We’re a pretty small community and I think grassroots is where we’re going to make it work.
BOB SCHNEIDER − On our commuter service, one of the big impacts we’re seeing is with “The Great Relocation” and remote work. We’re getting an influx of residents to the community, so it’s not the same number of people commuting less, it’s more people commuting less, which helps stabilize numbers. Our local services have bounced back quickly, although one group that has not really returned is our senior citizens, who remain very concerned about Covid. Because we’re a robust system, we’re able to adjust our services to match demand.