What Many Don’t Know about the RTA

Corpus Christi, Front Page
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Chairman of the Board Curtis Rock, Kelly Coughlin, Assistant Marketing Director, and Jorge Cruz-Aedo, RTA CEO

The People and the Purpose of the RTA

    “Most of our bus drivers get up and get here by 4:00 a.m., go out to work with smiles on their faces – even when they aren’t dealing with the happiest of customers – and they try to make the ride enjoyable.  We all enjoy and believe in what we do here at the RTA.  Some try to paint this organization in nothing but a negative light, but they forget that it’s about people who show up to work every day and really do their best at doing what they love,”  said Kelly Coughlin, the RTA Assistant Marketing Director for just under a year.

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     “In this company, we have two assets.  One is a lot of expensive equipment.  Each bus runs about $500,000.  However, the most valuable asset we have is the group of employees who help maintain and operate these very expensive vehicles to keep everyone safe.  They are transporting someone very special, the citizens of our community.  Because of the job our employees do, we need to be sure that they are recognized for what they do and are shown respect,” said Jorge Cruz-Aedo, interim CEO who was officially named to the office in November of 2015.  “I particularly don’t like my staff being called names.  We’re public servants.  We do what our board directs us to do.  They set our policies, and we implement those policies through programs and activities that benefit our riders.  We have almost 6 million rides each year that get people to work, to school, and to the places that are part of their life functions.”

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     Curtis Rock, two-year county representative on the RTA Board of Directors, was chosen in January to serve as the board’s chairman.  “From a governmental perspective, I’m a good government guy.  I think I came into this as a critic of the RTA in the beginning.  In my two years on the board, I’ve looked at the books.  I’ve looked at everything.  Overall, this is a very well-run agency.  When you look at the debt-to-revenue ratio and compare it to other agencies in our area, I think they run things really well.  There is no such thing as a perfect governmental agency, but I welcome anyone to really look at the RTA and see how efficiently it is actually run.  Could it be better?  I think so, and I get to say those things because I am not a paid employee; I play more of a political role in the agency.”

     Rock said in reference to last month’s retreat held at the Del Mar’s Center for Economic Development, “The retreat went well. We covered the most important topics that I personally thought were important and in line with my priorities: Public Perception, Customer Service, and Safety/Security. In the discussion of public perception we discussed the need to be forthright with the public. We also discussed issues such as Procurement and making sure processes are in place so there is little doubt about having a fair process for our many vendors.”

     According to the RTA website, “The Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority, or “The B” as it is locally known, began operations in January 1986 and has since provided public transportation services to the citizens of the Coastal Bend, including the cities of Agua Dulce, Banquete, Bishop, Corpus Christi, Driscoll, Gregory, Port Aransas, Robstown, and San Patricio City.

     “The CCRTA Service area covers 830 square miles and provides transit service that supports over six (6) million boardings per year. In addition to fixed route bus services, the CCRTA provides commuter service to employees of the Naval Air Station and Corpus Christi Army Depot and other federal agencies, operates the Corpus Christi Harbor Ferry, provides transportation services to rural communities, assists citizens in creating vanpools and rideshare programs, and provides demand-response curb-to-curb service for qualified individuals with a disability.”

 

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The RTA’s Relationship with the City of Corpus Christi

     “The RTA is actually celebrating its 3oth anniversary this year.  On August 10, 1985, Corpus Christi voters approved the half-cent sales tax increase by a margin of 64.9% in favor and 35.1% opposed.  In 1986, we broke away from the City of Corpus Christi and became an authority in and of ourselves, but we never really severed the tie.  Ever since the separation, we have continued to be a contributing member to the city’s funding needs,” said Cruz-Aedo.  “Initially it was to help them with some ambulances and other services that were needed for emergency management.  Then, it evolved into a consideration of street funding.  It ultimately ended up where we partnered with the city willingly to help them with their street maintenance program by giving a percentage of the sales tax revenue.”

     Cruz-Aedo explained that over the years the formula for determining the exact amount to be given  evolved into what it became about four years ago.  “The city introduced an engineering method of calculating the street contribution based on axle load and miles driven, which was a determiner of wear and tear on the streets by the buses.  We took it and massaged the numbers to reflect our actual axle loads and mileage and presented it to the City.  We agreed to use this methodology as a form of determining how much to give to the City, and they were happy with that.  Of late, there’s been more political pressure by a few people.  The City Council has never voted to demand any specific sum; there has been a request by some council members for us to contribute something more.”

     Cruz-Aedo said that he has invited conversations on this topic.  “We know there’s a need, that we’ve been willing partners in the past, and that we want to take part in discussions on the proposed programs, such as the bike plans,” he said.  “We also say we’re not the only user of the streets.  Right now, we’re the only contributors to the street program.  To be fair, we’d like to see the City come up with a plan that helps capture monies from the other users, as well.  We have been portrayed as an agency that’s not willing to work with the City, and that is by far not true.  We want to work with the City; we want to partner with the City; and we want to be good neighbors.  We need their streets.  We’ve been paying what they said was a fair amount, and we want to continue to do our fair share.”

     “Something many don’t think about or know is that the RTA gives a lot of money to a lot of different governmental entities.  It’s not just Corpus Christi,” added Rock.

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     “Any taxing entity in our service area that contributes to the RTA, with the exception of San Patricio County, is included in this calculation.  There’s typically not much discussion on this topic because there’s a formula in place which the board has approved, so we do it,” said Cruz-Aedo.  “The $4 million amount we put on our benches that do not have ads is actually a little bit more than that.  That number was just easier to fit on the benches.  That is the absolute truth.  I wanted to put the facts out there because the facts weren’t getting out there.  We contribute between $2.6 and $2.7 million in sales tax revenue.  We’ve partnered with the City to do just a little under $900,000 of street improvements that we would not have had to pay because we asked for those streets, Mestina and Artesian, to be improved to accommodate our vehicles.  We have about $300,000 in ADA improvements – curb cuts, sidewalks, bike paths – that would be the responsibility of the City under ADA, but we pay for it.  We didn’t quibble about it; we just did it because it would benefit us and our riders.   We also have about $45,000 in Dillon Lane improvements because of the detour.”

Updated Expense Sheet for ADA, Sidewalks, and Street Reconstruction
Updated Expense Sheet for ADA, Sidewalks, and Street Reconstruction  (Provided by Kelly Coughlin, March 18, 2016)

     “We’ve started a dialogue with the City because we’re hearing a very one-sided story from our media friends,” added Coughlin.  “In one article, someone said that repair of those streets is self-serving for the RTA.  Well, we are oping our station there.  The streets were eroded and couldn’t support the weight of our buses.  Some may say it’s self-serving, but it’s also common sense that we re-do them if we’re going to put our buses on them.  And, it’s still a street that needs repair regardless of whom it serves.”

     “It’s an asset that is owned by the City.  We added the numbers up.  Nobody really talks about how much we do partner with the City.  That’s why I made the decision through our marketing program to put the dollar amount out there.  It’s fact, and we thought it would start a dialogue, and let me tell you, it definitely started a dialogue!  We put the information out there- not under duress – but voluntarily,” said Cruz-Aedo.  “There’s a lot of things we’ve done through the board on our own because of our sense of responsibility of owning up to the damage our vehicles have done.”

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Services Provided by the RTA

     “We serve a purpose here, and that impact we have on the community is large.  I don’t think we get enough credit for doing serving the public the way we do,” said Cruz-Aedo.

     The following are some of the services available through the RTA according to the website:

  • The CCRTA Travel Training program is for people with disabilities and older adults who want to learn to travel safely and independently using public transportation. Travel training is a FREE self-paced process where an individual, regardless of ability or age, can learn to ride CCRTA’s fixed-route system.
  • A vanpool is a group of people who are coming to the same workplace from the same community, riding together in a van. Vanpools typically carry from seven to fifteen passengers, and operate weekdays, traveling between one or two common pick-up locations (typically a park-and-ride lot where a rider may leave his /her car or a transit station) and the workplace. Employees realize a variety of benefits from vanpooling including cost savings, decreased vehicle wear and tear, time savings in regions with HOV lanes, and the ability to talk, eat, sleep, or read while commuting. Vanpool participants report saving up to $3,000 or more a year on gas, car maintenance, and wear and tear as well as reduced stress and commuting time. The primary employer advantage is the need for fewer parking spaces; other advantages include less employee stress and improved productivity.
  • Rider alerts are provided on the site for emergencies, such as severe weather conditions.
  • The CCRTA Youth Educational Program is designed to introduce students about the benefits of public transportation.
  • The Park and Ride service lets customers park their personal vehicles in one of the many RTA lots and save money by commuting on its fixed route service.
  • The Travel Training program is for people with disabilities and older adults who want to learn to travel safely and independently using public transportation.
  • B-Line Paratransit service is a shared ride on public transportation for people whose disabilities prevent them from using regular accessible fixed-route service. B-Line is a origin-to-destination transportation service provided to riders who have been determined eligible using the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. People with disabilities who are not prevented from using fixed route bus service by their disability would not qualify for B-Line service.
  • The free ride service provided to students, faculty, and staff of Del Mar and TAMUCC by the educational institutions that is available to anyone with a valid campus I.D.
  • The CCRTA’s Bike & Ride program is a great way to get around. Just load your bike on the rack provided and you’re ready to roll. Bicycle friendly routes are routes that are serviced with buses equipped with bicycle racks.

    “We’re working with the City right now on their bike plan.  We obtained a $330,000 grant to do bicycle amenities,” said Cruz-Aedo.

      Coughlin added, “Bike sharing is what we’re looking into now.  Essentially, it’s small bike ports where you pay to rent a bike.  It includes the bike lanes to ride the bikes and allows for a place to leave the bike where it can be locked up.  We also have brand new bike racks on all of our buses.”

     “This is just one example of a grant we currently have.  We also have the VTCLI (Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative) grant, which addresses challenges of veterans, service members, and their families.  There are grants available to us that are transportation related.  These grants help us help the City because they can’t apply for them.  There are grants that offer opportunities for sidewalks and even asphalt and concrete work.  Allowing us to work with the City is a lot different than the City raiding our sales tax,” said Cruz-Aedo.  “We can play a significant role in the growth of this community.  I would like for us to be more active with the board and more involved with the other jurisdictions instead of being the subject of an investigative report.  I want to see us be involved with the planning of the community.  What role can we play?  Where can we help?  It is, after all, our city, too.”

Looking Ahead

     “We can’t change the past, so it’s important to look at what we have now as we move ahead.  We have to avoid the mistakes of the past and move forward,”  said Cruz-Aedo.  “My charge is very clear: improve the organization, clean up what needs to be cleaned up, and move on responsibly.”

     “We’re looking at streamlining the customer service experience.  We have looked at what has and hasn’t worked in the past and are working to make things better.  The website is being re-designed to make it more user friendly.  Trip planners will assist the person who is new to our town or to using public transportation to get from point A to point B.  The rider will be able to type in the destination, and the program will plan the trip,” said Coughlin.

     “Just about everybody has a device of some kind these days,” added Cruz-Aedo.  “The application we’ll be using will tell the rider exactly where to get on, where to get off, and how long it will be until the next bus comes.  It will help remove the fear of getting lost or missing a connection.  This trip planner will be big for choice riders because it will give them a greater level of comfort and customer service.”

     Coughlin continued, “Because we’re seeing changes in the demographics of our riders, we anticipate more baby boomers using the Paratransit system as they get to the point where they are no longer able to drive.  The will need the curb-to-curb service.  We’re also seeing an increase in Generation X riders, who want to be hip and be conservative of resources.  They can ‘go green’ by using public transportation.  Many of these folks are students.

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     “Many people have asked why we use so many of the big buses if we don’t have many riders, and I personally think we should have a few more,” said Cruz-Aedo.  “A large bus carries about 45 people.  During the peak demand times when people are going to or returning from work or school, our buses are usually at capacity.  In the middle of the day, not so much, but we have to have to accommodate the peak demand times.  Also, we are partnered with the City in their emergency evacuation plan.  Should we have to evacuate the citizenry, each person will be allowed to bring pets and luggage, which will decrease the amount of space for actual people on the buses.  If we only have small buses, we would not be able to evacuate everyone in less than 6 hours.  Maybe we’ll never have to do an evacuation, but I want to be prepared if we do.”

     “We will have a new station soon, which has been a point of contention for many,” continued Cruz-Aedo.  “What most people don’t know is that the discussions about the building started in 2009.  We need more space to do our assessments for the Paratransit program, something that is mandated by federal law.  We need a building that is accessible to the community.  We looked around the community and found very few – if any – accessible buildings in the area.  We couldn’t rent or lease anything, so we looked at building a facility, one that would serve us fifty years into the future.  We decided to construct the new building near the bus station that has the most traffic where a lot of buses meet.  If we built it there, the riders’ path of travel would not be very long, and we could provide the assessments in an accessible, new building.  In the beginning TAMUCC and CCPD were looking for new facilities and were interested in our building.  We decided to upsize it to accommodate our new neighbors.  We thought that over time they could move out, and we would gradually gain the space we needed as our agency grew.  This is the only building we would have, so we wanted to build something that we could grow into.”

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     “Until the building went vertical, no one seemed to have an interest,” said Rock.  “What was in that space previous to the building?  It was a blighted area.  We’re helping restore what uptown should be.  We have the baby.  May people could start looking at the positives now.”

     “We lost TAMUCC after they took a look at the crime rate in the area.  When Chief Simpson passed away, we lost the support of the CCPD.  Regardless, we are prepared to operate the building.  Right now we’re looking at about 63% occupancy, which is comparable to other buildings in the area.  It has been built with money from ridership, not sales tax dollars.  It is 90% built.  I need to finish it under budget and on time.  I will operate it the best way possible with as much subsidized leasing as can be brought in.  Whether it’s a non-profit or a Subway sandwich shop that needs space, we invite them to come on in and give us a look,” said Cruz-Aedo.  “We may not have done everything right in the past, but I’m committed to doing everything right and professionally in the future with the aim of providing quality customer service to our riders”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Magill Speaks to FBBA at January Meeting

Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff, Front Page

     FBBA

     The Flour Bluff Business Association, a task force of business leaders who promote the safety, service, and growth of the Flour Bluff community, welcomed Councilman Chad Magill as its keynote speaker at the January 6, 2016, meeting held at noon at Funtrackers in Flour Bluff.  Magill focused on the new year and talked about “big ticket items” for the city.

     “The EPA expects us to agree to pay $853 million on your wastewater system over the next 12 to 15 years.  We can’t afford it.”  Magill admitted that the system absolutely needs improvements and that the City has been discussing the issue since 2009.  Magill said that part of the reason for his failure to support Destination Bayfront stemmed from the knowledge of the pending wastewater bill.

     “Anytime we spend 72 million of tax dollars on anything but what we have to spend it on, you have to ask if we can afford it,” Magill said.

PlanCC

     Magill told the audience he believed the City should be focused on reconstruction and maintenance of streets, public safety, wastewater, and water supply.  He emphasized the importance of getting the fundamentals right and putting needs before wants.  This led Magill to address PlanCC 2035 (now 2036).  Magill said, “Your city government shouldn’t have to be the ones to create the social environment for success.  We shouldn’t be the ones to pay for free swimming lessons or for free internet service across the city.  We see a lot of those proposed policies in PlanCC 2035.  I have some serious doubts whether that plan moves forward.”  Magill added that he put a plan together based on the existing comprehensive plan and sent it to City staff in December 2015.  “It takes the good from our existing plan – which actually includes public safety – and includes parts from the proposed PlanCC 2035 to create a real-world plan that keeps us focused on our needs.”

      Magill talked about the new harbor bridge and what an amazing feat it was to bring together the Port of Corpus Christi, the City of Corpus Christi, Nueces County, TxDot, and a number of local organizations and finally settle upon the building of a billion-dollar bridge.  He praised the efforts of Representative Todd Hunter who was “a champion for the bridge.”  Magill said that the new bridge should be looked at as an essential part of economic development for the area and that construction should begin as soon as 2017.

 

     The councilman then shifted to the topic of zero-based budgeting.  “You’re going to see – for our generation – the largest push for a zero-based budget in our city government ever.  It’s a challenge to City staff, but City Manager Ron Olson accepted the challenge.”  Magill said that some of his colleagues on council believe he may have challenged staff too much.  “They have concerns.  I understand that, but at the same time, these are your tax dollars.”

      Magill explained that zero-based budgeting will require City departments to justify spending tax dollars by aligning the spending with the mission.  “Everyone has to budget where their dollars go.  You do it.  My wife and I do it.  Shouldn’t we expect that of our City government?”  He sees it as an opportunity for the department heads to shine.  “If they embrace it and do well,” Magill said he would fight for their funding and for them to be successful.  Magill FBBA

     Magill then turned to the topic of Flour Bluff and spoke about his desire to get Laguna Shores Road on the 2018 bond.  “Every time I’m in Flour Bluff, I drive down Laguna Shores to remind me of the need.”  He went on to commend James Skrobarczyk, who was in the audience, for serving on the residential street committee and praised the ad hoc committee for accomplishing so much in a short period of time.

     He explained that they had uncovered some wasteful practices and inefficiencies in the Street Preventative and Maintenance Plan (SPMP).  He offered an example. “Kingsville spends about $2.50 per square foot on overlays while Corpus Christi spends $8.00 per square foot for the same work.”  When asked how that could be, Magill said, “Part of it is inefficiencies of government; part of that is multiple inspection layers; part of that is – frankly – writing contracts that allow contractors to make ‘obscene amounts of profit.’ ” He told the FBBA that he would love to speak to them again in June or July to fill them in on the recommendations from the street committee and how the City will move toward zero-based budgeting.

     When asked if Council member Colleen McIntyre’s proposal last year to raise property taxes by 8 cents to pay for residential street construction is the only form of funding available, Magill said, “The Caller-Times reported that 8 cents of ad valorem property taxes per year would raise $20 million, when in actuality, it would raise $13.6 million.”  After texting Ron Olson that his numbers were wrong, Olson came back a couple of days later and agreed Magill was correct in his calculations.

IMG_4005   “When they’re talking about throwing more taxpayer money at an inefficient system, how much of that money is going to be wasted?  I took an unpopular stance on council, and I said, ‘No, I can’t support a property tax increase without a plan.’ “

     Magill said that oftentimes a government entity will ask for a lot of money first then develop a plan around it second.  “Then they do the work and go on the defense and tell you how good it was. We’ve got to change that process and ask everyone to be open to a change in that kind of thinking.  The missing component is being able to put a plan together, share that with the community – which we’ll do in June or July – and ask how much of this plan would you like to invest in?”

     “Multiple funding sources is the key.  From re-purposing sales tax, we can pay the debt service off on Whataburger Field, and that gives you between $2 and $2.5 million a year.  That’s sales tax, which is mostly a tax that is appropriate for infrastructure.  In good times, you do more; in bad times, you do less.  Then, you look at cutting from within the budget.  We tried a 1% cut last year; that didn’t work.  We held the line on increasing materials and operations costs, but effectively we didn’t save much money.  That’s why we’re going the zero-based route.”

    Magill explained that savings within the budget will go to two things:  One is streets and the other is City employee raises.  “Think about the people who are going to do the work to find those inefficiencies within their own department budgets.  If we’re going to challenge them harder, we have to somehow align goals.  If you tell a department head that he/she needs to save money in the department and that part of the money saved will go into giving that department a raise, then people’s goals are starting to align.  Efficiency is part of good, quality government.”

     “Another funding source is potentially the RTA.  They could be a funding partner, and I think they’re open to that now.  The key here is to go to multiple funding sources with property taxes being the last in line.  If we had raised property taxes last year at 8 cents, your only guarantee is that your property taxes will go up.  If we had passed Destination Bayfront, that would have also added to the cost for the taxpayer.  If we’re going to focus on needs, let’s do it the right way.  The residential street committee is culling the bad from the current program and keeping the good to find out the most efficient way to tackle residential streets.”

     Precinct 4 County Commissioner Brent Chesney and ad hoc street committee chairman Andy Taubman have the same thought as Magill about the RTA redirecting more funds to the streets.  New RTA chairman, Curtis Rock, has not officially weighed in on this possibility.

     Magill answered questions from the audience on the topics of the failed Citizens’ Collection Center (Solid Waste Transfer Station).  He cited the main reasons for the failure as:

  • the $4.65 million price tag, which would have come in the form of a 20-year debt,
  • a raise in solid waste rates, and
  • a petition against the facility with 700 signatures from residents who live near the proposed site on Flour Bluff Drive.

He also discussed the positive aspects of privatization of City services and used the municipal golf courses as an example of how privatization has improved the quality of the golf courses while saving the City money.  Magill FBBA 2

     FBBA member, Michael Morgan, encouraged fellow members to stay in contact with Chad Magill.  “He is very accessible and very approachable.  He’ll tell you the facts, and he won’t rose-color anything.  If you have concerns or want to learn something, of course we have our District 4 representative, but Chad also represents us as an at-large council member.  I just want to thank him publicly for the job he’s doing for us out here.”

 

 

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