Using Avail Technologies as an integrator and ITS provider, Centre Area Transportation Authority provides urban-scale transit to Penn State students and State College, PA, residents
Centre Area Transportation Authority (CATA) operates community and campus transit routes in State College, PA, home to Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Though its approximately 72 full-size buses, eight paratransit buses and 40 vans only rate as a small-to-midsize fleet, CATA provides an urban-scale level of transit service. A typical weekday during Penn State’s spring or fall semesters sees as many as 40,000 passenger boardings.
In the state of Pennsylvania, CATA’s 7 million annual fixed-route passenger trips are only less than those of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, despite State College clearly not being third largest urban area. In fact, CATA’s service area is concentrated in an area with a population of less than 100,000 people.
“Our ridership per capita is through the roof,” says L. Eric Bernier, director of information services for CATA. “We’re constantly moving around the top three or four agencies in our class in the country in terms of ridership per capita. We’re an intensely used transit service, because 7 million trips from a serviceable population of less than 100,000 is highly unusual.”
Bernier says the unusual numbers are partly attributable to Penn State’s central location in the CATA service area. The agency runs a hub-and-spoke system centered on downtown State College and the university itself.
“Our high usage, extensive public and private partnerships with institutions like Penn State, and use of technology are what set CATA apart from other agencies of its size,” he says.
CATA’s technological prowess is thanks, in large part, to its relationship with Avail Technologies, a national company based locally in State College. Avail is a total solutions provider for transit operators in the United States, delivering enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and intelligent transportation systems (ITS), specializing in computer-aided dispatching and automatic vehicle location (CAD/AVL) solutions to fixed route and paratransit fleets.
CATA became an early customer of Avail in 2005, when the agency solicited a multi-phased technology plan via a request for proposals (RFP). Bernier says CATA had no in-house technology expert, and agency executives were keen to not make any rash decisions. Through the competitive bidding process, Avail eventually won the opportunity to write CATA’s technology plan. The first phase of the technology plan required investing in an AVL system.
When CATA released another RFP for an AVL system, Avail was again successful in the bidding process. Bernier says location helped in the decision-making process – in that the agency felt Avail would be more accessible than its competitors – but that Avail’s unique approach is what eventually won the contract.
“In 2005, there were only about a half-dozen vendors providing fleetwide AVL systems, and they were largely vendors with an off-the-shelf offering,” Bernier says. “Avail’s approach was a little different because they positioned themselves as an integrator. They were looking to mix and match components to meet the individual needs of even small and medium transit systems. No one else was doing that – basing solutions on our individual priorities.”
CATA deployed Avail’s AVL system along with a web module, which allowed riders to go online and find vehicle locations in-real time. It was, in a sense, the public face of the agency’s investment.
“That initial system, almost overnight, provided invaluable data for service planning and managing day-to-day service,” says Jacqueline Sheader, public relations manager for CATA.
The second phase of the technology plan saw CATA install automated next-stop annunciation and automatic passenger counters, and its third phase involved electronic next-bus signage.
The plan’s fourth stage was a bit more complex, and it dealt with consolidating and tracking the various forms of data bouncing back and forth behind the scenes at CATA.
“CATA was looking for a totally integrated solution” says Rick Spangler, chief technology officer at Avail Technology. “In many ways, they did not have what I would call a true enterprise resource planning (ERP) system – the operations, finance, human resources and maintenance departments each had their own unique software, each working on different protocols. Still, others at CATA were tracking data using typical spreadsheets.”
Without this integration, processes like financial reporting, weekly payroll and operations management were labor-intensive and error-prone. Avail evaluated the ERP market for CATA and the agency eventually settled on Fleet-Net Corporation. Fleet-Net’s ERP software manages accounting, payroll, human resources, fleet maintenance, asset management, inventory, planning, scheduling, procurement, operations management, statistical reporting, plus federal, state and National Transit Database (NTD) reporting.
“Avail, as an integrator, made all of agency’s disparate data sources ‘talk,’” Spangler says. “Efficiency in data is what’s kept Avail working with CATA.”
Pulling together solutions
Interestingly, its relationship with Fleet-Net would grow from this point until Avail announced in October 2017 that it had acquired Fleet-Net Corporation and its assets. With the acquisition of Fleet-Net, Avail transitioned fully from a CAD/AVL ITS integrator to a total enterprise solutions provider.
Bernier says that, from the first deployment with CATA, Avail was very hands-on in regards to training and integration.
“Avail and Fleet-Net staff would spend weeks at a time on site, literally outside our office, working one-on-one with our staff,” he says. “That kind of effort is rare in this industry. Those efforts are what build relationships.”
Better data, better service
Bernier says that CATA’s influx of data has most affected the agency’s stop frequency and operating hours.
“All the ridership and performance data we’re collecting allows us to put out an operating schedule that more closely matches the actual demand on the streets of State College,” he says. “We have extreme peaks during major events and when Penn State is in session, and because it’s a small town, these peak events have a far more profound effect on traffic flow in the community.”
Frequency is a huge factor for CATA, especially on the Penn State campus where buses typically arrive at a given stop every five to 10 minutes.
“The performance data we collect during peak hours allows us to adjust not only capacity, but running time, to match actual performance,” Bernier says. “We can also adjust our frequency to better match the historical performance of our service.”
Beyond the actual service on the streets, Avail’s integrated solution touches nearly every department at CATA.
Human Resources utilizes ERP software to manage employee status, as well as hours, vacation time and other factors. Likewise, payroll, accounts payable and accounts receivable are also handled through the software.
In operations, CATA manages driver assignments, routing, scheduling and bids through the solution. The maintenance department uses the software to quote, purchase and inventory parts, as well as manage all work orders, roadside services and preventative maintenance.
“When you combine the ERP software with the total integrated solution, buses are tracked from the moment they hit the road,” Spangler says. “Passenger boardings are tracked, and passenger information is conveyed through our system. The system touches every aspect of CATA’s operation, and then aids doubly so in data analysis and reporting.”
One example of CATA’s ability to quickly extrapolate and manipulate data is found in the ease with which it accomplishes NTD reporting. In the past, it accomplished the required reporting by literally assigning employees to ride routes with clipboards. Now, automatic passenger counters provide actual boardings by stop and the system pushes the data out in a digestible, transparent format for planning and oversight.
“Ten years ago, I would not be able to provide a planning commission with historical boarding data at a specific bus stop,” Bernier says. “Now I can provide that information within a matter of minutes.”
Eyes to the future
CATA will utilize its integrated data and information services to further mold itself into an agency capable of serving the needs of the future. This kind of foresight is second nature for the agency. For example, having begun the process in 1996, CATA was the first agency on the east coast to fully convert its fleet to compressed natural gas. It’s a mindset that should continue pushing CATA in a positive direction.
“The ideal transit agency of the new century will be very different than in the previous century,” Spangler says. “Regulations are only getting stiffer and challenges with funding are only getting more daunting. The ideal transit agency will invest conscious effort to be safe, effective, streamlined, and on the cutting edge. CATA is really set up to be that agency.”
“Our mission is like any other agency – to provide great transportation service for the people in our community,” Sheader says. “The technology innovations we implement at CATA, from alternative propulsion to enterprise planning, help enhance the transportation experience for our area.”