By Carl Sedoryk
General Manager and CEO
The long-awaited JAZZ Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is now operating after more than five years of planning, identifying funding sources, plus a year to construct and implement the project. Our seven specially-branded JAZZ BRT buses have been traveling the 6.75 mile corridor for barely four months.
Our project is unique to say the least. Working with the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) has afforded us a one-of-a-kind opportunity to operate a transit line and create a linear museum to spotlight the sights, sounds, and social significance of the world’s longest continuously running jazz festival.
The JAZZ BRT provides a one-of-a-kind experience for our residents and for visitors, who can travel and learn about the history of the festival at the same time. With approval from the Monterey Jazz Festival staff, Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) hired the festival’s graphic designer Phil Wellman to develop our BRT brand by creating visual elements similar to those for the festival. Wellman worked with South American artist Pablo Lobato to arrive at the captivating graphics for the buses.
The original vision
The very first inkling of BRT for this area began with my predecessor Frank Lichtanski, who was an early proponent of Bus Rapid Transit. He traveled on his own money to investigate the BRT systems in operation in other countries, and hosted conferences in the Monterey region to educate policy makers on the value and benefits BRT could bring.
Building on Lichtanski’s vision after his death in 2005, MST set out to re-brand the existing MST 24 line to better serve the Carmel Valley area. Interested vintners and growers in the Monterey region provided the agency with marketing funds to create a more vibrant image of transit to serve the numerous wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. We named the new minibus service the Grapevine Express.
Due to its snappier branding and faster service, we quickly realized a quadruple increase in ridership along this new direct and more frequent route. It occurred to us that the Grapevine Express was much like BRT, but just on a smaller scale.
The need arises
Further customer surveys revealed the lowest levels of satisfaction of transit service in on-time performance, service frequency, and bus stop amenities. Also, the lines serving shopping and residential areas of Sand City and Seaside had a highest percentage of transfers to routes serving the hotels, businesses, and attractions of areas surrounding Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Based on the success of the Grapevine Express, this new information spurred us to improve the level of local transit for residents, employees, and tourists traveling between the cities within this region.
In 2007, the Monterey Bay Air Pollution Control District, which funds projects that reduce auto emissions and improve air quality, provided us seed money that allowed us to conduct a study to enable the project to qualify for a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Very Small Starts program. We received federal grant funding in 2008 and moved forward with the final planning and design of the Fremont-Lighthouse BRT line to serve the cities of Monterey, Seaside, Sand City, and link the major visitor and shopping destinations.
Our project qualified for BRT funding by meeting the required FTA thresholds, including daily ridership, the use of low-floor buses, unique branding, traffic signal, prioritization, stations, off bus fare collection, and on-time next bus arrival technology.
While we marveled at what larger cities had accomplished, and were inspired by such metropolitan BRT systems such as Healthline in Cleveland, OH, and EmX in Eugene, OR, we scaled-back and incorporated only certain BRT elements to levels we thought were a better fit for the size of the communities in our area.
For example, the Cleveland and Eugene systems have fixed bus guideways, which we just could not accommodate within our corridor. There just was not enough room. Our buses operate in conventional traffic lanes and jump queues constructed by the conversion of on-street parking areas. We have achieved significant time savings without the tremendous capital investment that other larger projects have required.
Who likes JAZZ
The JAZZ BRT system incorporates public infrastructure with public art. Our buses and shelters are now places to study learn and access actual jazz music performances through smartphones.
From a transit industry perspective, this is a very unusual concept — and one we had to sell.
Because this seemed so far beyond the normal scope of public transit, we had to spend many days and evenings attending community meetings and events such as farmers markets and street fairs.
Riders’ Aha! moment came once they realized what they would be able experience and enjoy while simply waiting for a bus at any of the shelters. From then on, the public embraced our project with enthusiasm.
JAZZ BRT creates jobs
One of the important aspects of this project is the fact that we secured $6 million in funding at a time when the economy was going sideways. The country was experiencing double-digit rates of unemployment.
We were able to spend the vast majority of funds within the Monterey Bay region, putting hundreds of people to work at a time when there was not much work available. We contracted locally for construction, as well as for the creation of the art and graphics for the buses and shelters. We put a lot of people to work when there wasn’t much work available at the time.
What we have learned
What we know already is that ridership and on-time performance are increasing faster than our system averages. We went from five shelters to 19 over the 6.75 miles, and increased seating capacity on benches at bus shelters by over 70 percent. It will take about a year to see its true impact, as the economy of the Monterey area is tourist based and we have to let traffic each season run its course.
Based on our experience, everyone at Monterey-Salinas Transit learned there is no such thing as a small BRT construction project. Our project involved a lot of hard work and effort, and we have come out with a product that exceeds all expectations.
BRT is not for the faint of heart. For the small urban operator, a project of this size stretches the staff and the governing board to move beyond their traditional roles and responsibilities. However, with a commitment to a vision, perseverance and broad community support, even a small operator can construct a big project that provides multiple benefits for an entire community.