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Lane Transit District Update: February 16

Jameson T. Auten, the recently appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Lane Transit District, presented an expansive and, to most citizens, novel, view of the role of LTD in the community at the February 16, City Club program. “LTD must move away from being a public transit system,” he said, suggesting that the future of LTD was as an aggregator and facilitator of not only its fixed route system, but also “everything but the bus.”

Mr. Auten, who comes to LTD from the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA), where he served as the agency’s Deputy CEO/Chief Operating Officer, said his professional background in transportation demand management has drawn him to the conclusion that transportation must be “mode agnostic,” offering a wide variety of opportunities in how to get from point A to point B, including those that are not operated by an agency like LTD. He envisions LTD as a mobility space, from where a resident can get access to programs as diverse as bike sharing, car and van pools, pedestrian access, paratransit, many of which would be provided by entities other than LTD, as well as the customary fixed route services.

He envisions that the services LTD provides directly will also shift, in the future, away from the “hub and spoke” model where all service runs through a fixed central station to a service where “micro transit” which could well be an on-demand service, provides connections to a spine like the current EmX line in Springfield. As an example, he wondered if service to Coburg, which now runs as a fixed route from the town of Coburg to the downtown Eugene station, might not be more efficiently provided by offering “micro transit” (which he imagined as “like Uber in a larger vehicle”) as an on-demand service connecting to the EmX line in Gateway.

He was also critical of the current model for paratransit, which operates as Ride Source, because it lacks flexibility and immediacy, forcing those whose abilities necessitate them using the service, to plan travel long in advance with limited time windows. Many communities, he said, are exploring ways to improve their paratransit service and make if more effective as an on-demand service.

Responding to a question of how he would address the common perception that low ridership means the system is not useful, he said LTD must learn to focus public attention not on the ridership statistics, but rather on the outcomes that using public transportation, in all its many forms, facilitates. Transportation is vital to a community he said, not in terms of those statistics but in how it facilitates outcomes in other areas like employment, healthcare, and education.

Creating a new model for LTD will, he said, require extensive community conversations. He noted that the recent Moving Ahead initiative had a bad outcome. That effort is on pause and LTD will over the next several months be soliciting community feedback and developing a “best in class” process to determine the interests of stakeholders. This will include an external steering committee and an evaluation of whether or not the bus system meets the needs of the community and what it might look like if LTD were to rethink what it should look like. He noted that similar conversations are occurring in most communities across the country as society adjusts to the changes that have come out of the pandemic. He hopes that a new business case for LTD can be developed over the next 18 months.

He believes that LTD should not be wedded to the image of 40- and 60-foot fixed route vehicles. Those, he said, are not typically found in communities the size of the Eugene-Springfield area, and are more typical of San Francisco, Los Angelese or Philadelphia. Here the service needs to be tailored to how the community sees that its needs can best be met.

Mr. Auten reported that while before the pandemic fare box revenue made up 15 to 18 percent of total revenue, ridership has fallen and farebox revenue yields about 10 percent, that prompted a question about the desirability of zero fare service. He responded that Kansas City has recent experience with zero fare service, first as an incentive coupled to their development of a Bus Rapid Transit system and then later as all fares were suspended during the pandemic. That experience was not positive, he said. Although their might have been a small economic benefit to riders, behavior problems increased. Mr. Auten said that bus operators had reported similar results when LTD fares were suspended during the pandemic.

LTD should be a complete member of the community he said. He pointed to examples where other jurisdictions had repurposed uses that had ended their service life could be transformed into other useful roles. He cited an example in San Francisco where a bus had been converted into a community showering facility for use by the unhoused and other examples where retired buses had been converted into food pantries.

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