Paul Comfort : Welcome to Transit Unplugged. I'm your host Paul Comfort. Today we travel to Chicago, where I had a great Transit Unplugged interview with Rocky Donahue, the Executive Director of Pace Suburban Bus, at his offices in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Pace is ready to launch their new arterial rapid transit service called Pulse and expand the bus on shoulder program, paid for by the new Illinois capital infrastructure law. This will provide Pace with $228 million in new capital money over five years and expand their bonding authority plus add $10 million annually to their operating budget. Rocky explains all this, plus we talk about his 37-year career path at Pace to the C-suite, on this special edition of Transit Unplugged.
Intro : What does it mean to be a successful public transit agency? What are you doing to lead the way? It's time to learn from the top transit professionals in North America. This is Transit Unplugged, with your host, Paul Comfort.
Paul Comfort : I'm Paul Comfort. Welcome to Transit Unplugged. We're excited today to be outside of Chicago, Illinois with Rocky Donahue, the Executive Director of Pace Suburban Bus. We're in his office here, and it's a great, beautiful day here in Chicago. Thanks so much for having us in.
Rocky Donahue : Absolutely, Paul. Glad you could be here.
Paul Comfort : Yeah. I've been in Chicago the last couple of days speaking at a conference here, and honestly, I hate to say this to everybody else in the country, but Chicago is my favorite city in the country. I love Chicago. Chicago and San Francisco are just awesome cities. Tell us some about how transit works in Chicago and how Pace fits into that.
Rocky Donahue : Absolutely. In Chicago, we're primarily three operating boards, the CTA, Chicago Transit Authority, which is primarily for bus and rail within the city of Chicago.
Then we have our second operating division is Metra, which is our commuter rail division and their responsibility's primarily bringing suburbanites to jobs in the central business district of the city. They operate in 200 and some communities in a various number of rail lines that feed people primarily into the city. I do know they do have some reverse commute, but it's primarily into the city of Chicago.
Then Pace, we're the suburban bus division, and our goal is multifaceted and we kind of believe we're a family of services, not just the traditional bus service. We have fixed route bus service, which makes up the vast majority of our ridership, but we're also responsible for the ADA paratransit system throughout the whole region, including in the city of Chicago. We've started some express services, bus on shoulders, highly popular, in southwest suburbs.
We started that Paul, in 2011. We were carrying 400 people a day. Today we're carrying nearly 4,000. And we're only limited truly by our own constraints. Our capacity is because we just don't have enough buses and even if we got more buses, we've run out of garage space to house the vehicles. We've also started our local on-demand service. A lot of our suburban areas are not as dense as the urban areas of the city of Chicago. On-demand is kind of a hybrid of a fixed route paratransit service where it's kind of our version of Uber. You call, the bus comes and then takes you to the main line.
Paul Comfort : Is it same day service?
Rocky Donahue : The same day. It's within one hour actually. We have one of the top five vanpool programs in the country. We have over 700 vans on the road every day, primarily in two categories. Our traditional vanpool program is a group of four or more people who all work together, live nearby. One drives the van, picks the others up, they pay a monthly fee, and that's how they commute to work. The other is our, what we call our advantage van program and that's primarily used for individuals with disabilities who live outside the ADA service area. Their facilities, their employment, we'll take the van, go through the neighborhood, pick them up and bring them then to their facilities for work.
Paul Comfort : What is your service area?
Rocky Donahue : Our service area is the six-county Chicago and metropolitan area of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties. It's over 3,700 square miles. It's my understanding is, if it's not the largest, it's one of the largest service areas of any transit system in the nation. To put it in perspective, it's about the state of Connecticut to size.
Paul Comfort : And do your buses go into the city?
Rocky Donahue : Yes, we do have some that go into the city. Most of them do not. Most of them that go into the city connect with CTA L stations.
Paul Comfort : Dorval's buses.
Rocky Donahue : Dorval Carter's buses, yes. But the bus on shoulders program goes from southwest suburbs. Starts in Will and then comes into DuPage and Cook county and that goes into the central business district. But very few of our buses actually go into the city.
Paul Comfort : It's very well defined, the roles. And you told me you just celebrated the 35th anniversary of this structure.
Rocky Donahue : 35th anniversary. We were created in 1984 by the Illinois General Assembly, and like anything in life Paul, there are challenges. There are ups and downs, but the system has worked for 35 years. Thirty-five years, we've only had to go to the General Assembly one time for what I'll call a financial bailout. That was in 2008 where the system needed more operating money, and the legislature increased sales tax to bring that in. Thirty-five years, if any form of government anywhere only had a say, "Hey, I need a little bump up one time," I think you can justify it's doing something right. Now, it doesn't mean that we can't do things better.
Paul Comfort : Right. How do you roll up to our friend Leanne Redden in RTA? How does all that work?
Rocky Donahue : The RTA is our financial oversight, very important. And the RTA is, besides financial oversight, also guidance on planning and they're kind of like mom and dad in that you've got, you've got CTA, Metra, Pace - very distinct agencies serving different constituencies. All very important constituencies. It's RTA, similar to maybe in your family with where mom and dad have three or four siblings, and they're at the table and sometimes as brothers and sisters, we always don't get along. We all love each other. We respect each other. We're there at the end for each other, but sometimes mom and dad have to say, "Hey, go to your room. Go to your corner." Well, that kind of happens here as well. And RTA plays that role there, that oversight role.
Paul Comfort : Are they, besides financial, like your governance? Or do you have your own board? Or how does that work?
Rocky Donahue : No, they are purely financial. We do have our own board. Our board is a very unique board. I think why it's worked for 35 years - our board is made up of mayors. And we're the only board of the transit system, and I believe we might be the only board in Illinois that is defined, to be on the board you have to be a mayor.
Paul Comfort : These are all decision-makers.
Rocky Donahue : These are all decision-makers who come from the community. Obviously, they have their pulse on the community, understand the community's desires, wants and they're accountable because it's just not they're appointed, and no one knows who they are. They've got to go out and run for election - not elected to the Pace board but election as their mayor in their community and by serving on the Pace board, they have to defend why they're doing what they're doing.
Paul Comfort : Tell me how your funding structure works. Are these local communities actually provide funding to you?
Rocky Donahue : We primarily have, if I can break it down, three pots of money. It's the easiest way to describe it. Pot one is fares. By law, the system as a whole has to achieve a 50% farebox recovery ratio.
Paul Comfort : Really?
Rocky Donahue : And that's by state statute.
Paul Comfort : Wow. That's the way Maryland used to be. We were at 40 and then 25, and now they did away with it.
Rocky Donahue : Now, I say regionally 50%. The RTA is our financial oversight agency, sets the individual farebox recovery ratios for each service port. CTA because they are carrying 90% of the passengers, their recovery ratio is around 52%, and they have the urban area. Metra's recovery ratio is at 55%. Ours is at 30%.
Paul Comfort : That's still not bad.
Rocky Donahue : And the RTA recognizes as a suburban agency we don't have the density, we have a lot of rural areas. We run a lot, as we talked earlier, paratransit, ADA service, which also has defined how high you can make fares go.
Paul Comfort : Sure, they can only double.
Rocky Donahue : Exactly. Our recovery ratio is as a region - we have to recover 50%, 30% for Pace. Pot one is the actual paying passenger.
Pot two is, in 1984, when we were created, we have a regional sales tax, so one and three-quarter percent of purchases in Cook county go to the RTA. And then there's an incredible formula that gets split up and probably the easiest way is Pace gets about 13 cents of every dollar that comes in. In the collar counties DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will, their sales tax is 1.5% so it's a little bit less than Cook and the money is, again, it's about rough figures, 48% to CTA, 39% to Metra, 13% to Pace. And that's probably the bulk of our money.
Then the state of Illinois has what they call a public transportation fund. Every dollar we collect in sales tax in the region, the state kicks in an additional 25 cents for every dollar - another 25% match. And that money goes to the RTA to be split up at their discretion to the service ports. All told, our operating budget is about $400 million between what we call our suburban service and our ADA paratransit service.
Paul Comfort : That's good. Now, how many employees do you have? Give us some of those kinds of measures.
Rocky Donahue : Pace, and this is what's unique. Compared to the region, compared to our sister agencies, we're very small. We're the smallest of the service ports, but nationally we're a top 25 transit system stand-alone in the country. We have 1,800 employees. We have over 700 fixed route buses on the road every day. We have over 700 vanpools on the road every day.
Paul Comfort : Wow.
Rocky Donahue : We have over 500 smaller paratransit vehicles on the road, plus over 1,000 private carrier's vehicles on the road. 1,800 Pace employees, and then over 1,000 private operators, employees. We carry nearly 35 million people a year.
Paul Comfort : And you have a bunch of operating garages around the area, right? I saw pictures in your lobby. Tell me about that.
Rocky Donahue : Yes, we have ten operating facilities. Again, a service area of the size of the state of Connecticut requires this to be spread out. These ten garages, some of them we inherited in 1984 from public and private transit companies that preceded us - that went bankrupt basically. And some we have built new.
It's always a challenge of, the example I'll give to you are two. One in our Northwest division in Des Plaines, the garage was state of the art when it was built in 1962, but it's 57 years old today. It was built to house roughly 65 vehicles. There's 120 at it. And so, we're parking as many buses outside as we are inside. At Joliet, because of our I-55 service, the same situation where the capacity to that facility was around 50 buses, and we're currently at 75 where it's causing some challenges for us.
The good news is the state of Illinois just passed the Capitol bill, which will help us relieve some of these challenges and hopefully put us on the right track to transform this agency in the future.
Paul Comfort : That's great. Yeah, we'll talk about that in just a second. You have a massive operation you're running here. How did you end up being the head of it?
Rocky Donahue : I pinch myself, Paul and I say that sincerely. I'm sure a lot of luck was involved. And I'm sure, hopefully, some of it is because I did something right on my way. I'm in my 37th year at Pace. I started out as a financial analyst.
Paul Comfort : When you were 12, it looks like.
Rocky Donahue : You're kind. I started out as a financial analyst, but then I shifted gears into the government relations side of the house. I would say I had an interest more in kind of the public policy side of things and grew up in government relations. I don't know if this is good or bad. I've had the opportunity over the years where I’ve have been in charge of our budget departments, our capital departments, marketing, signs and shelters, customer relations, IT, purchasing, grants.
Paul Comfort : Wow.
Rocky Donahue : I pretty much oversaw everything but physically bus operations. I say why it's good or bad - I don't know if it was a matter of they kept moving me around to get rid of me or if they felt "maybe we think he can help here." I hope it's the latter.
Paul Comfort : Well, it sounds like you're the well-prepared man for this job. You know the agency inside and out, I guess.
Rocky Donahue : Yeah, I think it's unique. I think it's hard to find someone who has spent their whole adult life in any profession at any one company today.
Paul Comfort : I think you're the only, so I've met two or three guys who have spent their whole career in transit, but very, I don't know that I've met anybody who's had all the jobs at an agency basically.
Rocky Donahue : All the jobs at one agency, yeah.
Paul Comfort : That's really interesting.
Rocky Donahue : I've kind of been the Jack of all trades and the master of none. And I think.
Paul Comfort : I doubt that. You've probably mastered a few of them.
Rocky Donahue : But I hope my background and my experience is what led the Pace board to give me this opportunity. I was, in December of 2018, put in as an interim and then was made permanent in March of this year. I've been officially on the job now three months, four months I guess in the permanent role.
Paul Comfort : Having worked in this agency for so long and then to finally be in the CEO chair, what are the impressions you're getting that are maybe different than what you thought the job was going to be like or similar or whatever?
Rocky Donahue : The transition culturally and knowing the organization and the people were fairly easy. The hardest part was I never realized the number of HR issues that come with being the CEO.
And I think what, when I said I grew up in the government affairs side, having a board of 12 mayors, I've worked primarily with a lot of elected officials over the years, so I was able to kind of have a little bit of experience of dealing with an elected official, understanding their concerns.
I have a sign in the office. It's put away that says, "It's all about me." And when I put it up, people first, when they see it, and they don't know me, they go, "This guy is pretty arrogant when he says it's all about me." And I put it up there as a reminder to me and my staff that try to put yourself in other people's shoes. Be it the customer, be it the board, be it Paul who comes in here today. Because we're public servants, and I take that responsibility very, very seriously. And I want to hear what we do well, but I really want to hear what we can do better. And I want to hear from the customers how we can improve the service. I want to hear from our employees how we can make life better in the organization. And so sometimes we forget, and we think it's about us. We need to, we kind of need to keep that in perspective.
Paul Comfort : That's great. Well, let's talk about that. How are you making the agency better? There's a lot of great new things coming and so tell us, I guess let's first talk about the new capital bill for infrastructure and what, how you're going to use that to improve things.
Rocky Donahue : New capital bill, Paul, if you had come and talked to me between December and May, if you had followed me on any external stump speech I gave or any meeting I had with employees, senior staff with constituents, I said, "We need a capital bill." The last capital bill in Illinois was ten years ago. Pace, just to get to a state of good repair, needs a billion dollars over the next ten years. That was just to get us to a state of good repair. Good news is, the Illinois General Assembly passed a capital bill in May. The governor just signed it.
Paul Comfort : I saw that.
Rocky Donahue : On June 28th, Friday, June 28th.
Paul Comfort : A day that will live in infamy.
Rocky Donahue : It will live in infamy now. To the critics, it's like anything - there's no such thing as a free lunch. And how are you paying for this capital bill? We doubled our gas tax. We went from 19 cents to 38 cents. Was that an easy vote to take? I'm sure it wasn't for a number of legislators. The last time we had raised the gas tax in Illinois, it was 1990. And if you had indexed the gas tax in 1990 to inflation, it would be about 19 cents higher. And I believe that's where they at least I'm assuming, that was part of the reasoning of what would the cost be?
Paul Comfort : Logical extrapolation of that.
Rocky Donahue : And what they did this time is they actually have, going forward, it will be indexed to inflation. Hopefully, we won't have to be here in 20 years saying we need to double the gas tax again. So, we're grateful that. Why personally I think the gas tax is, it was the right choice is about two years ago in Illinois we did a lockbox amendment where we said gas taxes could only go into a fund and a lockbox for transportation purposes only - roads, bridges, highways, mass transit, and we're one of those things.
The public has confidence, yes, I'm paying more for in gas taxes, but it's going to be used for the purposes it should be. And why should it be the gas tax? Because it's cars, it's trucks, and it's the vehicles that are causing us to have to make the improvements. I believe it's the right thing for Pace. We received an earmark in the bill of $228 million. That is the largest one-time infusion of capital money in our history.
Paul Comfort : Over how long of a period?
Rocky Donahue : That $228 will be over the next five years. We also will get about another $50 to 60 million of state bonding from RTA discretionary money, and we should get about another $10 to 11 million annually for infinity from this bill as well.
Paul Comfort : For pay as you go operating dollars?
Rocky Donahue : For pay as you go operating. Exactly.
Historic, monumental, this legislation. It's going to transform our agency, or it's going to give us the ability to transform our agency. We've pretty much, we were talking earlier about 35-year history, but we haven't really changed much. We pretty much do the same thing. We run 40-foot buses on pretty much the same routes that we ran 35 years ago, and we do ADA paratransit service like everybody else does.
Well, this bill is going to allow us to do some things we've dreamt about but didn't have the resources to do. One thing we believe helped in getting the money is we're piloting an arterial rapid transit (ART) line, and we've developed a plan of 25 corridors of ART.
Paul Comfort : Tell us about that.
Rocky Donahue : A lot of people are familiar with BRT, bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit has its own dedicated lane. Very similar to kind of a rail system where you have a dedicated track only the train is on. And bus rapid transit you have a dedicated lane, a dedicated road for only the bus.
In a lot of our suburban areas, especially the inner ones closer to Chicago, the buildings are built to almost to the road, so there wasn't room necessarily to expand and create a bus rapid transit lane. Arterial rapid transit is you stand the main highway, and you use technology to keep the bus moving along. In this case, it's a traffic signal priority is the first bit of technology we're using on our first debut on Milwaukee Avenue. Traffic signal priority unlike police cars, the ambulances, it doesn't pull up and tell the red light turn green. It doesn't pre-empt the signal. What it basically says is, "Hey, I'm coming up to the light, you're getting ready to change. Please keep it green for another 20 seconds to let me get through."
It keeps the bus running on time, the system on schedule, and gives more reliability to the customer. That's the first bit of technology. As we advance into these other corridors, we'll also look at queue jumping. Queue jumping is when you pull up at the stoplight, there'll be a bus-only area and the bus will pull in there. You'll have a left turn lane, say two lanes of traffic, then a very small lane for the bus to pull in and its light will turn green before the other lights do so the bus can get ahead of all the traffic. The idea is even though we don't have a dedicated lane to give us advantages as we go through this all.
Our Pulse line is debuting August 11th on Milwaukee Avenue, which goes from the Jefferson Park CTA blue line to the Golf Mill shopping center and Niles. There'll be ten stops, and besides the uniqueness of the technology, the traffic signal priority, the advantages of our buses are going to be, the bus is going to pull up to a raised platform. It'll be level boarding. Doors open up. There will be our Venture Pass. You tap on tap off, you're not going to have to, we do accept cash, but you're not going to have to play with cash. The technology on the bus, all the buses will have WiFi. They'll have the USB charging ports, they will have screens for real-time information of where your next stop is, and you can see the routes displayed on the screen.
The station itself is going to be much more than just a bus shelter in a bus stop. It's going to have heated enclosed seating. It's going to have snowmelt on the boarding location. It will also have real-time information signs, and it's going to have a large vertical marker, which will be unique in that, so for the occasional rider going to know this is a special stop. And in that marker is going to be an initially a static screen, but hopefully eventually interactive where you're going to be able to as a passenger, okay, here's where I'm at, here's where I want to go. How do I make this trip?
Paul Comfort : That's awesome, Rocky.
Rocky Donahue : Yeah. We're excited about that. The first one, like I said, our Milwaukee Pulse line.
Paul Comfort : Do you have any frequency headway you're thinking about doing with all these routes?
Rocky Donahue : The frequency on Milwaukee Pulse, I believe it will be every 10 minutes.
Paul Comfort : Great, high frequency.
Rocky Donahue : High frequency. From start to finish, so if you're riding from Jefferson Park all the way to Niles, that'll be about 21 minutes in total, total time. Today doing that on what is route 270, takes about 30 minutes. It's going to reduce your travel time by about 25%.
Paul Comfort : That's amazing.
Rocky Donahue : And the service now is running about every 20 to 30 minutes where it'll now be running every 10 minutes. High frequency, limited stops, only ten stops. And these stops were identified not only where high boarding, but the most anyone would have to walk is two blocks in the corridor to get to a stop. While some people, they'll say that two blocks will be inconvenient, it's not going to be that cumbersome to be able to access the service.
Paul Comfort : And how has your overall ridership been going in the system? A lot of places in the country, it's been going down.
Rocky Donahue : It’s unique. Overall, our system has gone down. We've lost about over the last two and a half to three years, our ridership is down about 4%. It's been down a little over a percent and a half, roughly a year. But in certain markets, we actually see ridership increases. And what are those markets?
We instituted, in 2011, bus on shoulders where we operate on the shoulder of the Stevenson expressway - I-55 here in Chicago from southwest suburbs into the central business district. Ridership on that line has gone up 600% in eight years, and it continues to grow today.
We partnered with the Illinois tollway two years ago on I-90 here in the northwest suburbs, Jane Adams, where again it's, we're not riding on the shoulder, but we have a dedicated what we call flex lane where Pace buses, when traffic gets congested, the bus is allowed to go in that flex lane, bypass traffic. And ridership on that services is growing 60%.
Last year in partnership with the CTA, we restructured our service to coordinate better with CTA service in the north shore area of suburban Evanston, Wilmette, and ridership is growing in that area. What that tells me is there are certain segments that people want these faster services, more direct services. We believe this Milwaukee Pulse will be great things. And it also tells me when we restructure service as we did, as I mentioned to you earlier, we've kind of run the same service for 35 years. And when we restructure service and kind of not only go where the jobs are, go where the people want to go, we can see ridership. With this capital bill, that's one of the things we're looking at is now let's make these investments to ensure we're not just doing what we've always done, but to grow ridership.
Paul Comfort : Well you're doing the three things that every city in America that grew ridership last year are doing. It's reboot the routes where people want to go, where the jobs are now. It's not just all in the central business districts anymore. It's in the suburbs. And then two, it's increase frequency and three, it's reduce friction. Those are the three things that everyone is doing. I think you're going to see great improvements. And are you going to take this arterial rapid transit service beyond just this first route?
Rocky Donahue : Yeah, so Milwaukee Pulse launches August 11th. We have 24 identified corridors in our suburban area.
Paul Comfort : That's awesome.
Rocky Donahue : And the capital bill is, when I called it earlier monumental, that's what is going to give us the seed money. To give you an example, Milwaukee Pulse roughly was about a $14-15 million between constructing the ten stations and buying the new equipment for it. Twenty-four times $15 million, it adds up fast. But we now at least have the money we can start progressing. We're already in various stages in three other lines, Dempster in the northwest suburbs, 95th Street in the south suburbs and Halsted in the south suburbs as well, are in various stages and will be the next three that come online over the next two to five years.
Paul Comfort : And they'll have similar, all the same features?
Rocky Donahue : Similar, yes. And will be branded Pulse. And part of that branding is building that identification. We have a large region, and so when people are going outside of maybe where they live to work, you had mentioned, getting people to jobs. More people live in the suburbs now than in the city. More people work in the suburbs than the city, and we have a number of people who are making over an hour commute, one-way, too because where they live necessarily isn't where the economic opportunities are. The Pulse system will give them great advantages to access to employment, access to school, better their lives.
Paul Comfort : That's great. Any other things coming up on the horizon for you, you want to talk about?
Rocky Donahue : We're going to expand our bus on shoulders. We talked about the one at I-55. The Illinois Department of Transportation just widened the shoulder on the Eden's Expressway, which is-
Paul Comfort : Did they put extra asphalt under to keep it strong for your bus?
Rocky Donahue : Yes, absolutely. Like anything, we didn't invent this wheel or reinvent the wheel here. We kind of stole the idea from Minneapolis. They have an extensive bus on shoulder program. We sent a bunch of planners up to evaluate it and realized, hey, this would work in our region. And because of the success of I-55 where we went from 400 passengers in 2011 to nearly 4,000 today, our officials are saying, "You know what? This is a much more cost-efficient way than building a new rail line." Or, we're using existing infrastructure, the roadway, to your point, spending minimal just to kind of build it up and make sure it can support a bus. And we already have the buses. Why spend billions of dollars creating something new? It's let's do this in a more efficient way. And it's proven to work.
Paul Comfort : It's not a right mirror removal program for the cars?
Rocky Donahue : No, not at all.
Paul Comfort : You got enough room for the bus.
Rocky Donahue : You got enough room for the bus. We started in 2011, so we're in our eighth year of operation, and we've had two incidences in eight years.
Paul Comfort : Wow.
Rocky Donahue : And those two incidents were a result of a car coming into our lane. Not the bus going into the car.
Paul Comfort : That's great.
Rocky Donahue : But yeah, safety probably like everybody you've talked to is job one, and it's our number one concern as well.
Paul Comfort : Well, you've got a lot on the plate, and now you've got the resources to make it happen.
Rocky Donahue : We're very excited about that, Paul, and it is an exciting time at Pace, and I appreciate you coming out and letting us tell our story, and you're doing great work as well.
Paul Comfort : Thanks.
Rocky Donahue : Thank you for what you do.
Paul Comfort : I'm happy to share this, especially the arterial rapid transit. That is very exciting. I think as people listen to this, you might be getting some phone calls for people around the country saying, "Hey, give me a little bit more on that."
Rocky Donahue : Yeah, absolutely.
Paul Comfort : All right. Thanks again, Rocky Donahue for being with us, our guest today on Transit Unplugged.
Rocky Donahue : Thank you.
Outro : You've been listening to Transit Unplugged, powered by Trapeze Group. To stay up to date, subscribe on iTunes or Google Play, or join the conversation at transitunplugged.com. Thanks for listening.