COTA and W. Curtis Stitt power on by creating efficiencies, working smarter

Unintended consequences

The second largest budget item for COTA is fuel, so Stitt says they took a hard look at the fuel consumption and how to reduce that cost.

In 2010, COTA invested in six hybrid electric buses, and a year later it decided to slowly transition the bus fleet to compressed natural gas.

col_cs_cota2_1116If COTA could have converted its more than 300 buses at once in 2011, it would have saved $6 million annual in fuel costs. But Stitt says those savings would have had other consequences.

It’s important to look at the big picture. You don’t want an efficiency to negatively impact another area. A short-term saving could end up costing as much or more in the long term.

COTA could have figured out a way to convert its fleet more quickly, but he says COTA would have to replace all of those new buses at the same time.

That was a lesson the organization learned the hard way. Previously, COTA bought 67 buses because it had the money available. But when those buses reached 12 years or 500,000 miles — the average lifespan of a transit bus — COTA couldn’t replace them.

“Our maintenance costs skyrocketed, because we were operating buses that should have been retired at 12 years. We were running them 14, 16, 18 years, in some instances, at a higher operating cost for maintenance, than we should have been, Stitt says.

“It was a conscious decision not to replace them all at once,” he says of the compressed natural gas buses, which still only make up about one-third of COTA’s fleet.

Question the status quo

When you’re looking to stretch your resources and operate smartly, ideas can come from anywhere. COTA looks both internally and at other transit agencies.

“We understand that in many respects there are no new ideas. There are just good ideas that are being used around the country that we haven’t yet adopted here,” Stitt says.

Over the past several years, COTA has been working on a transit system redesign, which it plans to roll out in 2017.col_cs_wcurtisstitt2_1116

Stitt says about three years ago, an employee stumbled across the first annual report of COTA from 1974. She was excited and wanted to show Stitt.

The report, which looked like a road map, showed COTA’s bus service map on one of its panels.

“In that service map, the thing that struck me was it looked almost identical to the service map we had at that time, and we have today,” he says.

Service came from the suburbs, ran into the downtown area, and then back out to another community. Stitt says the question was: Is that paradigm the best way to provide service today?

Intuitively, you know that demographics and workplace locations would be different enough from 1974, to say no, that’s not the most efficient way to meet the needs of the community today.

That was a creative way of looking at how you can operate more efficiently, Stitt says. It’s not always a matter of spending more; you can put pressure on yourself to find service improvements by questioning that way it’s always been done.

That’s why it’s important to always be looking for ideas.

“My advice to anybody who has got a workforce, large or small, is to put your employees first. Be willing to listen to them,” Stitt says.

You also want to make sure your employees understand that no matter how decisions play out, you’re going to be fair and make decisions that you believe are in the best interests of all the stakeholders involved, he says.

Those stakeholders include your employees, your investors and your customers. You want to a good balance for all three.