Lextran moving to a state-of-the-art model

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJuly 24, 2012 

In case you haven't noticed, a major undertaking to change Lextran, the city's bus system, from a low-tech operation to a state-of-the-art high-tech mass transportation model has been under way for two years.

Currently in the works is a new automatic vehicle locator/global positioning system that allows Lextran staff to pinpoint the location of buses and gives riders the ability to do the same, and to see whether their buses are on schedule.

Lextran operations staffers already are tracking buses using the new technology, including computer screens, at the bus system's headquarters on Loudon Avenue. In the near future, riders will be able to do that by going to Lextran's Web site, Lextran.com, or by calling a phone number displayed at all bus stops that connects to an automated interactive voice-response system.

Lextran also is putting LED signs at major bus stops and high volume locations, including the bus system's transit center on Vine Street. Each sign counts down to the next time a bus is scheduled to depart from a particular stop.

"We've been piloting one on High Street," Lextran general manager Rocky Burke said of the signs. The High Street sign is across from Lexington Avenue.

Burke said another LED sign is planned for a location near Kentucky Clinic on the University of Kentucky campus in the near future.

The new system also involves changes inside the more than 70 buses operated by Lextran.

"We have what we call a voice annunciator," Burke said. At key transfer points, a voice inside a bus calls out the stops. When the voice begins, a message providing the same information starts across an electronic sign at the front of a bus. This feature is helpful to vision- and hearing-impaired passengers, Burke said.

The voice feature includes canned messages, including one that asks passengers to reserve particular seats for disabled or senior citizens. Voice annunciators have been installed in all Lextran buses, Burke said.

There have been some kinks in the transition from low tech to high tech, he said. For example, there were problems with some outside voice annunciator trigger boxes at first. Instead of announcing a stop as a bus approached it, a voice annunciator would make the announcement about 500 yards beyond the stop, he said.

"This is a huge systems integration project, but everything's on schedule," Burke said.

The project is being financed through a $5.4 million grant from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. More than $3 million of the grant is being used for high-tech upgrades, according to Lextran.

Burke said bus drivers resisted the technological changes at first.

"We had to impress on bus operators that we're not the first in the country to do this," Burke said.

The new bus tracking system allows route supervisors who used to travel along bus routes in cars, clipboards in hand, to see whether buses were on schedule, to help with other tasks, he said. There have been no layoffs or new hires because of the new system, Burke said.

New electronic passenger counters connected to the doors of each bus count the number of people getting on and off buses.

"The beauty of those is we're able to see the exact number of people on a bus at a given time," Lextran spokeswoman Jill Barnett said.

The counters help Lextran officials better plan bus routes, Burke said.

"It works. It's good. It makes it a little easier for us and for the passengers, too," Lextran driver Bedri Uka said while driving along his route Monday morning.

"If you haven't rode the bus before, I think it helps out a lot," said Shelley Adams, one of Uka's passengers. Adams, 26, a regular Lextran rider since she was 14, said that in the past, when she has had her 3-year-old son with her, she sometimes missed her stop because she had to attend to her child.

"Now I never miss a stop," she said.

Beginning in 2010, Lextran started its conversion to high tech by installing electronic fare boxes on all buses.

"Back in the day, people would tear a dollar bill in half" and stuff it in glass fare boxes, Burke said. Riders can't do that any more.

The electronic fare boxes not only can tell whether the proper amount of money has been paid; they also record what time of day a person paid a fare or used a bus pass, and in the case of people with bus passes, the type of pass that was used, Burke said.

Lextran's fare is $1 for adults, 80 cents for students, and 50 cents for senior citizens and disabled people. Children 6 and younger ride for free.

In August, Lextran will have "smart" cards for college students who buy "class" passes. The smart cards will allow riders to tap the fare box with the card rather than having to swipe a pass at the fare box.

"They're (students) the ones that are probably going to benefit the most," Burke said of the new technology.

Barnett said Lextran is planning to get a bus tracker application that can be downloaded on cellphones.

Another change during the past two years is digital cameras on all buses. They can help document any accidents and bad behavior. Passengers and drivers are behaving better these days, Burke said.

Other changes at Lextran include the addition of hybrid electric vehicles — there are now two 35-foot buses and two trolleys that are hybrid electric vehicles — and a new color scheme for buses.

Lextran is gradually making a transition from blue and white to blue, green and silver.

Burke said Lextran has received a lot of compliments about the new color scheme.

Jennifer Hewlett: (859) 231-3308. Twitter: @hlpublicsafety.

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