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Know Your Operator

Know Your Operator: Renee Stafford 

| Friday, March 11, 2016 2:03:00 PM

Needing money to put herself through school, Renee Stafford taught swim lessons and worked as a lifeguard. But traveling between the University of Minnesota and her Mounds View home on Route 25, she was inspired to pursue a different line of work: driving a bus.

At 19-years-old, she submitted an application but was told she was too young. Within a month of her 21st birthday, after reaching the minimum age requirement, she tried again. And so began a career that has spanned nearly four decades, hundreds of thousands of miles and countless passengers. 

Stafford’s career choice still raises eyebrows among some family and friends. But no one is perhaps more astonished than Stafford that, after four decades of driving, she has become Metro Transit’s longest-tenured female operator.                                         

“I’m still pretty amazed by the fact that I get to move this 40-foot, 20-ton vehicle through heavy traffic, ice, snow or whatever,” she said. “I really get a kick out of the fact that this is what I’m doing.”

Surprising people has been a part of the job from the very beginning. When Stafford began in June 1976 she was among a handful of women driving buses. “We (women) were kind of an oddity when I started,” Stafford remembered. “Even now, people I meet away from work are shocked that I drive a city bus.”

That pressure was only compounded by the fact that Stafford had little experience in the urban environment she was now a part of. She remembers being “terrified” the first time she drove the bus alone in heavy traffic during rush hour – a Route 17A that ran from downtown Minneapolis to Uptown. 

The fear didn’t linger long, though. With each customer she met and each mile she drove, Stafford’s confidence grew. Today, she is widely recognized as a bright and cheerful presence both on the bus and with her peers at Nicollet Garage. (She also has a reputation for generosity: she and her husband have served as caretakers for three fellow bus operators stricken with cancer.)

“This job has helped me in a lot of ways, but in particular it’s taught me how to talk to people, because I was really forced to,” Stafford said. “I talk to everybody now, even if they don’t look particularly happy. I don’t want to say it’s a game, but I definitely take it as a challenge to get people to smile.”

Her eventual ease in the driver’s seat is part of the reason Stafford continued driving after graduating college. (A poor job market – combined with decisions to purchase a home and car – also provided some motivation.)

Not that her education hasn’t been useful. Stafford said she routinely applies the lessons she learned while studying to become a teacher, primarily when it comes to interacting with and helping customers.

“I have my degree and I think I use it every day, just maybe not in the way my parents thought I would,” she said.

In addition to her warm personality, Stafford prides herself on being a safe and reliable operator. She has 35 years of safe driving, which she credits largely to a commitment to the techniques taught in the Safety Keys training program.

“The Safety Keys are a big part of what I do,” Stafford said. “But I also always expect people to do the dumbest, most dangerous thing they could do.”

Her customers notice and appreciate her work. Driving Route 9 for the last six years, Stafford has become endeared to many longtime customers, including Minneapolis resident John Murphy. In a recent letter, Murphy thanked Stafford for being on time so he could catch his connecting bus and for always greeting him with a smile.

“Renee is not only an excellent bus driver, but very friendly and willing to chat,” he wrote. “I have been riding the bus for over 35 years and Renee is without a doubt the best driver I've ever had.”

As a Project Mobility operator, driving customers who could not use regular route bus service, Stafford became so beloved by a few of her customers that they even asked her to provide transportation on their wedding days.

The relationships Stafford has developed driving and among her fellow operators are what keeps her coming back.

“This job has allowed me to meet so many wonderful people, both passengers and co-workers,” she said. “I’m a better person for knowing them and that’s why I continue to love what I do, even after all these years.”

Name: Renee Stafford

Hired: June 1, 1976

Employee Number: 603

Garage: Nicollet

Hobbies: Renee regularly plays golf and also enjoys scuba diving, reading, gardening and traveling. She also has a small collection of holiday-themed and year-round snow globes. 

To better get to know those getting you around, Metro Transit offers these Know Your Operator profiles. If you'd like to suggest an operator for a future profile, please email ridersalmanac@metrotransit.org.

A Line BRT Bus

Techs take care of the technology behind transit 

| Tuesday, February 09, 2016 3:36:00 PM

When Ed Anstett began at Metro Transit 36 years ago he was among four people who maintained the radios that had just been added to buses, providing a lifeline for operators who before that had nothing to rely on but payphones.

Like the technology Anstett works with, the job has evolved quite a bit over the years. 

Operators still use radios to communicate mechanical or service issues they encounter on the road. But Anstett and other Electronic Repair Techs in Metro Transit’s Radio Shop now maintain several other pieces of equipment that have turned buses into advanced mobile computers with up to a mile of wiring neatly tucked out of sight.

Today, buses include GPS and video-storage equipment, devices that count each customer boarding and exit and hardware that allows buses in designated corridors to request a green light or enter an area with restricted access.

While there once were hand-cranked destinations signs, there are now LED displays on both the inside and outside of the bus; a system that automatically announces bus stops and transfer points was also recently expanded fleetwide.

“When we started, you just had to know a little bit about radios and that was it,” said Anstett, who came to Metro Transit after working for the company that installed the first radios. “There’s much more to jump into now than there used to be.”

The latest technological evolution came last year, when Electronic Repair Techs installed equipment on nearly 750 buses that allows data to be transferred more quickly and efficiently.

The Onboard Mobile Gateways, or OMGs, are particularly useful when routes or schedules change since updates can be sent automatically instead of having to be manually entered on each bus. The OMG equipment is also used to provide WiFi, which was piloted on some buses beginning in 2015.

For techs like Anstett, the day begins early with a list of work orders outlining issues that need to be addressed. Most of their time is spent on the road traveling to garages or other locations in a fleet of meticulously-stocked vans.

When not at a garage, Techs repair equipment at the Radio Shop, replace outdated equipment and outfit each new bus with the technology it needs to go into service. They are currently focusing on the new Bus Rapid Transit buses that will be used on the A Line opening this year.

“Every new bus that comes in, comes to us first,” Radio Shop Supervisor Scott McDonald said.

In addition to this work, techs maintain portable radios used by Transit Police, Rail and Street supervisors, work on light-rail and non-revenue vehicles and maintain six radio towers located around the region.

While the work often goes unseen, Anstett said he’s found motivation from knowing he’s doing a public service and from being regularly challenged by the glitches that inevitably arise.

“It’s using your mind — you against the machine,” he said during a recent trip to South Garage, where he fixed a bus that wasn't tracking correctly. “It’s someone saying, ‘Here’s the problem: solve it.’ I’ve learned a lot over the years and that’s what’s made the job fun.”

Techs can expect to do even more problem-solving in the years ahead as technology continues to evolve and expand.

“We never could have imagined being where we are now,” said McDonald, the supervisor. “But the sky’s the limit. Things are getting smaller and faster and as everything moves in that direction we will too.”

    > KARE 11: New Metro Transit BRT buses unveiled

A Line BRT St. Paul

Time lapse: A Line shelter installation 

Posted by Drew Kerr | Friday, January 08, 2016 2:03:00 PM

The latest sign of progress on what will become the region’s first arterial Bus Rapid Transit Line, the A Line, arrived this week near the corner of Snelling and University avenues.

The shelter installed Wednesday on the northbound side of Snelling Avenue is the largest of the BRT shelter types that will be used at 20 station locations along the A Line, which will provide faster, more frequent service between the Rosedale Transit Center and the METRO Blue Line’s 46th Street Station when it opens this year. About 700 people board or get off a bus at this location today. 

Each BRT shelter will include on-demand heat, emergency phones, schedules and route maps. Off-board ticket vending machines and pylons featuring predicted real-time departure information will also be installed at each stop in the coming months. 

Heavy station platform construction is nearly complete at all stops and around 20 shelters have now been installed. Shelters will not be available for use by customers until the A Line opens to ensure the safety of customers and to prevent damage to shelters prior to A Line launch. In most cases, the stations will be served both by the A Line and regular route buses.

BRT buses also began arriving in December. Like the stations, the vehicles are distinct from regular route service, with unique branding and features that will make service more efficient. 

Express Bus METRO Blue Line METRO Green Line Metropass Minneapolis Northstar On the METRO

New transit-friendly HQ a perfect ‘Match’ 

| Monday, December 14, 2015 9:00:00 AM

Be the Match employee Mike Smith spends his time on the bus catching up on emails and listening to the radio.When Be the Match relocated to its new North Loop headquarters, Michael Smith thought he'd continue driving to work.

But weeks after the relocation, he gave up on the idea of driving and using one of the few underground parking spaces available to a small portion of the donor network’s 900-plus employees. 

The decision to go “all in” on transit came after Smith compared his options and became convinced commuting between Minneapolis and Lakeville on Route 467 would be considerably more relaxing than battling traffic on Interstate 35W, his routine for the last several years.

On the bus, Smith spends his time catching up on emails and listening to the radio, occasionally using free WiFi now available on some buses.

“It’s changed my life to be honest with you,” said Smith, Be the Match’s Director of Donor Shared Services. “My wife has even noticed. It’s not that shock and awe feeling where you need a half hour to decompress because the drive is so crazy.  It’s amazing what this is going to do to my family as well as my work.”

Smith isn’t the only Be the Match employee to embrace transit since the non-profit moved from Northeast Minneapolis to a site immediately adjacent Target Field Station. After working in a location with relatively limited transit options, staff now find the METRO Blue and Green lines, Northstar and dozens of express and local bus routes at their doorstep.

Chief Financial Officer Amy Ronneberg said Be the Match looked at 70 different locations but was sold on the North Loop in large part because of its transit access. Like many companies moving to the downtown core, Be the Match sees transit as a key to retaining and recruiting top talent, particularly when it comes to Millenials who are increasingly averse to driving.

“As we looked out into the future, we knew it was important to be in a place with vibrancy,” Ronneberg said. “Being here with all of the amenities and transportation options, I think we’ve opened ourselves up to a whole new potential workforce.”

With thousands of people passing by each day – especially during the Twins season – Be the Match also saw a chance to increase its visibility and raise awareness of its mission. Operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, Be the Match manages the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. 

To ease the transition for current staff, Metro Transit worked closely with Be the Match to help employees understand the options available to them. Be the Match also joined the Metropass program, which gives employees the opportunity to buy a low-cost transit pass that provides unlimited access to buses and trains.

Staff have also been given the freedom to work remotely and are encouraged to carpool, bike or walk to work.

Among those who have converted from a drive-alone commute to transit is Human Resources Coordinator Diane Dombeck, of Spring Lake Park. Before the move, she had taken Northstar just once to a Minnesota Twins game. Now, she takes the train daily to and from Fridley Station.

“I wasn’t sure how it would work, because it was a new thing to me,” she said. “But it’s really painless and a lot more fun than I thought it would be because you chat with other train riders and get to know people. I actually love taking it now.”

Dombeck was reminded of how different life will be when winter weather hit a few weeks ago and she had to drive to Be the Match’s former location. With traffic, the usual 25-minute commute turned into almost 90 minutes on the road.

“I really missed the train that day,” she said.

Metropass popularity growing

Be the Match is among several employers to join the Metropass program this year. The Mall of America, Delta and Regions Hospital also joined the program in 2015. Around 280 companies now participate in the Metropass program. Staff at participating companies can purchase the unlimited-ride passes for a flat monthly fee. The passes can be bought pre-tax and the cost is typically offset by an employer contribution. Any company with at least ten participants can join the Metropass program. To learn more, visit metrotransit.org/metropass.

Supporting TOD through grants, assistance

Be the Match’s new headquarters, at 524 5th Street N., were built by Minneapolis-based United Properties (United Properties has since sold the building; Be the Match has a 15-year lease, with the option of renewing). The Metropolitan Council provided a $487,000 brownfield clean-up grant to assist with pre-development at the site, previously home to a printing facility. To learn more about how the Council and Metro Transit are supporting Transit-Oriented Development through grants and technical assistance visit metrotransit.org/tod.

North Loop rising

Be the Match is among several recent developments in the area immediately surrounding Target Field Station. District 600, a new 78-unit apartment building adjacent to the Fulton Brewery, is set to open in February 2016. Construction is also underway on a new 12,000-square-foot brewery, Inbound Brewco., at 70 N. 5th Street. Metro Transit is planning to expand and improve its Heywood Campus north of Target Field. 

A Line BRT Bus

A Line buses start rolling in 

Posted by Drew Kerr | Thursday, December 10, 2015 1:49:00 PM

The first of 12 BRT buses that will be used on the A Line, #8000, was delivered on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.Buses that will be used on the region’s first arterial Bus Rapid Transit line are beginning to arrive.

The first of 12 BRT buses that will be used on the A Line, #8000, was delivered on Friday, Nov. 27. The remainder of the fleet is scheduled to arrive by mid-January and the buses will go into service when the A Line opens next year.

The BRT buses have several similarities with other 40-foot Gillig buses already in service, but include several features that will make boarding more efficient. 

A wider rear door allows customers two points of entry and exit and there are no fareboxes, since customers will pay prior to boarding and buses also have more space for mobility devices and standing customers.

BRT buses are distinguished from regular route buses by their unique exterior coloring, brighter digital displays and rounded edges. 

In addition to the buses, Revenue Operations has begun receiving ticket-vending machines that will be used at A Line stations along Snelling Avenue, Ford Parkway and 46th Street. The ticket machines will be installed along with other station features like real-time signs beginning next year.

Heavy station platform construction is nearly complete at the A Line's 20 stations. 

The A Line will supplement Route 84 service, providing faster and more frequent service for customers traveling longer distances.

There are 11 arterial BRT lines planned for the region, including the C Line which is scheduled to be under construction on Penn Avenue in 2017.

Future arterial BRT lines and the METRO Orange Line that will bring BRT to Interstate 35W are expected to have 60-foot buses with three doors for customers to board and exit.​

    > Learn more about the A Line and subscribe to project updates

    > View more photos on Flickr

    > Star Tribune: Tech for local bus overhaul rolls into Metro Transit

First A Line Bus Rapid Transit bus has arrived

Light Rail METRO Blue Line

Keeping light-rail vehicles in shape for the long haul 

Posted by Drew Kerr | Friday, December 04, 2015 1:55:00 PM

Electro Mechanic-Technicians at the Minneapolis Operations and Maintenance Facility recently embarked on a comprehensive overhaul of the so-called trucks that are bolted to the bottom of each vehicle, containing all of the mechanics that move trains down the tracks.After logging more than 700,000 miles, Metro Transit’s first generation of light-rail vehicles is getting some extra attention.

Electro Mechanic-Technicians at the Minneapolis Operations and Maintenance Facility recently embarked on a comprehensive overhaul of the so-called trucks that are bolted to the bottom of each vehicle, containing all of the mechanics that move trains down the tracks.

"It’s a lot like getting a car overhauled after 200,000 miles," Rail Maintenance Supervisor Keith Meisinger said. "Every single part is taken apart and checked, replaced if necessary."

At 12,500 pounds, each truck includes a traction motor, brake pads, calipers, gear boxes and an axle. Each of these parts will be removed and replaced with new or refurbished equipment. The stripped frames will be sandblasted and repainted, and new wiring and suspension components will also be installed.

The fleet overhaul is considered preventative maintenance that doesn’t necessarily indicate that the vehicles have dangerously deteriorated. Swapping out salt-corroded and worn parts is instead intended to help avert in-service breakdowns that can lead to delays.

Year-to-date, light-rail vehicles are traveling an average of nearly 39,500 miles between service calls.

This is the second time the trucks on the Bombardier vehicles have been overhauled. In 2009, specific parts were replaced through a less-intensive maintenance effort.

Taking the trucks apart for the first time, mechanics relied on diagrams to get the work accomplished. That experience will help speed things up this go around, but it will still take up to six weeks to complete work on each truck.

"There was a learning curve the first time around and this one will be too," said Neal Rambeck, one of five Electro Mechanic-Technicians working on the overhaul. "It’s a different process and a little more intense."

With 27 Bombardier passenger cars, and two trucks per car, it will take at least three years to overhaul the entire Bombardier fleet. By that time, work will likely be getting underway on the newer Siemens vehicles that went into service when the METRO Green Line opened in 2014.

The Bombardier trains are expected to stay in service through at  least three additional overhauls, which occur roughly every 350,000 miles. Light-rail trains are expected to be in-service at least 30 years. 

In other words, Rambeck and his peers will have their hands full for the foreseeable future.

"I’m definitely going to be able to retire here," Electro Mechanic-Technicians Clarence Blackmon said.

In addition to the truck overhauls, the exteriors of each Bombardier passenger car are being restored and repainted​. An interior refresh will likely begin in 2016.

"Our goal is to keep these vehicles in the best condition possible so they can continue to stay in service for future generations," said Rick Carey, Director of Light Rail Vehicle Maintenance. "They’re big, long-term investments and we treat them as such."

Electro Mechanic-Technicians working on an overhaul of the Bombardier light-rail vehicles briefly paused for a photo at the Minneapolis Light Rail Operations & Maintenance Facility. They include, from left, Will Fetterly,Daryl Long, Mike Lund, Neal Rambeck and Clarence Blackmon.

    > New paint brings new life to light-rail trains

    > Light-rail vehicles ready for all seasons

 

Bus Community METRO Blue Line Shelters

In S. Minneapolis, new shelter ‘shines like a beacon’ 

| Tuesday, November 24, 2015 9:52:00 AM

Ann Erickson, owner of Keen Eye Coffee, Doris Overby, a neighborhood block leader, and Francy Scurato, also a neighborhood block leader, with the shelter they adopted at the corner of East 38th Street and South 28th Avenue. After years of campaigning, Standish-Ericsson resident Francy Scurato finally got her wish.

Earlier this year, Metro Transit removed a rusting, privately-owned shelter at the corner of East 38th Street and South 28th Avenue and put in its place a new agency-standard shelter with a bench, lighting and transit information.

On a recent morning, Scurato and others who advocated for the new shelter celebrated that victory and watched as a sign noting its adoption was centered and fastened into place. The sign includes the names of Hiawatha Square, a nearby condo, and Keen Eye Coffee, which is located just across the street.

By adopting the shelter through Metro Transit’s Adopt-A-Shelter program, Scurato, Keen Eye Coffee owner Ann Erickson and others agree to keep an eye on the site and to alert staff if any issues arise.

"Adopters are a great resource for our Facilities team, which has to cover a lot of ground," said Bill Hultberg, who manages the Adopt-A-Shelter program for Metro Transit. "We really appreciate their efforts and are happy to partner with them wherever we can."

If Scurato has noticed anything since the new shelter was installed, though, it’s that the shelter has become an invitation to take transit.

“Before, I think people were hesitant to use the shelter,” Scurato said after the sign was put into place. “Now it shines like a beacon and lights up the whole intersection. I’ve seen a lot of people using it.”

In 2014, Metro Transit took responsibility for shelters in Minneapolis that had been privately owned and operated. All such shelters will be replaced with Metro Transit shelters in the coming years. Shelters will also be placed at some locations where none had previously existed through the Better Bus Stops Program.

After giving up driving a few years ago, Scurato frequently finds herself standing in the shelter while waiting for the bus. Students at Roosevelt High School, neighbors and people visiting Keen Eye and other nearby businesses also use the stop, which is served by routes 22 and 23.

“A lot of our customers take transit, so it was kind of a no-brainer to be a part of it (adopting the shelter),” said Erickson, who opened her coffee shop two years ago.

Erickson, Scurato and others are hoping the shelter will lead to further improvements. The goal is to make the few blocks between the shelter and the METRO Blue Line’s 38th Street Station more inviting so people will be encouraged to hop off the train and explore the neighborhood.

“If you want people to come to the businesses on this street, you have to make it look nice,” Scurato said. “You can’t have dark streets and a beat-up shelter. This is a jumping little corner of town and with improvements like this we can make it even more so.”


 

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