BY WAYNE CHARGUALAF
Journal Staff

Babauta

The heads of the public transit agencies for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have a number of programs slated to improve public transportation and better the quality of life in their respective jurisdictions.

GRTA aims to make Guam’s public transit more efficient and more capable of meeting the public’s needs by rolling out a mobile app-reliant “hybrid system” that uses buses and vans sometime next year.

This “hybrid system” would use buses to transport workers along regular, long-distance, high-volume routes. The vans would be summoned by the public in an on-demand manner similar to ride-sharing services such as Uber or Stroll.

“With the vans we’ll know when and where to pick riders up, so we’ll save money for fuel and reduce the amount of maintenance compared to a bus that just travels around looking for riders,” Babauta said.

The transit authority currently has 11 buses and 12 vans. They plan on purchasing additional vehicles in the near future, but are still conducting an analysis to determine how many to buy.

The public won’t have to wait on the “hybrid system” to access GRTA services via app, however. Although the transit authority currently has an app that allows the public to view bus schedules, GRTA will be introducing a more functional app once it implements a new transportation management system called One-Call/One-Click.

One-Call/One-Click is a software and hardware system that, according to Babauta, will allow GRTA to more efficiently track and manage bus services and allow the public to schedule rides, purchase rides, pay fares, allow paratransit passengers to reserve rides, prepare reports for the federal and local governments. The data will also be used to inform GRTA decision-making and improve customer service.

The One-Call/One-Click transportation management system, which was purchased for $425,000, will be activated in March.

GRTA also broke ground on a new $2.5 million facility in December that will be located behind Guam Waterworks Authority in Harmon. It will be two-stories and 14,000-square-feet — 7,000-square-feet per floor. Maintenance and operations will be housed on the first floor with admin offices and the transportation management system located on the second floor.

In the past year, GRTA was also awarded a $1.5 million grant to purchase 10 Americans with Disabilities Act compliant buses, and it took over paratransit operations.

“I’m really passionate about making our transit system better,” Babauta said. “I think within the next year, we’ll have some real milestones people will be able to see.”

The Commonwealth Office of Transit Authority is also slated for a new facility, according to Alfreda P. Camacho, who heads the transit authority as the special assistant for public transportation.

The more than 10,000-square-foot facility will be located in Lower Base and house COTA’s maintenance and administrative functions.

“It’s a decent size,” Camacho said. “It’s just enough for us right now, but we have future plans to expand as needed.”

Funds for the new facility wwill be drawn from a $6.38 million grant awarded to COTA by the Federal Transit Administration through the Department of Transportation.

The projects had to be put on hold, however, because Super Typhoon Yutu devasted the NMI shortly after the grant was awarded in the fall of 2018. COTA participated in the typhoon response and recovery effort by implementing a mass evacuation and transportation plan.

“Nevertheless, even with respect to helping out with shelter and transport services during this really trying time for our island, we’re still trying our best to get all these infrastructure projects underway,” Camacho said. “We’ve got a bid closed for the building and now we’re just waiting on the Office of the Attorney General to pass the bid analysis through for us to be able to award the project.”

Other projects funded by the grant that had to be delayed are a plan for 37 solar-powered pre-fabricated bus shelters on Saipan, the acquisition of 12 ADA equipped buses, and the launch of a new route — Route 1B — for the Flame Tree Line, Saipan’s fixed-route public transit bus line. COTA also had to delay the acquisition of one ADA equipped van each for Tinian and Rota, which was funded by the local government.

Camacho

Camacho said she’s thankful the governor and legislature are supportive of public transit considering the challenges faced by COTA, which includes procurement difficulties imposed by the NMI’s distance from vehicle manufacturers and distributors as well as regulations tied to federal funding that don’t apply to the NMI — an issue she aims to address when she and representatives from Guam and American Samoa meet with federal representatives in Hawaii in February.

“We’re expected to fulfill all these federal mandates, but 70% of them don’t apply to us,” she said. “Does that mean we’re then non-compliant and we lose the funding? That’s not fair.”

In spite of that issue, Camacho said she’s confident the federal representatives will listen once they make their case.

“I truly believe it’s a matter of the close relationship you build with your federal grantor agency, and I’m confident to say that the CNMI has established that with the Federal Transit Administration,” she said.

In the face of all these challenges, COTA has continued to move forward and make progress, Camacho said. Recent improvements include expanded hours to serve the public on Sundays and holidays. Also, much like their counterparts on Guam, COTA has begun the process of developing a mobile app to better serve the community.

“There’s no way that we cannot include technology in public transportation,” Camacho said. “High school kids with extracurricular activities after school, high school seniors going into college, they all have smart phones and this is how we’d like to accommodate them. We have an app in the works that will let people make payments, track their bus, make reservations and things of that nature.”

For Babauta and Camacho, their drive to improve public transit in the islands is informed by a belief that public transit — when well-designed and well implemented — has the power to change their communities for the better.

“It will help invigorate the economy,” Camacho said. “It’ll help get folks to their places of employment if they don’t have a vehicle, attend college, get to their doctor’s appointment — public transportation can fill that gap. Everybody wins. Public transportation is the missing puzzle piece in a lot of communities, because it connects everybody.” mbj