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Riding High

For Chris Cole, it’s all about ridership

by Rosalyn Graham

As general manager of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority in Burlington, Chris Cole runs a system with a $10 million budget, $2 million capital budget, 53 buses, 58 bus drivers, 25 administrative personnel and 15 mechanics.

When 11-year-old Chris Cole climbed onto a bus with his friends to head for downtown Ottawa, he had no idea he was on a career track. He was just doing what all the kids in the suburbs did: taking advantage of a safe, reliable mode of transportation that provided freedom and independence. He was a boy with a mission: to get to the city for shopping and movies with his friends. 

Chris Cole the man still has a mission: As general manager of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority, he wants more people to ride the bus. 

Cole is motivated by more than the healthy fare box, though. His larger aim is to reduce traffic congestion, decrease the use of fossil fuels, cut pollution and slow global warming. He approaches the transportation business from the perspective of the history student he was at Ithaca College and, later, the State University of New York in Albany. He sees the value of learning from the successes of other countries and cultures that have used public transportation to improve a community’s quality of life. He also brings the skills of the policy analyst he was in New York and Vermont, whose role is to identify a problem, propose solutions and implement them. 

Cole loves his job, he says, because it calls upon his skills to provide a public service and to satisfy his desire to give something back. “There is the general satisfaction of knowing I’ve done something to improve the city, the state and maybe the world.”

That world view is enhanced by Cole’s experience living in Canada as an immigrant from Atlanta, Ga., for eight years while his father was working in the Ottawa paper industry. “It gave me an appreciation of what it means to be an American,” he says. “It frames your perspective.”

The route from the Ottawa bus to CCTA was not a ride on the direct express. When his family returned to the States in 1978, he was 18. They moved to Walpole, N.H., and Cole had his introduction to Vermont, attending Vermont Academy in Saxtons River as a day student. He confesses that when he graduated, his only dream was to live in a state with mountains for skiing. 

photoTim Bradshaw, assistant operations manager, and Donna Rae Decatur, operations manager, chat in a bus shelter near the CCTA offices in South Burlington.

He entered Ithaca College in the fall of 1979, he says, and after two years, decided to take a break to work and travel. It was during that period that he met Londonderry native Leigh Polk, a fellow worker at a local restaurant, who was studying government at Cornell. The relationship became serious, says Cole, about a month before her graduation in May 1985.

Seeking to finish his undergraduate degree at a reasonable price, and wanting to find a place where Leigh could put her major to work, they headed to Albany. Leigh took a job as an analyst with the New York Legislature, eventually enrolling in Albany Law School at Union University. Cole found a job in a restaurant and entered SUNY-Albany. They married in 1988.

After graduation in 1989, Cole was also hired by the Legislature as a policy analyst, working for the transportation, education and environment committees. 

Cole hadn’t forgotten his dream of living in a state where he could ski, and in 1995, following Leigh’s Vermont roots and their desire to raise their two sons, Rob and Brad, here, they moved to South Hero. 

While Leigh commuted to a law firm in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Cole stayed home and raised the boys for two years, doing what he describes as “classic Vermont jobs.” He milked cows for a neighbor, picked apples and helped start a newspaper. 

Just when it seemed time for him to return to work, he saw an ad for a job with the Joint Fiscal Office in Montpelier. He was hired to do transportation policy for the House and Senate transportation committees and the Tax Department, where he worked for three years. “My background is one of legislative policy making,” he says, “not anything to do with operating a public transportation agency.”

photoKeeping rolling stock in good shape is a big job. Michael “Jack” Cross (left) is maintenance manager; Halsey Dunton is foreman; and Peter Aube is assistant maintenance manager.

That changed in 2001 when Cole was approached by the CCTA board, asking if he would be interested in coming on board as general manager. “I thought it would be a tremendous challenge to implement the policies at a local level that I had been passing at the state level,” he says. 

Unlike the more typical path of moving from the management side to the -policy-making side in the hopes of showing the theorists the realities, Cole moved from policy wonk to hands-on manager, thinking that it would help to sharpen his legislative skills if he ever wanted to return to that arena.

Brian Searles, secretary of the Agency of Transportation when Cole was in the Joint Fiscal Office and now manager of Burlington International Airport, saw that move as a good one for Cole and for CCTA. “It was obvious looking at his work in the Legislature that he had the financial skills that were badly needed at CCTA,” Searles says. “And the place he has excelled is in the customer service side, so that the CCTA is a transportation service respected by its customers.”

photoRidership has grown 24 percent in the five years since Chris Cole was hired. Gary Thompson is assistant general manager.

After five years on the job, Cole still finds great satisfaction in looking at problems, finding solutions and putting them into action. Ridership has grown 24 percent, and he is proud of new services and creative ways of attracting riders. “Unlike private business where you look at the bottom line, we look at whether ridership has grown,” he says. 

Some of those new riders are aboard because of careful analysis of the convenience and affordability factors that prompt people to choose one mode of transportation over another. On the Essex route, dropping ridership figures were turned around by cutting out time-wasting detours into neighborhoods and focusing on getting people to work quickly. The ridership on that route is now increasing at a faster rate than it had been losing.

A program Cole learned about at a conference — recommended for a small city with a large university population — has attracted thousands of new riders to the system: Unlimited Access to the University of Vermont. Students and faculty swipe their ID cards at the fare box, custom software recognizes them, and UVM receives a monthly bill. In 2003, the first year of the Unlimited Access, 74,000 riders from UVM used the service; in the second year, 130,000; last year, 170,000; and already this year there has been a 24 percent increase. CCTA is excited and so is UVM, says Cole. 

Reducing the space taken up by university parking lots will have a dramatic benefit for master planning. Champlain College did a trial run in April and began the service last month.

Other accomplishments include the Link Express commuter buses, which began in 2003 with travel between Burlington and Montpelier and expanded with service to Middlebury, and this year to St. Albans. Growth is apparent, says Cole. “This fall when the commuters return, we’ll need a second bus on the Montpelier-Burlington route.” 

Another program Cole sees as a model for future public transportation in the state is the Green Mountain Transit System CCTA organized when the Barre-based Wheels system went bankrupt. The GMTS is an independent nonprofit, but it contracts with CCTA, providing a service that lets a rider commute by bus between Morrisville and Burlington. 

“Right now we have a network serving Burlington, St. Albans, Middlebury, Waterbury, Stowe, Waitsfield, Morrisville and Montpelier,” says Cole. “Sometime in the future, I would like to see the regional transportation system under one agency, one board, one director. It would offer a higher level of service to the customer.”

Other changes have been closer to home and are a result of Cole’s personal experience. He recalls a time when he was waiting for a bus to return him to the CCTA office from downtown Burlington. “I didn’t have a bus schedule, and I wasn’t sure what time the bus would get to the corner where I was waiting,” he says. “As usual I was pushing it close, and I didn’t know if it had gone by. I recognized that it would be nice to have information on that bus stop pole to tell me when the bus would be there.” 

Cole returned to the office and put his plan into action. Now each bus stop pole has a schedule box holder for that route that tells when the bus will come by.

Cole keeps an eye on technology, both for the buses and to help the riders. The nine new buses CCTA has ordered will meet the 2007 standard for engine technology at the same time the standard for diesel fuel lowers its sulfur, resulting in buses that will remove 90 percent of the current emissions. New electronic display boards at the main downtown exchange point will tell riders how soon the bus will arrive and what bay it will be in, and Cole hopes to install them at University Mall and downtown Winooski. For the cell phone user, there will be a number to call, punch in the route and find out how long till the bus comes.

It’s not all business for Cole. In summer, the family enjoys boating on Lake Champlain. Their sons, Rob, now 15, and Brad, 14, are avid soccer players, and every weekend in May and June, he finds time to sit in a lawn chair on the sidelines to root for them. Both boys will attend South Burlington High School this year, where Rob was on the varsity soccer team in his freshman year.

Asked if his family rides the bus, Cole says they have lots of transportation choices from their home on Spear Street. With a bike path across the street from the house, Cole typically rides his bike or takes his Mini Cooper S — fuel-efficient and fun, besides — to work. His trips to meetings in the city during the day, though, are by bus. 

Leigh, an attorney at Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew with a commercial and immigration law practice, uses the College Street shuttle to visit clients at UVM and Fletcher Allen Health Care. “She’s one of my best marketing agents,” Cole says. “She has convinced a number of her fellow professionals to use the shuttle, and she says their response is always, ‘Boy, that was easy to use. and I didn’t have to hassle with parking.’”

The boys are a different story, he says. “When I was a kid there was no stigma to riding the bus. Now my kids ride the bus when I tell them I’m not driving them.” •