FTA to tap college-driven bus site

The Federal Transportation Administration will soon have at its disposal an Internet-based geographic information system (GIS) to help it track how cities are spending federal funds on public bus systems.

As part of its mission to support high-quality public transportation the FTA each year gives hundreds of millions of dollars - $380 million this fiscal year - to fund the development and operation of city systems. But the FTA has had few resources available to track how that money is spent if cities are following public transportation regulations and if the systems are run as efficiently as possible.

But starting April 15 the FTA can check on how cities are managing their bus systems by tapping into a Web site developed by Bridgewater State College Bridgewater Mass. Available on the site which Bridgewater developed during the past three years using $300 000 in FTA grants will be GIS databases for public bus systems in 550 cities.

An Internet address was not available for the site but information on the project is available at geolab.moakley.bridgew.edu.

Municipal public transportation officials will use the new site to assess how efficiently the bus services are operating. Those cities with the appropriate software can use the Bridgewater-compiled database to run "what-if" scenarios to determine the impact and efficiency of proposed bus route changes.

The FTA will use the site to evaluate its investment in bus transit determining how many people have easy access to bus routes and how well municipalities are complying with civil rights regulations that require bus services to be available to minority groups.

"This gives the federal government a way to know what's going on in a manner that they never could before " said Larry Harman a geography professor at Bridgewater and director of the GIS project. "Much of the onerous [paperwork] in civil rights compliance can be taken away with these tools."

Currently the FTA uses paper maps to compare information supplied by cities to check how many people are served by the city bus system - a time-consuming task. With the GIS bus database the FTA can quickly assess on screen if a city's proposed bus system will provide the most for its citizens.

"We can immediately verify for example is this bus line going through the most viable [part of the city] to pick up the most riders " said Walter Kulyk director of the FTA's Office of Mobility Innovations. "It's a verification quite frankly.... Are [grant requesters] in the ballpark?"

Before Bridgewater students started developing the databases in 1994 for the nation's bus systems fewer than two dozen cities used GIS to digitally manage their systems. "Basically we took a whole industry that didn't have any GIS use at all and we did it all for them " Harman said.

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