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Published: Monday, 12/24/2012

TARTA bus locator to be ready next month

Updates on rides available by cell phone, on signs

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Brint Electric employees Ben Kolar, left, and Brent Feldman install a new electronic sign at the TARTA Park Station at Madison Avenue and Erie Street in downtown Toledo. The sign is part of a new system to provide riders with up-to-the-second information about bus locations and time of arrival. Brint Electric employees Ben Kolar, left, and Brent Feldman install a new electronic sign at the TARTA Park Station at Madison Avenue and Erie Street in downtown Toledo. The sign is part of a new system to provide riders with up-to-the-second information about bus locations and time of arrival.
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Getting a new real-time bus locator system going has taken the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority a bit longer than planned, but agency officials now expect its start-up by mid-January.

That’s great news for Julie Baldock, a frequent TARTA rider who welcomes live updates about buses’ schedule status.

“I think it’s awesome. [The bus is] the only way I get around,” Ms. Baldock said on a recent morning while workers from Brint Electric finished installing a bus-status sign at downtown Toledo’s Park Station.

She expects to download TARTA’s mobile-phone application as soon as it’s available, “because that’s why I got the phone” — to do things on the go.

Simply enter a bus route and a station code, and details about the next bus expected to stop there will come right up.

But the usefulness of the TARTA Tracker automated vehicle locating system won’t be limited to riders with smart phones.

Anyone with an ordinary cell phone can call the agency’s customer-service line and get an immediate update for any bus route. In the past, TARTA staff had to call individual bus drivers by radio to get status reports, but now the global-positioning-based system puts every bus location at their fingertips.

And at five major stations, electronic signs will scroll through listings of approaching buses, so riders will know right away how long they can expect to wait.

Along with the one at Park Station, at Erie Street and Madison Avenue, the signs will be at Government Center and SeaGate stations on Jackson Street, the Royer Road bus stop at Westfield Franklin Park mall, and the Walmart on Glendale Avenue.

Michael Blackston, the transit authority’s director of information services, said the signs could be turned on as soon as the second week of January.

Digital Recorders Inc., of Durham, N.C., has been working on its $914,284, federally funded contract with the transit authority since spring, starting with installing cell-phone modems on buses and upgrading the “talking bus” systems to make them compatible with the new system. After that, bus route and scheduling information was loaded into the system, after which data testing was required.

“The acceptance testing is taking longer than anticipated, but the project team at DRI has been on site consistently over the last three months to tweak the system to make sure it works in the manner that we expect it to,” Mr. Blackston said.

A sixth bus-status sign is planned for the University of Toledo Transportation Center once the TARTA shelter there is moved, he said, and a video screen inside Park Station will have a map display of bus locations.

By the end of March, riders should be able to sign up for text-message alerts keyed to their specific routes and bus stops. The smart-phone application will be available sometime after that, Mr. Blackston said.

All this bus information will be useful to transit authority managers as well. Transportation Superintendent Tom Metzger noted in March that the agency will have a better grasp of its buses’ on-time performance compared with its current method of having supervisors make “time checks” along bus routes.

“Most of our clientele have cell phones, but even if you don’t use the technology, you’re still going to benefit,” Mr. Blackston said.

Better on-time monitoring would be a welcome development for Ms. Baldock, who complained that the No. 14 bus she regularly rides from her East Toledo neighborhood sometimes goes by her bus stop before its scheduled departure time at Hollywood Casino Toledo.

“I'm 10 minutes early, and the bus has already gone by,” she told Mr. Blackston, who promised to look into her concern.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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