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Tech and Homeless Vets to Improve County Transportation

The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority in Massachusetts is partnering with a nonprofit organization to put homeless veterans to work in an intermodal transportation center.

A new intelligent transportation system and a team of homeless veterans could soon rewrite the book on bus travel efficiency in Berkshire County, Mass.

The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (BRTA) has partnered with Soldier On, a nonprofit organization supporting veterans, and RouteMatch, a transportation software provider, to establish a one-click, one-call center within the Authority’s Intermodal Transportation Center. When completed next year, riders will have access to real-time information on bus arrival times, Wi-Fi access and other amenities. Many veterans will also be employed to staff the center.

In addition, advanced scheduling technology will enable former military members and other riders to more efficiently book transportation to and from various appointments. The project is being funded through a $2 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

According to Jack Downing, CEO of Soldier On, the idea spawned from conversations with BRTA Administrator Gary Shepard about how inefficient transportation was for homeless veterans in the county. Downing operates a rideshare program to take vets to various appointments, but the vehicles consistently only have one or two riders.

Shepard admitted that the BRTA was “behind the curve” in regard to technology, but it has been working to upgrade its systems over the past three years through various other grants. The DOT funding will enable them to integrate its technology, make it more intelligent and develop joint schedules for riders, particularly those with special needs.

“Our veterans and their families are part of the population that we would serve, so that’s a natural extension in how we can provide transportation for that group and also for those that are physically and mentally challenged in need of public transit,” Shepard said.

Downing noted that of all the veterans that return to a community, only “30 to 40 percent” ever get to VA centers to receive the medical and other services they’re entitled to, resulting in “marginalized lives.” He believes a lack of reliable transportation — particularly in rural areas — is one of the core reasons some veterans end up underserved, unidentified and at risk of being homeless.

One of the project’s goals is to create what Shepard described as “deviated service,” where a bus can stop at a facility to pick up a person at an appointment. Through a coordinated schedule, that person could either ride the bus to a stop near his or her home, or get picked up at a location later by a van to finish the trip home. Shepard and Downing believe that in the long run, efficiency gains could result in cost savings for both the rider and the BRTA. And the service would improve quality of life in the community.

The project is in its early stages. Shepard explained that the BRTA has a pilot program under way involving two buses. The vehicles both have Wi-Fi and are outfitted with QR codes on the outside and inside, giving smartphone users additional information. The pilot has also opened a bus route that hasn’t been in service for a decade and uses the area’s college population as a testing ground for the new technology.

Shepard said the bus fleet and intelligent transportation system should be fully up and running by June 2014. The call center should be completed by December 2014.  Downing explained that everyone in his homeless veterans program has a minimum of a high school diploma and are ideally suited for jobs in the one-click, one-call center.

“We have a community of people who are somewhat educated and who’ve been trained to duty,” Downing said. “So taking and training them to do the tasks that are going to evolve in this center is something that we think is readily attainable.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.
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