IndyGo says vendors causing missed Red Line deadlines

IndyGo’s Red Line is the first leg of the agency’s three-pronged bus rapid transit plan. (IBJ photo/Lesley Weidenbener)

IndyGo vendors are still working to deploy two key features that were supposed to be in place when the Red Line launched Sept. 1—and the delays are both disrupting Red Line operations and hurting IndyGo’s bottom line.

IndyGo hasn’t yet been able to collect fares on the Red Line because Paris-based Flowbird Group is behind schedule with the installation of a new ticketing system, which means IndyGo will have lost out on more than two months of revenue, which could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The software snafu is preventing IndyGo from ensuring Red Line buses arrive every 10 minutes. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

And the transit system is struggling to deliver on a key Red Line promise—making sure that buses arrive at stations every 10 minutes—because a new real-time vehicle information system from State College, Pennsylvania-based Avail Technologies isn’t yet working properly.

The latter situation is so serious that IndyGo is hiring a second vendor to get the job done, at an additional cost of $448,500.

IndyGo says it plans to hold Flowbird and Avail accountable for the lost revenue and other costs associated with the delays.

On Nov. 6, IndyGo announced it would extend the free-fare period on the Red Line through the end of the month—its second such extension—because Flowbird’s ticket machines aren’t ready for use.

Stuehrenberg

The delay means more weeks of unplanned lost revenue for the Red Line. IndyGo had originally planned to start collecting fares on the new 13.1-mile bus rapid transit route Oct. 1, later postponing that date until Nov. 11 before deciding this week to push it back to Dec. 1.

At IndyGo’s Oct. 24 board meeting, the agency’s leaders expressed their displeasure with the delays.

“We expected this to be done months ago,” JustinStuehrenberg, the agency’s vice president of planning and capital projects, told IndyGo’s board at that meeting. “They’ve continued to go past the deadlines that they [Flowbird] have set, that they have agreed to.”

IndyGo Board member Richard Harry Wilson Jr. said extending the free-fare period isn’t an ideal solution—even with the assumption that IndyGo can recover its lost fare revenue through Flowbird.

“We just cannot keep kicking the can down the road with these free fares every time this company doesn’t fulfill their end of the bargain,” Wilson said at the IndyGo meeting. “It’s certainly not a good thing for the brand that we’re trying to create with this new service.”

Luellen

Another aspect of the delay: When the Flowbird ticket machines do go online, they won’t be operating as originally planned.

IndyGo’s new ticketing system, which it calls MyKey, is supposed to include a mobile payment app, reloadable fare cards, ticket vending machines, fare enforcement and citation management. But that system isn’t working, IndyGo spokesman Bryan Luellen said. So as a backup, the ticket machines are being retrofitted so that they can issue paper tickets.

When fare collection begins next month on the Red Line, customers won’t have a mobile payment option—all riders will have to use paper tickets. Luellen said it’s unclear when Flowbird will have the mobile payment app, paperless ticketing and other MyKey features ready for use. “We don’t have a date for releasing the MyKey system,” he said.

IndyGo’s tech woesFlowbird declined to discuss the issue with IBJ, other than to issue a brief written statement: “Flowbird is working in partnership with IndyGo to deliver the new system.”

Luellen said it’s unclear why Flowbird is so far behind schedule, noting that the vendor has missed several key deadlines without providing an explanation.

“I don’t have a good answer for you why there have been repeated failures,” Luellen said. “Their failures have financial ramifications for our agency.”

October ridership numbers are not yet available, IndyGo said. But based on the early popularity of the Red Line, waiving fares on that route has a significant impact on IndyGo’s overall revenue.

Including ridership of 230,651 along the 13.1-mile Red Line route, IndyGo saw total ridership of 974,161 in September. That’s an increase of 29.5% over September 2018.

Ridership for the first nine months of the year—including the period before the Red Line launched—stood at 6.8 million, up just 3.6% as compared with the same period last year.

Rides on all IndyGo routes were free the first two weeks of September, and rides on the Red Line were free all month.

Because of the free-fare period, IndyGo’s fare revenue for the month was $564,405—32% below budget.

For the first nine months of the year, IndyGo collected $7.5 million in fare revenue, down 10.3% compared with the same period in 2018.

Factoring in both IndyGo’s standard $1.75 fare, plus riders who have free or half-fare passes, IndyGo generates about $1 in fare revenue per person per trip. Passenger fares make up about 10% of IndyGo’s total revenue.

While it’s dealing with the Flowbird issue, IndyGo is also affected by delays with the real-time vehicle information system that it hired Avail Technologies to provide.

As opposed to its other routes, which rely on fixed schedules, IndyGo dispatchers maintain the Red Line by controlling the timing, or headway, between buses. And because Red Line buses are supposed to arrive at stations so frequently, it’s crucial that the buses maintain proper headway so that they don’t get bunched up.

The issue, Luellen said, is that the Avail system can’t yet provide IndyGo’s dispatchers with the information they need to maintain proper headway between buses.

“This is really about a level of decision support and analytics that we need from the real-time information,” Luellen said. “The tools that Avail has promised us for managing the headway aren’t there yet.”

The issue also means that the real-time information that riders can access through Avail’s MyStop app, or via IndyGo’s website, isn’t always accurate.

For instance, Luellen said, if a dispatcher sees buses clumped up along the Red Line, the dispatcher could take one of those buses out of service for a short distance so it can gain speed and increase the distance between it and the others. Or the dispatcher might send a new bus into service to fill a gap. But Avail’s system can’t yet process these on-the-fly changes, making its real-time information inaccurate.

“The system is limited in how it’s presenting information to the public in those dynamic situations like that,” Luellen said.

To fix the problem, IndyGo plans to hire San Francisco-based Swiftly Inc. to deliver what Avail hasn’t yet been able to. Hiring Swiftly adds an additional $448,500 to the project cost over the next three years.

Avail did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment.

Another of Avail’s customers, Foothill Transit in West Covina, California, said it’s been pleased with Avail’s work, even though the contractor is years behind schedule on that project.

In November 2015, Foothill Transit awarded Avail a $10 million contract to replace its computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle-location system.

Friesema

The project was supposed to be completed in two years but it’s still not quite finished.

“It is taking longer than the initial projected timeline,” said Foothill Transit spokeswoman Felicia Friesema. “We’re not there yet, but we’re very, very close.”

The Foothill system, with its fleet of about 373 buses, posed some unique challenges, Friesema said. The Foothill contract was the largest fixed-route contract Avail had ever won at the time of the award, Friesema said.

Another challenge, Friesema said, is that Foothill uses two outside contractors to dispatch its fleet from two separate bus yards, making system integrations more complex.

Friesema said Foothill has been pleased with Avail’s work and never considered switching to a different vendor, despite the extended delays.

“They’ve been very responsive and hands-on,” Friesema said. “They’ve worked with us in good faith.”•

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13 thoughts on “IndyGo says vendors causing missed Red Line deadlines

  1. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

    Actually, IndyGo has a chance to make some money from this should they actually go after the two posers, er, “vendors”:

    They should be able to collect the full amount from both companies rather than split it. Why?

    Because if one of them had managed to do what they conned IndyGo into believing they could do, the other would be on the hook alone. One company’s efforts doesn’t seem dependent upon the other’s completion so every failure is solely capable of holding up the show.

    Think of it like two tunneling companies digging through a mountain to create a passage of transportation, whether it be a road or railroad tracks. If both companies are given a specific point to reach within a particular point in time and neither company reaches the landmark, they’re both at fault, independently. Had one company reached the targeted position, they would have been paid and the other failed. By not accomplishing either goal, they’re both on the hook for failing to allow the project to complete.

    I’m sure someone will claim that if you are skydiving and have main and backup chutes, made by two different companies, and both fail, “you can’t die twice”.

    I’m still new to the tech game – I got my start when I was 17 – you can say that’s a late bloomer, but in 1979? Anyway, I have maintained most of that time, “There’s not a shortage of software developers but a huge shortage of good developers, and an even bigger shortage of great developers.”

    If you were to put your developers in a room and instruct them, “all of you who are good, great, or terrible developers to go these corners (pointing).” which corner do you think they’d go to? Some might be humble enough to go to the “good” corner, but you can guess where the rest will go.

    CBS4Indy had a story the other night (during Sweeps – surprise!) about the License Bureau failing to restore a former driver who had a 10-year suspension and he was told, “it was a computer glitch”. I wonder if Boeing could get away with saying they had a computer glitch…twice? Would Avail and Flowbird say they have a glitch?

    Somehow I get the feeling the IndoGo board wishes they could have had someone vet this situation a bit more thoroughly *before* the contracts were signed. Question to the board: “If you’d known Foothill Transit awarded Avail $10 million contract in 2015 to complete a job for them in two years and it’s still not done, would you have signed with them?” and the answer is, “No.” …need I go on? Aside to say it sounds like Avail is trying to ride at least two horses at the same time.

    And for Flowbird…”IndyGo’s board authorizes staff to extend the free-fare period until Dec 9 if need be.” Okay, so they get to Dec 9 and it’s still not working, what’s Plan B? C? D?

    This is starting to look as sad/comical as when Congress was trying to grill Zuckerberg (the first time) when they knew nothing about what was going on, probably had never signed onto Facebook themselves, and Zuckerberg seemed to know even less. They could have really pinned his ears back. Why is it for legal proceedings they have qualified experts write their questions, brief them, or even step in and do the questioning but they presume that because they know how to play Windows Solitaire they’re qualified to deal with tech on their own?

    1. James, few of the things I questioned are answered in the article. And IBJ could have really taken them to task…
      .
      I’ve received a lot of personal email and phone calls from friends asking my take when the rumors were circulating. I’ve referred almost everyone to one of the long-time books which is about the insides of the tech industry but very accessible to non-techies and sheds light on a lot of the things we’re witnessing (and not just with IndyGo). It’s by Frederick Brooks, Jr: “The Mythical Man-Month” (1975) Things true in ’75 which are still true now.
      .
      This article wasn’t enough to offset the shoddy ran$omware article but it was close.

  2. Let’s be real here…. this thing was never going to make money anyways. It’s all about a very small, yet vocal group thumping their chest and saying “look at Indy…we have transit! Just like Chicago! We even called it The Red Line some we can pretend we are headed to Wrigley!”….. meanwhile our money is wasted (for those of us who pay federal taxes), our time is wasted, and we ruin some of our best streets. What a joke.

    1. Public transit does not make money, it is a service provided by the government.

      It is the same as roadways do not make money, sidewalks do not make money, streetlights do not make money…. They are a service that is provided by the government to better society.

      Also, you posted your comment twice, perhaps learn to use the internet before complaining about others ineptitude…

  3. Let’s be real here…. this thing was never going to make money anyways. It’s all about a very small, yet vocal group thumping their chest and saying “look at Indy…we have transit! Just like Chicago! We even called it The Red Line so we can pretend we are headed to Wrigley!”….. meanwhile our money is wasted (for those of us who pay federal taxes), our time is wasted, and we ruin some of our best streets. What a joke.

    1. Here in the fifth most conservative county in ‘merica, Republicans like Brainard and Christine Altman are salivating at the prospects of spending money on this as well. Plenty of Republicans south of the border supported it, including your mayoral flag-bearer Merritt.

  4. Just because IndyGo and its board of directors is inept, doesn’t mean investing in public transportation is a bad idea. Perhaps, it just means IndyGo needs a new board of directors and maybe some better staff. Maybe they need more funding also to hire more experienced staff. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But, accountability should start at the top. When will the mayor, council, and whomever else appoints the board of directors demand accountability?

  5. how is it possible in today’s technology age to even let this thing get off the ground with riders and go live and not have a basic ticketing system in place? Unbelievable! When on earth did they realize they needed a digital system here? Uber, Lyft, everyone has these basic systems in place to accept payments. And for the city and the people running this to not have any clue what is going on or why it’s behind schedule is just unfathomable. People need to be fired. Oh wait, ti’s the government, so they never will be.

  6. Milwaukee has an App for their public transit. I can download the app, buy a ticket and show my mobile phone to the buy driver showing the ticket and I take the bus. It’s really not that difficult.

    1. Gabrielle it seems to be a problem here in Indianapolis. I don’t know why they didn’t choose to go with an established vendor who already had a program up and running. And who is the person at IndyGo that was responsible for making sure and checking on the progress of these two systems. That person should be fired.

    2. Gabriel, “It’s really not that difficult” is you talking as a user, not a developer – that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But it’s like turning on the faucet and saying, “see? water…it’s easy!” but that says nothing about the engineering involved in getting the water there. Mind you, I’m not defending the software idiots
      .
      .
      What I’m going to be watching for aren’t the expected errors we’ll see in the shakedown runs but things like Tuesday, Wednesday, January 1, 2020 and Saturday, February 29, 2020. Good software shouldn’t worry about them, but in the next 3 1/2 months, those are the dates most likely to cause problems.