Austin Int’l Modernizes Ground Transportation Management System

Austin Int’l Modernizes Ground Transportation Management System
Author: 
Kristin V. Shaw
Published in: 
July-August
2020

The emergence of transportation network companies, or TNCs, has been a charged topic in Austin, TX. Uber and Lyft left abruptly in 2016 after a squabble with the city over fingerprinting requirements. One year later, the regulation shifted, and they were back in the city and operating in full force at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS). Over the past few years, the airport has shifted its parking operations and ground transportation flow to adapt to TNC and commercial vehicle operations by adding a large cellphone lot with food services and a coffee shop nearby. It also recently built a new parking lot and ground transportation center where TNCs, taxis, limos and shuttles stage pickups. 

Not long after the TNCs resumed their active pace at AUS, the transportation team was given two objectives: decrease traffic on Presidential Boulevard (the main arterial roadway into the airport) and modernize the vehicle tracking system. The team knew what it needed: a new ground transportation management system. 

Carlton Thomas had just transferred to the airport from the city of Austin’s transportation department, where he had been an infrastructure operations division manager for several years, when the project started to take shape in 2017. Now the landside access manager for AUS, Thomas’ experience in ground transportation dovetailed nicely with the airport’s improvement plans. 

facts&figures

Project: Improving Revenue Tracking of Commercial Vehicles

Location: Austin-Bergstrom (TX) Int’l Airport

Key Components: Commercial vehicle management system; transportation network company system

Timeline: Project initiated in 2018; completion expected by summer 2020

City-Approved Budget: $300,000 

Vehicle Tracking & Identification Technology: TransCore

System Software: GateKeeper

IT Consultant: The JW Group

Wiring: Schmidt Electric 

Hardware Installation: Signature Controls

General Contractor: Austin Commercial

Key Benefits: Automated fee collection from commercial vehicle companies; more accurate tracking of TNC vehicles to verify appropriate fee payment  

“We were in dire need of a solution to replace our existing operating system,” says Thomas. “It was approaching end of life, and we were experiencing a lot of failures. This project enabled us to secure better technology to manage our ground transport operators and provided us an opportunity to utilize a new platform that interacted with TNCs.”

The airport’s 2040 Master Plan includes forecasts of more than 31 million annual passengers by 2037. AUS has been on a rocket trajectory for several years, and while the coronavirus has derailed passenger flow for now, the city is optimistic that growth will return to its previous arc. Given the typical rate of development, the airport team recognized that ground transportation protocols required future-facing management. 

Assembling the Team

To begin the search for a vendor, AUS turned to business management consultant Steve Ritter of The JW Group, an information technology firm. 

“This was initially a project that was part of the AUS IT Master Plan,” says Ritter. “The IT staff at the airport was looking for one vendor that could provide the required TNC management and reporting to better understand the traffic and activity that TNCs generate on the airport. The other part was that the same vendor could replace the existing vehicle tracking system used for limos, taxis and other commercial vehicles.”

After two months of research, planning and requirements definition, the company recommended GateKeeper and TransCore, based on the scope of work and anticipated return on investment. TransCore was already operating at the airport and could have worked with any backend solution. GateKeeper has the unique ability to remotely monitor the TransCore readers through its software. “They checked all the boxes as a single solution that provides modules for TNC, ground transportation management and taxi dispatch, which made the most sense,” Ritter explains. 

Although Thomas had never worked with GateKeeper before, he says it became clear that the company was right for the project because it builds specialized software for airports that manage all types of ground transportation—including TNC operations, parking access and airfield inspections. 

“The system is designed to track the movements of ground transportation operators on campus and allows us to accurately charge fees for their use,” Thomas explains. “With the old system, if some readers were failing, we’d lose revenue. We wanted to address the failing system and at the same time implement newer technology.” 

The proposal included a solution to fix the airport’s broken commercial vehicle management system and address TNC challenges, Thomas relates. AUS was ready to take more control over its curbside operations and associated revenue. The new system sends a digital ping when a TNC vehicle enters and exits the airport campus. That provides the airport with information about pickups and drop-offs, which directly relates to revenue generation. 

“The complexity and size of this project was fairly aggressive,” says GateKeeper Systems President Lynn “Doc” Richardson. “For an airport of this size to invest in so much technology, it’s significant.”

Wendie Bidwell, one of the company’s project managers, agrees. “For the Austin airport to make this kind of commitment to the city, the travelers, their staff, and everyone else impacted using ground transportation, it’s significant.”

Creating the Plan

After studying the airport layout, TransCore selected a half-dozen major capture points for drop-offs and pickups. It was important to differentiate the two groups, notes TransCore Vice President Forrest Swonsen. Next, the team worked with Schmidt Electric to ensure that power and electricity would be provided in the right places. 

“We identify, classify and track all commercial vehicles transiting the airport,” says Swonsen. “The airport had no independent audit trail for what the TNCs said they did, and this would allow them to look at the feed of TNC apps and reconcile.”

The JW Group developed the designs and specifications for the pathway and IT infrastructure required for the TransCore readers at those drop-off and pickup areas, and GateKeeper imported the airport’s data to the production system. 

Implementing the TNC tracking module occurred first. This allowed the airport to immediately begin tracking TNC activity and was a “quick win” because it did not rely on the reader and infrastructure setup. 

Next the commercial vehicle system was installed, configured to meet AUS’ specific needs, and existing accounts and vehicles were loaded into the system. This environment was then used to train airport staff both onsite and remotely and allowed AUS to refine and document its administrative processes. 

“Having an almost fully functional system with airport data was invaluable in ensuring knowledge transfer and accuracy of source information. Additionally, as readers came online, it facilitated verification of the new system without impacting existing operations,” says the GateKeeper primary project manager Anne Turner, who was involved with the AUS project since the beginning. “This hands-on use allowed [Austin-Bergstrom International Airport] ground transportation staff to develop their own training material and quick reference guides for the taxi companies“.

Universal toll antennas (above) and transponder readers (below) are key components of the new system.

Modernizing the Software 

Pushing associated administrative work to the taxi companies was a stated goal, but the new system greatly simplifies their processes because it allows taxi companies to manage their accounts while allowing ABIA the control and insight to monitor operations. GateKeeper uses readers to track commercial vehicles at the airport, and the system automatically deducts fees for each trip from accounts where taxi companies deposit money and manage their accounts online. Previously, companies had to send someone to the airport to pay for trips in person. 

“I’m pleased with that functionality,” says Thomas. “A portal allows them to make changes online vs. making an appointment and having our staff take time to add money to their accounts. Each company has an account with us and draws down every time they make a trip. Now, they can add money at will, which saves time and gives them more freedom.” 

Essentially, all trips are now prepaid. 

Both the commercial vehicle management and TNC systems offer real-time data about vehicles operating at the airport. Turner notes that this insight helps the airport manage traffic, and the systems’ reporting features allow trend analysis for future changes and improvements.

She highlights the auditability and streamlining of financial processes as other key features. “This allows the airport insight into both sides of the operation: an accurate and immediate record of commercial vehicle activity along with detailed tracking of the charges and payments through the system,” she explains. “The system also allows direct notification to taxi companies of pending balance issues, which allows them to be proactive in managing their accounts.”

The automated dispatch feature will be enabled this summer, allowing AUS to automatically manage and direct taxi traffic based on target levels at the ground transportation center.  

Construction Delays & Integration Strains

Dovetailing the commercial vehicle tracking upgrades with a nine-gate airside expansion and construction of a new parking garage and new Administration building brought the team opportunities and unexpected challenges. On the downside: Its timeline was largely at the mercy of the larger airside and landside projects. 

In the meantime, Thomas discovered that the airport’s existing tag readers were in bad shape. The old system had been in place a long time and had not been taken care of as well as it might have been, he explains.  

“It was like peeling back the layers of an onion,” he recalls. “The more we studied the situation, the more we realized that we needed to update our expectations. We hadn’t planned to have to make so many changes with the existing hardware.” 

Maintenance is key in a system like this, he emphasizes.

“With proper maintenance, the lifetime of a system can be lengthened,” Thomas reflects. “With improper maintenance, on the other hand, you have to make unnecessary investments or expenditures.” 

The project did not include provisions (or a budget) for massive hardware and infrastructure work because it was largely a software project with some refurbishing. When the airport learned it had to replace hardware, progress slowed considerably while personnel requested funding for the new project elements.  

“We had to figure out how to quickly get the civil work done—the conduit, new gantry poles and the IT infrastructure,” says Ritter. 

The team worked directly with the general contractor from the new parking garage and Administration building construction team to address coordination and resource challenges and resolve scheduling conflicts. It was important to continually deliver the message that the ground transportation project was a priority, notes Ritter.  

When Bidwell from GateKeeper came on board during the final year of the project, AUS was in the middle of building the new ground transportation center. That created competition for resources, and the airport had to close some traffic lanes to install power and hardware. In addition, the city of Austin received an unusual amount of rain and thunderstorms, with lightening that caused delays mounting the antennae. 

“There were a number of stumbling blocks with finances, weather and construction,” reflects Bidwell. “You almost couldn’t make up some of this stuff.”  

Facing the prospect of six- to eight-month material delays associated with recent steel tariffs, Thomas found another source for the cantilever poles needed to hold the transponder readers. He procured unused traffic poles from the city, and crews compensated for their heavier weight and different dimensions by digging a deeper pier for the structure. But when the general contractor was about 75% of the way down to its 12- to 14-foot target depth, crews encountered an unmovable water main. As a result, project designers had to recalibrate the pier to work around the new depth limitations, and the project was delayed for about two months.  

“You would never think a gantry pole would cause a project delay,” muses TransCore’s Swonsen. “Fortunately, the readers are lighter than a traffic signal, so the poles didn’t bear additional weight over capacity.”

The money saved by using existing traffic poles offset some of the costs incurred with the associated delays, adds Thomas. 

Troubleshooting & Data Recovery

Unlike the airport’s previous system, the new hardware can continue collecting data from vehicle tags if the power is out or the internet connection fails. The readers simply store the data that is collected, and the GateKeeper software initiates a troubleshooting sequence when it detects a lack of information coming in. With the new system in place, Thomas is confident that AUS will capture 100% of the fees it is due. 

“It’s getting to the point that if you’re not monetizing your roadway, you are going to miss out on revenue opportunities,” Swonsen observes. “Having the ability to look by day of the week or time of day to determine your roadway utilization on Tuesday at 11 a.m. is important.” 

GateKeeper’s Turner recommends that landside ground transportation teams considering an upgrade or new system visit other airports to observe automated systems that are already operating to understand how they work. Speaking with colleagues is one of the best ways for any airport to learn and get a better understanding of potential pitfalls, she says. Now AUS can serve as a model for others to study. 

“Carlton Thomas’ group has worked really hard to get to this point,” says Bidwell. “Most of the team has been there throughout the duration, and they have been committed to getting it right. From what we have heard, they have received a lot of positive feedback from vendors.” 

Ritter agrees that compliments are in order. “It was important to have Carlton working hand-in-hand with IT and finance from the beginning,” he says. “We had all of the different groups represented: network and infrastructure, Carlton and the ground transportation side, plus revenue and accounting. Together, it was a great team, and everyone attended the required meetings, collaborated and coordinated when needed. We had all the right stakeholders in the airport with the right teams to pull this off and make it successful.”  

Looking ahead, he notes that the recent improvements will be especially helpful during large events. “This system will be instrumental during South By Southwest, the Grand Prix, Austin City Limits Music Festival, F1, and more,” says Ritter. “The airport can capture movements in a way that is more reliable and accurate, and, they should see an uptick in revenues. It is not only a good commercial vehicle tracking solution but a good revenue solution, too.” 

Subcategory: 
Passenger Transport

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