Q&A: Oakland County Ombudsman, Madonna Van Fossen, celebrates a new way to move around the city of Troy

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Oakland County Ombudsman, Madonna Van Fossen, comments on the year anniversary of SMART FLEX program.

SMART FLEX, a pilot program launched by SMART Transportation in March of 2021, celebrated earlier this month its first year.

This new program, powered by VIA, a third party company, is a program designed to assist in mobility around major Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

Oakland County Ombudsman, Madonna Van Fossen, explained in an interview that the program has been extremely popular and successful despite recent issues with elements such as national labor shortages and rising gas prices.

Here is an overview of her comments, at times edited for brevity and clarity.

Would you mind telling me a little bit about your position?

I am the Oakland County Ombudsman, basically I get paid to talk to people about public transportation. It’s a great job because I’m a talker. SMART runs through Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County.  Each county has an Ombudsman. We are the face, the eyes, and the ears to all the communities in that county. I meet with people all the way from individuals, community leaders, to city leaders to state leaders, anyone who has any questions about transportation or about SMART, I can funnel the information.

When it comes to the FLEX initiative, what was the catalyst for SMART to move into the individual vehicles rather than the stops for public transit?

The FLEX service is an on demand service that people can call or download an app on their phone, and through that app you can request a ride. You create an account, put in your information and are simply ready to go. You say “this is where I want to be picked up and this is where I want to go.” It’s within a specific zone, the ride will come within five and fifteen minutes, take you to where you want to go, as long as it is in the zone, and it’s the cost of a bus ride; two bucks. It’s like an Uber that travels within a specific boundary for two dollars each way and it runs for seven days from six o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night.

Tell me a little bit more about these Zones

Smart doesn’t actually operate the service, it’s a company called VIA. They do this all over the world and that’s how we connected with them. They have the drivers, they have the vehicles.  We pay them to do the service for us. When it started, we thought “there’s three counties we do service for so let’s put a zone in each county.” 

The Troy zone is pretty much the city of Troy, but it goes all the way down to 14-mile so it includes the city of Clawson. Then, it goes over to include Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital. 

In the Auburn Hills-Pontiac zone we did an average 1500 rides a week.

I know so many people that work in Troy that would really benefit from this, is that kind of your target?  Is it the residents of Troy or more so out of town guests, especially with the huge hockey tournament right around the corner for the area?

When we first started FLEX, people were really excited about it and it’s great but some were saying “Our employees don’t get off until 10 o’clock or ten thirty so what are they going to do?”   It originally started at six and ended at nine at night. I brought that feedback back to SMART and said people were like “no, we need it to go longer” so SMART listened and changed it from nine o’clock to 11 o’clock.

Now with the hockey tournament coming, I told people at SMART that we have this huge event coming up and it would really be the time to get the people of Troy to know about SMART FLEX. Then it turned into people like restaurants saying “Hey, we need a business account because this would be a great incentive to offer a concierge service.” If you have a reservation at Maggiano’s but you live on the other side of Troy and you want to have a few cocktails, how cool would it be for them to say “hey, we’re going to send a car to come pick you up and we’re gonna take you home when you’re done.”

Other than the timing issue you just mentioned, what other feedback has come in? Any major complaints, compliments or concerns?

People have been really receptive to it and it’s been a positive experience. The drivers are really great drivers, because the service is increasing at such a fast rate, the complaint, and it’s not really a complaint, it’s a good problem to have, VIA is having to bring in more drivers and vehicles to cover the area. So the wait time is a little longer now but as they bring more vehicles in, that should go back down. It’s always a goal to have it be between five to 15 minutes at the longest that someone would have to wait.

I’m sure labor shortage issues aren’t helping with that, tell me a little more about how that’s been affecting things.

SMART doesn’t have the drivers to operate or the vehicles. VIA does this all over the world so they are prepared for this influx of service.

What about the other things going on around us today, such as the gas prices? How is that playing into all of this?

With our original quote, then with the gas prices, they were talking about the cost to us. However, we have a contract that’s a two year contract, so they honored that original pricing. Now after that next year, if we decide to continue, which I’m sure we will, depending on where the gas prices are, they will be sitting down and figuring it out. I mean no one could have predicted gas prices being where they are today. All of that comes into play but what a great company to honor the contract that they had with us.