Making the Red Buses Run... Often on Time... And Free!

Written by Jim Baehler.

OppermanYou probably remember riding the Red Bus on Roosevelt Island and having to dig into your pocket or purse to find a dime or a quarter – and, a few years ago, breathing a sigh of relief when the bus was made free. How did this miracle of public convenience come about? The answer can be found in the 2011 arrival of Cy Opperman, then Transportation General Manager for the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), with a mandate to fix the bus system. He observed that time was lost in boarding the buses as people fumbled for the right change to put into the fare box. It was apparent to Opperman that if people could use both doors to board, considerable time would be saved on each day’s schedule. The problem, of course, was that as long as fares were collected, speedy boarding was impossible.

Looking deeper into the matter, Opperman determined the total revenue collected in the fare boxes. He then compared that amount to the wage and benefit costs of the people assigned to collect the money from the fare boxes. As suspected, the cost of counting and handling the nickels, dimes, and quarters each year exceeded the revenue. It was an easy decision to remove the fare boxes and make the red buses free to all.

This type of outside-the-box thinking is not typical of public employees. The WIRE met with Opperman to learn more about him and how he views his current RIOC job, as Director of Operations.

“I’m a fourth-generation New Yorker,” Opperman is fond of saying. “I’ve lived and worked here all my life. I grew up in Yorkville, a German neighborhood on the Upper East Side, and graduated from Chelsea High School. My family owned the Mission Soda Company, delivering soda and seltzer to stores and restaurants. On my 10th birthday, my father said it was time for me to go to work. I was put behind the wheel of one of our trucks, and made a few stops on one of the company routes. I guess it was a test of some kind that my father decided to try. After that, I rode along with him as he made deliveries, helping out as best I could.”

In 1970, Opperman obtained his Class A commercial driver’s license and joined AZ Trucking Company as a tractor-trailer driver. His desire to help people pushed him to become a National Registry Emergency Medical Technician and Licensed Respiratory Therapist with the Keefe & Keefe ambulance company. He also became a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) instructor, training others in this life-saving procedure.

Opperman obviously had no fear about driving a vehicle in New York traffic, and in 1980 applied for a job as a bus driver with the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA). He was thrilled to be trained and then assigned a route in Manhattan. “I loved the work and the people I met.”

The NYCTA promoted Opperman to dispatcher after 10 years of service. “I worked out of the car barn at 54th Street and Ninth Avenue. It was the oldest depot in the system, and had originally been designed for the use of horse cars. I loved the work. I was outside all day making sure that my buses were on time and that the drivers were courteous and helpful. Bus schedules are important. Being late is not good, but being early is really bad. When a bus is early, it means missing riders who should be on the bus. If drivers were paid by the customer on a per-rider basis, every bus would be on time every day.”

Opperman was eventually appointed General Superintendent of the Manhattan depot at 132nd Street and Broadway. He was responsible for 500 drivers and 150 buses on the Upper West Side. In 2011, he retired from the NYCTA and received a large plaque praising his 31 years of service without missing a single day due to illness. Thereafter, he applied for the Roosevelt Island job of Transportation General Manager.

“I love working on Roosevelt Island,” Opperman says. “I love the people and the work itself. Each morning, I walk from my apartment on 71st Street between First and York to the Tram. I’m usually on the job by 8:30 in the morning, and stay until 6:30 or 7:00 in the evening. When I first started here, there was a certain lack of discipline with some of the drivers. Eventually, seven of them had to be terminated because they weren’t able to perform up to my expectations.”

“It takes 10 weeks to be trained as a bus driver, and not everyone is cut out for the job,” he says. Red Bus drivers receive their training prior to being hired by RIOC. Once they’re here, they’re trained in 19A certification, and must pass a 19A road test, written exam, observation ride, and annual review of their license. Bus-driver training is not only technical; it also emphasizes courtesy and respect for the passengers. Red Bus drivers are expected to answer questions from the riders, and to be helpful to the tourists who now flock to Roosevelt Island.

Opperman is ably assisted in his work by Shamsoodeen Sater, known as Buddy. Sater has worked on Roosevelt Island since 1988, originally as a mechanic. As the current maintenance supervisor for RIOC’s transportation department, he’s responsible for maintaining all of the RIOC vehicles, including the seven hybrid electric Red Buses. He’s in constant communication with the bus drivers and Opperman by radio phone so that emergencies receive immediate attention. He’s proud of the up-to-date buses, which use an ultra-low sulfur fuel to reduce emissions, and a regenerative braking system that helps to recharge the batteries each time the brakes are applied. “The hybrid buses are quite advanced technologically. They have increased seating and standing capacity, and are much quieter than the old buses we had.”

Working on Roosevelt Island offers other opportunities. One of Sater’s most memorable experiences was being recruited as an extra to appear in the movie "Stay" with Ewan McGregor. He loves his work on Roosevelt Island and “being surrounded by water and great views.”


Tags: Island Life Jim Baehler Red Bus

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