New TAPS training simulator to have regional appeal

By Nate Strauc
Herald Democrat

Writing government grants is a lot like fishing. You bait the hook with data and statistics, cast the line into the great bureaucratic unknown, and then you wait. For quasi-governmental agencies like TAPS Public Transit, those fishing lines can look more like financial lifelines, and the more lines you have in the water, the better your chances of going home with a full cooler.
“We have an extremely — in fact, an unusually — aggressive grant department,” said TAPS Communications Manager Dan Acree. “And they go out and they look for money and they figure, ‘How can we take this available money and use it?”

It was that aggressive mentality that led TAPS to apply for a grant through the Texas Department of Transportation to bring a state-of-the-art training simulator to the agency’s Sherman office. The bid was a long-shot bid, as the near-million-dollar machines are more typically found in cities such as New York and Houston.

“You would not normally expect to see an agency of this size have something like this,” said Acree. “But I’ve heard about it since I got here, which was two and a half years ago. It was always being talked about — you always heard about ‘the simulator, the simulator.’ Of course, then we didn’t have a place to put it, didn’t know what we were going to do. But the one thing we’ve always had — I mean, we have dreams.”

TAPS’ dream will become a reality sometime this summer, as the agency unwraps its new, $1 million training center, located just behind their new headquarters on Texoma Parkway. The crown jewel of that center, said TAPS officials, will be a TxDOT-funded, 315-degree video training unit, complete with a true-to-life TAPS cockpit.

“We actually sent up a bus (to Ann Arbor, Mich.) that they could use to cut down and basically make a smaller version of our cab in order to look, react and feel like one of our para-transit buses,” explained TAPS Safety Director Josh Walker. “It will revolutionize the training process.”

TAPS officials said the simulator’s benefits will be multifold, providing for safer training methods, more efficient instruction and cost savings for the organization.

“We can put our drivers into a controlled, simulated environment and expose them to a wide variety of things — heavy traffic in a downtown, urban environment, or a rural road with a rainy environment,” said Walker. “If you did that in real life, then, A) you’re endangering someone, and B) you’re burning fuel … and wear-and-tear on the vehicle. This simulator will allow us to do it much more cost effective.

But the benefits of having such cutting edge technology right here in Texoma won’t be confined to just TAPS, said company brass. Through partnerships with other transit agencies and even local EMS responders and fire departments, the simulator will provide far-reaching effects.

“I want to see as many folks ran through the simulator as possible,” said Walker. “One of the (profiles) that will be on the simulator will be an ambulance, so there’s some potential there to reach out into other areas, not just transit. Anything we can do to support or community and our area.”

It was that willingness to partner with others that pushed TAPS above other grant applicants, according to TxDOT.

“They were awarded the grant based on the quality of their application and the commitment to extend use of the simulator to the North Texas region, advancing a significant goal of the Department: safety, “ said Eric Gleason, TxDOT’s Director of Public Transportation.

The simulator and the grant that made it possible would not have found their way to Texoma without the partnership forged between the transit agency and state officials, said Acree.

“I had a guy, one of the head guys from TxDOT tell me a couple of years ago, he said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody stretch a dollar like you guys. … We love to give you money, because you take it and do three times as much with it as anybody else.’ They know that if they give us a pilot program, it’s going to get the best shot.”

When the simulator comes on line this June, it will be the fruition of more than three years of work by TAPS, Acree said. For his counterpart Walker, it will be a day to celebrate one of the agency’s biggest catches.

“It’ll be really neat to see it all come together,” he said.