This guest column was submitted by two-term UPUA President and current Board of Trustees candidate Gavin Keirans.
With the announcement that Penn State Transportation Services will now fund the late night CATA White Loop, the time is right to tell the story of how late night White Loop service came to be and to recognize the multiple parties that played a role in its success. While extending downtown bus services two hours on weekends seems like a no-brainer, the path to implementing the service faced many hurdles. The story is a shining example of how Penn State students, State College officials, and administrators can work together to deliver tangible results.
Greek Loop: Key Initiative of 2009 UPUA Presidential Victory Platform
In the spring of 2009, I launched the plan for the Greek Loop (aka Highlands Loop) for the purpose of providing bus service to the fraternity and downtown student housing located primarily in the Highland District of State College. The goal was to ensure that students had a safe way of getting home to their on-campus housing in the late night weekend hours. After being elected to my second term as Student Body President, the University Park Undergraduate Association went to work immediately working with University and State College officials to make this vision a reality.
At the time we were riding a wave of successes. We had just secured funding for full-time Legal Services for students ($160,000) and the first standing budget in the history of student government ($140,000). We wanted to make a further splash by quickly implementing our Greek Loop plan. We hoped it would be available in time for the coming Fall 2009 semester. Andrew Karasik, our Director of Transportation, worked with Penn State Transportation Services to calculate the estimated cost of implementing such a proposal. His efforts led to us inserting the estimated $41,000 into our brand-new budget.
Initial Support for the Greek Loop Proposal
We had the strong support from the beginning from the Greek community. The IFC Executive Board, led by Luke Pierce, drove much of the strategy and championed the cause. Similarly, the Panhellenic Council strongly supported the effort, with then President Mairys Joaquin inviting me into chapter meetings for each sorority to solicit feedback on the plan.
The Daily Collegian’s Editorial Board also gave us a strong public jolt of support:
“By providing a safe and guaranteed ride home, it could also possibly cut back on the amount of alcohol-related injuries and public property crimes committed by students on their way home from parties. Rather than funding another anti-drinking campaign that would assuredly go all but unnoticed, UPUA is being responsible and pragmatic by proposing a program that would actually help make Penn State safer. If UPUA, IFC and PHC are able to fund the Greek loop at no cost to students, as they currently propose, there’s no reason not to go ahead with this idea.”
It seemed that even State College Borough would be supportive of the plan. Mayor Elizabeth Goreham (then-Borough Council Chairwoman) was quoted as saying “You won’t have people screaming obscenities or ripping up shrubbery, it’s an idea certainly worth exploring.”
Wheels Fall off the Greek Loop Bus Plan
Even with all of this support, we received a crash course lesson in the importance of communications and change management. While we went around touting our plan, we failed to engage with the residents of the Highland neighborhood. They were not pleased. Theresa Lafer, Borough Councilwoman, began to articulate their concerns. In one Borough Council meeting Lafer warned, “there are a variety of residents—elderly, young school children who don’t need to have their sleep disrupted on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights by groups of drunken students waiting for this bus.”
As the spring turned into summer, I took a more personal approach, meeting with the Mayor, Borough Council officials, and the Highland Civic Association leadership. We began to move the needle, but it became clear that we were going to miss our goal of launching at the beginning of the fall semester.
In order to help move toward a positive resolution, we engaged Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims and Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, who set up a series of meetings for us throughout the Fall 2009 semester to settle on a solution with the key stakeholders. After weeks of meeting, it became clear that a deal for the Greek Loop would not be possible in the current environment.
Fail Quickly, Pivot, and Reemerge with a Plan for Success
I wasn’t going to let UPUA waste a year of effort and a $41,000 budget allocation on a failed plan. In November 2010, I announced that we would no longer be pursuing the Greek Loop. With that announcement our original vision died, but a new plan for success was born. We decided we would instead work to enhance the existing offering of CATA’s White Loop by extend its hours until 4:30am.
Over the next six weeks we truly made magic happen and in the shortest period of time that I have seen anything done at Penn State we launched the extended White Loop service. It debuted on January 14th, the first weekend of the Spring 2010 semester. CATA’s Hugh Mose and Eric Bernier, along with Penn State Transportation Services’s Doug Holmes & Teresa Davis moved mountains to see this rolled out in such a rapid timeframe.
We received CATA Board Approval and union approval for extended hours. We secured the blessing of State College Borough and Penn State Student Affairs. And we got the go-ahead from Penn State Auxiliary and Business Services. Special thanks are owed to Gail Hurley, Damon Sims, Hugh Mose, Tom Fountaine, Elizabeth Goreham and Peg Hambrick.
General Manager Hugh Mose of CATA summed up the collaboration well in our initial press release:
“The partnership between CATA, Penn State and UPUA provides a mechanism for us to provide the often-requested transportation for students who stay out after the service previously ended at 2:00 AM,” notes Mose. “Whether students are out with friends for the evening, or find themselves traveling late at night for other reasons – working late, studying, etc. – this extension provides an opportunity for reliable and safe travel well into the early hours of the morning.”
We had strict terms that we had to abide by, including having UPUA and Greek Life leaders ride on each late night bus route and report any issues of incidents that might occur. This meant college students giving up weekend nights to ride the bus and ensure that we provided safe passage back to on-campus housing. As it turned out, the cost for the extended White Look service was significantly less costly than we initially expected, costing only $11,400 per semester.
Launch of the Late Night White Loop
The late night CATA White Loop proved to be a smash success, averaging nearly 1,300 riders per weekend during the hours of 2:30-4:30am over the entire spring semester. We lived up to our commitment to provide student leader support each weekend, and were greatly helped by the support of the new IFC/PHC leadership Max Wendkos and Sara Linkosky, who had individual chapters commit to leading on particular nights.
Each week, CATA’s Eric Bernier would provide a detailed metric spreadsheet and provide me with a status update. After an entire semester there were zero incidents reported out of the ordinary.
Impact on Town and Gown Relations
Our relationship with State College Borough and the Highlands District proved to be greatly strengthened as a result of a semester of success. A relationship that started with a contentious Greek Loop proposal was cemented as we pivoted to successfully extending the White Loop with the full backing of each constituency.
“I want to praise Gavin, UPUA officials, and the board for finding this solution,” Elizabeth Goreham, now mayor, said at the time.
At the end of my term as Student Body President, State College Borough honored UPUA with one of its most prestigious awards for bettering town-and-gown relations, named after former State College Mayor Arnold Addison. What made the award truly special was its presentation by Borough Councilwoman Theresa Lafer. As noted earlier, Theresa was the leading voice of opposition to the proposed Greek Loop, but in the end we were able to work together to see the White Loop extension come to fruition.
From The Daily Collegian:
When presenting the award to UPUA, State College Borough Council member Theresa Lafer recalled a piece of art she saw several years ago which depicted College Avenue as a zipper, dividing Penn State’s campus and the State College community.
“Our winners this year have gone a long way towards closing—as opposed to opening—that zipper,” Lafer said.
Continued Success from 2010-Present
Penn State Transportation Services will now foot the bill, returning to UPUA some $25,000 each year that can now help fund new plans for improving the student experience.
Keeping an initiative of this size going for four years is an enormous challenge, and it is truly a testament to generations of great student leaders who continued this partnership with CATA and Penn State Transportation Services.
It’s great to know that this service will continue, and that safety is being put at the forefront of our transportation approach.
In order to effect change, a spirit of close collaboration is necessary, as is a willingness for diverse constituencies to work together on the issues that matter most. I think we can learn from these stories of the past in order to create a successful Penn State future.
Below is the PowerPoint of the original proposal for the Greek (Highlands) Loop, presented in its original from from 2009: