PORTSMOUTH — The way Jim Jalbert sees it, he’s putting his 50-year-old business at risk by trying to grow it.
According to Jalbert, founder and owner of C&J Bus Lines, the current business model of how he operates the two public transportation terminals in Dover and Portsmouth isn’t sustainable. Yet, the future success of those operations ultimately lies in the awarding of a state contract he may or may not get.
In a series of interviews over the last several weeks, Jalbert expressed confidence that a state bidding process will go his way and provide C&J with the chance to grow and improve its service based, in part, on revenues he’d receive from charging for parking. He recognizes there are no guarantees the bid award will come his way.
“New Hampshire is relying on the bus companies to move almost 2 million people a year in and out of the state,” he said. “And we're tickled that we've had the opportunity, we're tickled that we’re here in Portsmouth. I'm a local guy, grew up grew up in the area. But I also think that we have a responsibility to pay for. That's why I think this is a good idea and why we're putting our agreement at risk.”
“I will tell you we’re the real deal,” Jalbert added. “We love what we do. I’ve got my kids here working, and they love it.”
The state currently contracts with C&J to operate buses to Logan Airport and South Station in Boston and to New York City out of the state-owned park and ride facilities on Indian Brook Drive in Dover and Grafton Road at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth.
Yet, he has no control over who else might be using the parking lots other than those people taking the buses. According to Jalbert, businesses leave their equipment parked in the lots and Portsmouth residents park their cars in the Pease lot during city snow emergencies. Now that Portsmouth International Airport is charging $7 a day for parking, passengers are parking at the free lot then Uber or Lyft to the airport to catch their flights, he said.
In Portsmouth, 30 to 35 percent of the cars in the lot are unrelated to C&J, Jalbert said.
“You cannot run it unless you charge a fee for it,” he said. “We have several people running Navy yard shuttles out of Dover every day. There’s nothing I can do about that. There are people in Portsmouth who run their companies out of the Portsmouth lot. There is nothing I can do about that. The Pease airport just started charging $7 a day. So you know what they’re doing? They’re carpooling from the free lot to avoid paying $7 at Pease. There is nothing I can do about that.”
To do something about that, he has put forward a proposal to privatize those facilities in partnership with the state as part of a process involving what’s known as the P3 Commission – formally the Public-Private Partnership Infrastructure Oversight Commission.
P3 was created in 2016 as a way for the state to look for partnerships with businesses to do transportation infrastructure projects the Granite State can’t otherwise afford to do.
“New Hampshire does not spend money on public transportation; they just don’t do it,” Jalbert said.
Much of Jalbert’s vision for his bus business is contained in his communications to the P3 Commission.
Jalbert proposed to the P3 privatizing the two bus facilities he operates on a contract basis with the state. By privatizing the facilities, he would pay a lease fee to the state for operating the business in a way that leaves him responsible for generating revenue and taking care of any expenses, taxes and infrastructure improvements.
At a P3 public hearing on the proposal, residents living near the Dover park and ride expressed their concerns about current operations at the future and how their neighborhoods would be impacted if a privatization deal allowed it to expand.
In a follow-up letter Feb. 7 to P3, Jalbert acknowledged the opposition and offered three alternatives as a possible new location for the Dover facility.
One is land on Sixth Street in Dover. “The city of Dover has identified property including the park and ride from Sixth Street to the NHDOT maintenance facility for rezoning to commercial as part of their long-term master plan,” Jalbert said. “The city supports the relocation of the Indian Brook Transportation Center, which would allow for the redevelopment of the site. C&J is equally supportive to this concept.”
Another alternative site, according to Jalbert, is 20 acres along Route 155. “This location would allow for the repurposing of funds for the construction of a controlled 700- to 900-car parking facility by the department with C&J Bus Lines constructing the bus terminal.”
The third option discussed by Jalbert is land along the Spaulding Turnpike at Exit 6 that the state is suggesting might be suitable for another P3 proposal – a welcome center/rest area.
“This location represents an opportunity to develop a hybrid version compromised of both a bus terminal and rest area along with food services,” Jalbert said. Parking could be a mixture of both short-term spaces for rest area patrons and capacity controlled for transit and/or ride share. The Department of Transportation would provide the site and parking facilities, while C&J Bus Lines will construct the rest area/bus terminal/food services facility.”
Jalbert is encouraging the state to move quickly, saying, “Time is clearly of the essence and thus we are requesting that the timeline be expedited.”
P3’s timeline for issuing a Request for Proposals is for it to be done by June 2020.
“We'd like to get it done faster. We’ve got to solve the problem today; we can't wait forever,” Jalbert said.
“I know people are going to say: Oh, it’s just a money grab. It’s not,” he added. “These things cost hundreds upon hundreds of thousands dollars to run each year. And the capital and maintenance requirements are significant. We fully recognize that, if we get this thing, it’s on us. There's no federal money, no nothing. It's totally on us.”
In the meantime, C&J continues to roll out improvements to services. Eight years ago it rolled out service to and from New York City. C&J has also been upgrading its fleet with newer, more comfortably appointed and fuel-efficient buses. And it recently announced a partnership with a local Seacoast company, Key Rent a Car, to provide pick-up and drop-off rental vehicles at the Portsmouth facility 24 hours a day. In addition, C&J riders will receive a 10 percent discount off their rental price with Key Rent a Car.
He’s looking ahead to a business that his children can operate.
“I think we've done a great job as stewards, taking care of these places, and I would put our reputation in terms of running the bus terminal up against any national company,” Jalbert said. “We want to do more, we want to expand the facility, we need more parking, we need to think about the future.”
What will transportation look like in the future, Jalbert asks?
“My oldest son is here now, then my youngest son after he finishes college,” he said. “What is their world going to look like 10 to 15 years from now? How do you interact with Uber and Lyft and companies like that in public transit? Those are all questions we're answering now and not waiting for the future. And I think that in order to be successful, you have to be proactive. We want to bring some of that to this RFP if we get an opportunity to do it.”