Township of Woodlands to expand transit program ridership with federal grant

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — As operational costs rise and more residents opt for alternative transportation choices, the Township of Woodlands is examining ways to expand ridership for its transit programs through a federal grant.

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The Woodlands has two main ridership programs: Woodlands Express Park & ​​Ridewhich is a transportation option for residents who need to travel to downtown Houston, and Woodlands Town Center Trolleyswhich can carry passengers around The Woodland Waterway and downtown.

Chris Nunes, chief operating officer of Woodlands Township, said there had been a slow rebound in ridership after the previous downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. However, various factors, including fuel and maintenance costs as well as an increase in the number of residents working from home, are affecting the park-and-ride program.

“We see peaks and valleys day by day,” he said. “We try to understand them.”

To better understand future needs, the township applied for a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, which was awarded in June for $400,000.

Among the factors township leaders hope to examine are the effects of gas prices and what the future of public transit will look like, Nunes said. He said the township will assess ways to modify the system.

Along with the demand for public transit, the researchers also noted an increase in demand for alternative transportation options, including electric vehicles, which they say have increased in response to environmental concerns and rising traffic. gasoline costs.

Reg Pecen, a professor at Sam Houston State University, said 3 million electric vehicles are expected to be in use in the country by 2025, and infrastructure demands will grow with them.

“Researchers from the International Council on Clean Transportation … predict that Dallas and Houston may need to add 31% to 40% more electric vehicle chargers each year,” Pecen said in an email.

Changes and challenges

One of the biggest factors affecting ridership with the township’s transit options has been the shift to working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, Nunes said.

According to a township report, ridership on the Woodlands Express was 44,780 in February 2020. Within two months, it had fallen to 2,029 passengers.

Information from a June 22 board meeting indicates that in May there were 21,211 passengers on The Woodlands Express. This follows an upward trend since ridership fell below 20,000 in March 2020.

The $400,000 FTA grant is funded by the US Bailout Act. Ruthanne Haut, director of transportation for the Township of Woodlands, said the money allows the township to dive deep into when and why people use transportation services and how the system can be improved. Haut said planning efforts with the grant will conclude in early 2023.

For the Woodlands Express Park and Ride program, Nunes said he believes rising fuel costs could lead to a slight increase in passenger numbers with an average daily increase of around 30 passengers for a total of 670 passengers. daily over the past few months.

Information from AAA, which tracks state and national gas prices, shows that as of June 30, gas costs were $4.48 a gallon. Record high prices for regular unleaded gasoline and diesel were hit on June 15 and 19 at $4.69 and $5.32 respectively.

AAA says the average price for unleaded gasoline as of the same date in 2021 was $2.79 per gallon.

“Are we going to see passenger numbers skyrocket because of gas prices? We don’t see it yet because this specific workforce has the ability to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to work from home for three days,’” Nunes said. .

Haut said that’s where federal funding for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and ARPA funds have been helpful to the township, as they have supported revenue typically generated from transportation costs.

The Woodlands 2022 budget information indicates that there was a total of $1.9 million in CARES Act funding and $1.8 million in bus tickets for revenue streams. In 2021, the township has budgeted $2.6 million to be generated through bus fares, according to budget documents.

Nunes added that maintenance and fuel costs are factored into The Woodlands’ budget and that contracts with bus provider First Class Transportation are locked in for two years until 2024, costing the township $617,651. , with the contract expiring in April.

Additional challenges come in the form of maintenance and personnel costs. Documentation from The Woodlands Township indicates that in a March report, First Class Transportation had to increase the average salary of drivers by approximately 28% in 2021. Without this, services would have been “significantly negatively impacted” due to of the coronavirus. pandemic, according to information from the canton.

Other maintenance costs, such as mechanic costs and service line salaries, increased by 8% and 15%, respectively.

Plan services in advance

The FTA grant is expected to fund the research through 2023, and Haut said it will allow the township to further adjust and modify the system with additional data after the pandemic.

To figure out how to best change park-and-ride services for area residents, Haut said a community survey was conducted in June. Once the results have been processed and analysed, Haut said they will be presented to the board for further discussion in 2023.

The township has also discussed expanding streetcar services. In an April presentation to The Woodlands board, Haut said discussions were underway to consider extending tram services to various centers in the village.

Haut noted that there has been an increase in the number of passengers using Township trolleys throughout 2022. Information provided at the June 22 board meeting shows that in May 2022, there were 11,125 passengers on the trolley system, a slight decrease from previous figures. in March but higher than March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began. Before the pandemic, the highest ridership in 2020 was in February, with 10,037 passengers. The most recent data shows that May 2022 has seen an increase of around 11% since then.

The Woodlands 2022 fiscal year January-December budget information indicates that total expenditures for maintaining its transportation fund are approximately $6.4 million, down from approximately $2.9 million. dollars compared to 2021.

The township’s budget document says about 95% of the transportation fund’s revenue comes from subsidies and bus fares.

The total cost of the carts themselves, including personnel costs, has been budgeted at approximately $949,000 for fiscal year 2022, January through December.

The demand for electric vehicles is increasing

Regional experts say demand for electric vehicles across the state has increased over the past year.

Information from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles shows that there has been a 52% increase in the number of alternative fuel vehicle owners over the past five fiscal years. The department reports that there were a total of 322,603 ​​vehicles registered in the state in fiscal year 2021, up from 242,541 the previous year.

However, the DMV notes that alternative fuel vehicles make up only about 1% of vehicle ownership in Texas. There was also a 3% increase in electric vehicle registration between 2020 and 2021 to account for 19% of total alternative fuel vehicles in the state, according to the latest DMV report from November 2021. An official from the DMV said 2022 data was not available. right now.

Gavin Dillingham, vice president of The Woodlands-based Houston Advanced Research Center, which provides independent analysis on energy, air and water issues, said research indicates that despite current oil prices essence, driving habits have not changed significantly.

“I think it takes time for people to change those kinds of habits,” he said.

Dillingham noted that there has been an increase in demand for electric vehicles. In The Woodlands, there are a total of 17 electric vehicle charging stations, according to information from energy provider Reliant. Information from the Texas Department of Licensing and Registration indicates that a total of 10 stations around the Woodlands Mall were registered and developed by the end of 2019.

There has also been investment in electric vehicle systems at the federal level. In February, the US Department of Transportation announced a bipartisan bill that includes $7.5 billion to build about 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country.

Dillingham said the growing number of electric vehicles is raising concerns about Texas’ energy grid due to increased demand from charging stations.

“Due to the limited number of electric vehicles, they are being sent to where the demand is highest,” Dillingham said.

This article comes from our partners ABC13 on Community impact newspapers.

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