The Woodlands Township board of directors unanimously voted Jan. 22 to take part in a three-year pilot program with an option to cancel at any time with 30 days notice.
“This would be the first suburb-to-suburb commuter bus service in the Houston region, so we would be able to serve as a model for other transit agencies and organizations who are interested in implementing a similar project,” township Transit Planner Sarah Coulter said.
The program gained traction locally when the Houston-Galveston Area Council selected the township’s proposed Energy Corridor commuter transit pilot project for a grant award in late 2018, and in April the township began to look to Energy Corridor partners for local match funding. Coulter said the H-GAC allocated $1.7 million in federal funding for the suburb-to-suburb pilot. The grant will take the form of a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant of about $592,000 annually for three years, according to information from the township.
Local interest in extending the park and ride program began after 2017 when Shell relocated from downtown Houston to the Energy Corridor, causing a drop of about 100 The Woodlands park and ride users who had previously used the service to commute to Houston. Another 300 The Woodlands-area employees were relocated to the Energy Corridor for work when CB&I was acquired in 2018 by McDermott.
Although last year’s conversations about sharing the local match portion of the grant were unsuccessful, talks resumed after a change in Energy Corridor District leadership in December resulted in a potential 50% split between the township and the district, Coulter said. The township’s 50% share of the local match would range from $33,009 to $50,360 in 2020 and from $66,019 to $100,720 in 2021, or an average of $74,079 annually, according to township materials. More funds would be needed if ridership was lower, township officials said.
A ridership demand survey conducted from March to April 2019 indicated that among 166 residents surveyed, 135, or 81%, would use a service to the Energy Corridor District. Projections from the township indicate a ridership of 145 commuters per day.
“This pilot program essentially is not any more costly per rider than our existing park and ride,” General Manager Don Norrell said. “We have a 20% requirement local share on our existing park and ride. The only reason that’s a little more affordable is that we also have a state grant, but that state grant is not specific to that park and ride.”
Norrell said the township can pull out of the program with 30 days notice if ridership is not what was expected.“A large portion of our households commute to two locations ... downtown Houston and the Energy Corridor. This is almost an economic development tool for us in that it gives them available transportation,” Norrell said.
The Woodlands Express Park and Ride currently has three locations—Research Forest, Sterling Ridge and Sawdust Park—serving routes in downtown Houston, Greenway Plaza, and the Houston Medical Center and Museum District.
Coulter said the Energy Corridor route would originate from the Sawdust Road Park and Ride and could start in August or September.