Ridership demand increases for county’s Texas Medical Center route

Ridership on each of Fort Bend County’s public bus routes fluctuates, but some services are seeing increased demand. The number of trips for the Texas Medical Center commuter route and Demand Response Service options have grown since their implementation, the county said.


Demand Response launched in 2005 and the TMC route ran from 2008 to 2009 and relaunched in 2010.


The commuter routes run on a schedule between Fort Bend County and TMC, The Galleria and Greenway Plaza in Houston. Demand Response Service is a reservation-only service for trips within the county.


From fiscal year 2012-13 to FY 2014-15, the number of trips on the TMC route grew from 97,171 to 114,392, according to the county. The route experienced 106,392 trips in the first 10 months of FY 2015-16, and its popularity led the county to add two buses in November.


“I think what contributes to that is both the [hospital] parking, and the people that work there are Fort Bend County residents,” said Paulette Shelton, Fort Bend County’s public transportation director.


Trips have also increased for Demand Response Service, a reservation-only curb-to-curb service for county residents. Ridership increased from 126,528 trips in FY 2012-13 to 131,318 trips in FY 2014-15, and Shelton said the county is denying about 200 trip requests per day.


Most people use the service to go to medical appointments or retail sites with the most popular service times being 8-10 a.m. and in the afternoons, Shelton said. She added riders are typically elderly residents or people with limited transportation access.



Expansion challenges


Shelton said the department cannot expand its commuter routes or Demand Response Service programs due to a federal funding regulation. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, also known as MAP-21, was passed by Congress in 2012 and gave $105 billion to transportation programs in FY 2013-14.


But Shelton and Commissioner James Patterson said the law capped what funds could be used for operations versus capital expenses, like buying new vehicles. Patterson also said the law capped operating funds based on transportation operating hours in the surrounding region.


“You can imagine [Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County] has huge operating hours,” he said. “We have been working for three years with Congress to get the words changed.”


Patterson said if the situation does not change, the county will need to make up the funding difference with local dollars, which accounted for 23.6 percent of operating expenses in FY 2015. Meanwhile, federal assistance accounted for 60.2 percent of operating expenses that year, according to county data. The remaining 16.2 percent comes from state funds and fare revenues.


Another obstacle to expanding service is the county’s lack of enough parking space. Patterson said the county is in the design phase for a new facility near the fairgrounds in Rosenberg that would accommodate transportation service growth for the next 15 to 20 years. With the county’s population growing, he expects residents will use the service, especially the TMC route and Demand Response Service.


“I think they take full advantage,” he said.



Ridership patterns


Ridership on the county’s commuter routes and Demand Response fluctuates with the cost of gasoline, Shelton said. As gas prices rise, so does ridership.


“I think that is a primary contributing factor,” she said. “We may see some changes with what happens with [the Galleria route].”


The number of trips on the Galleria route rose from 65,088 in FY 2012-13 to 71,967 in FY 2014, but fell to 63,731 in FY 2014-15. Worker layoffs affect the number of trips taken on the Greenway Plaza route, which fell from 84,898 in fiscal year 2012-13 to 54,040 in the first 10 months of FY 2015-16, according to county data.


Demand Response Service programs include New Freedom transportation for people with disabilities. The county also has “ambassadors” to help New Freedom riders on and off vehicles, which Shelton said improved the service’s efficiency.


“In my opinion, that has been one of the service overlays that I have been most pleased with,” Shelton said.