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Managing the SurgeRecord Ridership Prompts Service, Parking Initiatives
Strap hangers, standees, pole huggers - they're becoming common on DART trains and buses as record numbers of cost-conscious commuters leave their cars at home and hoof it to the nearest bus or rail stop.
Peak-hour patronage is through the roof, but the unforeseen rush of new customers since spring has service planners thinking outside the box to keep the crowds moving and new converts on board, no matter what the going price of gas.
"It's a major undertaking given the fact that we must work with the resources that we have, but we're doing much better than many other transit agencies," says Rob Smith, assistant vice president of Service Planning and Development. "Transit systems nationwide are invoking emergency fare increases and cutting services to meet their budgets. Thankfully, thatís not the case here."
One of the biggest factors driving transit budgets up is fuel cost, but federal tax credits for natural gas purchases have cushioned the blow for DART. And in 2009, the agency will benefit from a pre-negotiated fuel hedge - a locked-in price - for diesel.
Shattering ridership records
Systemwide ridership jumped by 12.5% to 116.8 million passenger trips in Fiscal Year 2008. Weekday passenger trips averaged more than 400,000 in the closing months with an all-time high of 409,000 in September.
"There's a very direct link between that growth and what we've seen with gas prices," says Smith. "The increase in gas prices in March and April triggered an almost-immediate response in ridership growth."
Just as ridership has outpaced projections for 2008, parking has become a premium at transit centers serving growing populations near the outer edges of DART's 700-square-mile, 13-city service area. This is especially true at the Parker Road and Bush Turnpike stations in Plano to the north and the Downtown Garland Station to the east. And the scene is the same at two popular bus facilities: the Glenn Heights Park & Ride to the south and the Addison Transit Center to the northwest.
Relief for the parking pinch
"It's hard to respond as fast as we and our customers would like," says Smith. "To increase parking, we have to acquire land, design facilities, procure contractors and build it."
Nevertheless, relief is on the way with expanded parking in the works next year at Glenn Heights, Parker Road and Bush Turnpike. Planners are also considering more parking for Downtown Garland and Addison.
In the meantime, a "Parking Information" link on www.DART.org identifies full parking lots and suggests alternatives. For example, motorists are directed from crowded Parker Road and Bush Turnpike stations to less-crowded Arapaho Center Station. Likewise, Red Bird Transit Center is recommended as an alternative for Glenn Heights Park & Ride.
"You can go a little farther to these other facilities and find adequate parking," says Larry Gaul, assistant vice president of Rail Operations. "You'll still save plenty of time and frustration by taking transit the rest of the way to your destination."
The Parking Information link also provides tips on how customers can eliminate the parking pinch altogether by hopping neighborhood bus routes that feed directly into rail stations and transit centers, or proceed on to major employment centers such as downtown Dallas "We're already seeing some ridership increases on several feeder bus routes," reports Smith.
The trend represents a lifestyle shift that some observers in the 1980s thought North Texas would never see: commuters turning to public transit, not just as an alternative mode of travel, but the preferred mode.
To charge or not to charge?
Because large numbers of new transit riders are coming from cities just outside the DART Service Area, planners are studying whether paid parking would be a viable means of motivating people to carpool or ride the bus to rail stations.
Many transit systems around the country already charge for parking. In Washington, D.C., for example, there is a fee for parking at all 42 Metrorail stations, and 35 stations offer reserved permit parking. Some systems provide preferential carpool parking and even valet parking.
Standing room only
More people parking means more people riding DART, and that means available trains and buses are filling up, particularly during rush hours.
"We're seeing more and more standees," says Gaul. "While that's something new for our riders, it's the standard on rail systems worldwide."
He adds that the majority of trips don't surpass the standard for full capacity - 1½ times the number of seats - and some riders are shifting their trips to less crowded times.
Like transit agencies nationwide, DART is facing the higher demand with limited resources. "It's not easy to increase train capacity. It takes adding rail cars that cost $5.8 million each," says Gaul.
Thankfully, the ridership surge comes just as DART is adding roomier "super light rail vehicles" (SLRVs) to the system. The new SLRVs - with low floors that ultimately will allow passengers to board and disembark without negotiating steps - are being pressed into service at the rate of about one per week through 2010.
Likewise, DART is working to put more buses where they are needed. "We're trying to respond as quickly as we can in cases where there is not enough capacity for people to ride comfortably," says Smith. "We're looking into reassigning buses on less crowded routes to those routes experiencing ridership increases."
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