FORT WORTH -- Carlos Hooker and his girlfriend stepped aboard one of the fancy new buses on the Fort Worth Transportation Authority's new Spur route and took seats in the middle of the vehicle.
Spur buses are 60 feet long -- much bigger than the rest of the T's fleet -- so the middle of the vehicle swivels during sharp turns.
"It feels weird, like an amusement ride," said Hooker, who was traveling from downtown to a Church's Chicken restaurant in east Fort Worth. "I like it. There's a lot of space in here. You can sit and not worry about someone standing all over you."
Regular bus riders said they were impressed with the new buses, which hold up to 88 passengers including standing room -- double to triple the capacity of the T's older fleet. The eight new buses were bought with $6.4 million in federal Recovery Act funding. They run on clean-burning compressed natural gas.
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Upgrade for riders
But for many riders, the biggest improvements are the elbow room and the speed with which the buses can navigate the 7.5-mile corridor, which used to be the eastern leg of Route 2 on the T's system. Spur buses are equipped with devices that communicate with traffic signals and speed up the red-green cycle, so the buses spend little time stopped at red lights.
A Monday trip on a Spur bus found that it took exactly a half-hour to travel from downtown to Handley. The bus made about a dozen stops along East Lancaster Avenue, and on its return trip to downtown carried about 70 people -- even though it was a mid-day trip, when traffic is far lighter than in peak periods.
The experience was a major upgrade from a typical weekday on East Lancaster Avenue, where riders were often left at stops because there wasn't enough room on the buses.
"Hopefully, the bus drivers will no longer turn down riders," said Alvin Barrance, a North Side resident who was riding to east Fort Worth to pay a bill. "There's more room for everybody."
T drivers took special training to learn how to handle the buses, especially on sharp turns. At the eastern end of the route, the buses must make sharp turns through the narrow streets of Historic Handley before heading back downtown.
"It's not hard at all," said Spur driver Paul Dahlman. "The back wheels go pretty much where the front wheels go. They're only offset by about three inches."
The new buses are the first component of what the T hopes will be many phases of improvement to the transit experience in east Fort Worth.
During the next year or so, the T is planning to spend another $1.6 million on new lighted shelters, information kiosks, sidewalk repairs and other improvements along the Spur route.
Bus shelters will eventually be equipped with electronic signs that will display how many minutes remain before the next bus arrives, T spokeswoman Joan Hunter said. Stops lacking shelters will feature solar-powered sign poles with a bus schedule, route map and a number that allows riders with smartphones to get a text message containing the arrival time of the next bus.
What's in a name?
So what's the deal with the Spur name? The folks at the T thought it would be a catchy, Western-theme acronym that highlighted the buses' signal-changing technology. Spur stands for Signal Priority Urban Route.
T planning director Curvie Hawkins said he struggled with the name at first, because it reminded him of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team.
"I'm an avid Dallas Mavericks fan, and I wasn't sure I could go along with a name for the route that reminded me of the San Antonio Spurs," he said.