Stephen Nance hasn’t had a car in many years. So every Tuesday and Thursday, the 60-year-old Navy veteran can be found riding one of the city’s two public transit buses to north Arlington, where he hops commuter train rides to the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
He’s faithful to a VA recovery program there that has helped keep him off drugs for 15 years and counsels him on dealing with stresses in life.
“This has been a blessing here,” said the west Arlington resident, who uses the city’s Handitran, a separate ride service for senior and disabled residents, to get to his Metro ArlingtonXpress bus stop. “Ever since the MAX came along, I’ve been getting to the VA on time. In fact I’ve been getting there 20 minutes early.”
But like the others taking a MAX bus Thursday afternoon, he wasn’t aware that the service was set to expire Dec. 31. He also wasn’t aware that the City Council is considering extending it through 2017 to give the city more time to come up with a permanent solution.
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The council discussed the proposed $708,000 service extension last week and expects to vote on it Tuesday. Half of the cost would be funded by a Federal Transit Administration grant, and the the city and the University of Texas at Arlington, whose students make up half of the MAX ridership, would split the remaining $354,000.
While the MAX has surely reduced the stress in Nance’s life, it has frustrated some officials who were hoping ridership on the two MAX buses (a third is reserved as a backup) would have been nearer 500 one-way trips a day, the upper end of the projected range. But the average has been around the low end, 250 trips a day.
I don’t think anybody expects this to be our final solution at all.
Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams
According to city figures, the number of trips has ranged from 188 in December 2013 to 388 in September 2014.
“It is our only link to regional mobility to the rest of the Metroplex, so it has value,” said Councilman Charlie Parker, who contends that those one-way trips amount to about 130 people who ride the MAX. He calculated that the $700,000 overall cost each year — $2.8 million including the 2017 extension — costs about $21,500 per rider over the four years.
“To serve such a finite number of individuals doesn’t make it economically feasible,” he added. “I voted against [an extension] last time, and I’ll vote against it this time.”
Arlington, the 50th-largest city in the nation, has been labeled for many years as the largest city without a public transit system. The MAX, as small as it is, relieves the city of that albatross, city officials contend.
The MAX started in August 2013 as a two-year pilot program with an initial cost of $1.4 million that was shared by the city, UTA, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which used a grant to reimburse half of the total cost.
A full-day pass costs $5 — exact change only — for the public and is half-price for public school and college students, the disabled and people over 65. Weekly and monthly passes are available as well.
The buses take a small rectangular route, from UTA along Collins Street, Trinity Boulevard, Texas 360 and Division Street. They pick up riders at UTA and at a stop at Collins and Andrews streets for the roughly 25-minute ride to the CentrePort commuter train connection with Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and the Trinity Railway Express for east-west trips to the Fort Worth and Dallas areas.
In 2015, the council extended the program by a year, and then in July extended it by four more months, through the end of 2016. Council members vowed not to “strand” riders while a new transportation advisory committee explores ideas on providing a permanent public transit system.
I would have to get a car. That’s expensive.
Osbaldo Martinez, a UTA education major and MAX rider
The city’s transportation commission plans to make recommendations to the City Council by December 2017, said Alicia Winkelblech, a long-range planning manager for the city. She wouldn’t speculate on what kind of fixes would be considered.
“But I can tell you that everything is on the table,” she said, “and the recommendation could include a systematic approach with a variety of elements.”
Osbaldo Martinez, 19, a UTA education major riding the bus Thursday, seemed alarmed at the thought of the MAX disappearing.
“I would have to get a car,” said Martinez, one of eight riders on the 35-person-capacity bus. “That’s expensive.”
I think more people would ride
Bus driver MiMi Mims on the need for more stops
Before MAX, Nance took the city’s Handitran service from near his home all the way to CentrePort for his train connection. Compared with the bus trips, van rides were long.
“It was a long distance, and they have to pick up other people and drop them off,” he said. “That’s just the way of things.”
He and other riders said they believe the service should add more stops.
“I think more people would ride,” bus driver MiMi Mims said.
But that’s likely not going to happen. DART and the T, which operate the MAX’s 40-foot buses, are open to making minor route modifications to increase ridership, but that means moving an existing stop. Adding a new stop would require adding two more buses to keep the schedules on time, Winkelblech said.
That’s a huge expense considering buses might not even be part of the transit fix, some official say.
Mayor Jeff Williams said the MAX was intended as “a temporary step to get the ball rolling. I don’t think anybody expects this to be our final solution at all.”