Time running out for Arlington’s three-bus public transit service

Low ridership dooms the Metro Arlington Xpress bus service, although council members promise to find a permanent public transit solution.
Low ridership dooms the Metro Arlington Xpress bus service, although council members promise to find a permanent public transit solution. Star-Telegram archives

Life for Brantley Hinshaw is always better when MAX is at the wheel.

He can visit with friends or work on his laptop as his ride, one of three 40-foot buses of the Metro ArlingtonXpress bus transit service, quietly handles the traffic.

So he was concerned when he heard that the three partners in the pilot program — the city of Arlington, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority — were considering pulling the plug on the service.

He showed up to speak at Tuesday night’s Arlington City Council meeting, where the good news was that the council was considering extending the Regional Connectivity Project’s contract, which was set to expire in August.

The bad news: The contract, after three years, would be extended just four months.

Worst news: It could be killed on the spot.

However, extension supporters Mayor Jeff Williams and Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon vowed that despite the outcome the city would aggressively pursue a permanent public transit solution.

I love riding the bus. It gives me less stress than driving in traffic.

Brandley Hinshaw, frequent MAX rider

“I love riding the bus,” Hinshaw, who is deaf, told the council through his two sign language interpreters. “It gives me less stress than driving in traffic. I don’t want Dallas and Fort Worth to think Arlington is not a good place to live.”

A divided council ultimately voted 6-2 for the short extension, but only after struggling with the project’s only two options — die now or die later — during both its afternoon work session and the evening regular meeting.

Ridership in the program started low and and stayed that way — around 240 one-way rides a day, against hopes it would quickly reach 500 rides. Throughout the pilot program’s life, users logged 203,009 trips.

The annual cost for the partners to share was about $700,000, with contributions from the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the University of Texas at Arlington, whose students were among the most frequent users.

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A $5 daily pass paid for unlimited rides on the MAX buses and east-and-west rides on the CentrePort Trinity Railway Express, said Alicia Winkelblech, the city’s assistant director for strategic planning and community development.

The only other resident speaker opposed the extension.

“It has been a flop,” said Richard Weber, publisher of the online watchdog newsletter Opinion Arlington. “It has never achieved what it was supposed to. Let it die.”

The four-month extension will cost $252,000 — half paid through the federal Job Access Reverse Commute, the rest through its required match, to be paid by the city.

Although this benefits UTA more than any aspect of the city, and UTA has decided not to contribute to this service any longer, then I can’t support it.

Councilman Charlie Parker

Councilman Charlie Parker said that, in addition to concerns about ridership, he was frustrated that UT Arlington had decided not to pay any of the extension cost.

“Although this benefits UTA more than any aspect of the city, and UTA has decided not to contribute to this service any longer, then I can’t support it,” Parker said.

He and the newest council member, Victoria Farrar-Myers, elected in May, voted against extending the contract.

Wilemon said the city is assembling a citizens transportation committee “as we speak” to explore public transit options.

The MAX pilot program was founded “because Arlington had no public transportation,” Wilemon said. “We were the largest city in the United States with no public transportation. We intend on being the kind of city that can integrate with the region.”

University officials responded in an email to the Star-Telegram on Friday: “UTA remains committed to helping find a permanent public transit solution for the city of Arlington. We had expressed our support to the city for the extension of the MAX service prior to Tuesday’s vote and look forward to continuing the conversation.”

In other business Tuesday, the City Council:

  • Heard the Fire Department’s response that it doesn’t need the highly advanced FLIR 320 camera sought by a “small group” of residents who have told some council members they believe that the camera would help responders with gas well emergencies. While impressed with the camera’s technology, Assistant Fire Chief Jim Self told the council, it only detects emissions. The Fire Department has lots of equipment that detects leaks as well as identifies air and liquids to determine any safety threat, Self said.
  • Approved a lease extension that would keep Bell Helicopter Textron at Arlington Municipal Airport another 30 years. The deal starts with a five-year lease with options for five additional five-year leases. Bell moved to the airport after leasing 54 acres in 1967. The current ground lease ends next April.
  • Accepted a $225,000 federal grant to help pay for a $2.2 million to $3.2 million planned program to purchase body-worn cameras for police officers.
  • Hired LMC Corp. of Denton for $300,000 to renovate and repair two T-hangar buildings at the airport. The work will bring hangar rows 4 and 5, built in 1978, up to code.

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

By the numbers

500 Originally projected one-way trips per day

240 Roughly the actual average daily rides

203,009 Total trips inception in mid-2013

$700,000 Approximate annual cost of Max program to the city and partners

$252,284 Cost of four-month contract extension

$5 Cost of daily pass granting unlimited rides