The Denton County Transportation Authority board is a month out from making its final say on Connect bus routes and GoZone pricing, with discussion at Thursday’s board meeting suggesting members are leaning toward additional route cuts and a mixed GoZone fare model.
DCTA’s fixed-route bus system in Denton and the pricing structure for the GoZone rideshare service are arguably the two most pressing issues facing the board, excluding its ongoing search for a new CEO. The topics have dominated meetings for months, Thursday being no exception.
For Denton’s bus system, board members were essentially given seven options and asked for clarification on which ones to bring back next month. DCTA staff have worked with consultants — including Via Transportation, the contractor for GoZone — to analyze the bus routes, with the ultimate goal to combine the services into one fluid system.
The seven options differ, but all involve either changing or removing routes altogether. For example, Alternative C would see the agency cut Routes 4 and 5 but keep 2, 3, 6 and 7. Route 4 runs between the Unicorn Lake area and the Rayzor Ranch shopping areas, while Route 5 runs from the Downtown Denton Transit Center to Nottingham Drive.
Every option would remove Routes 4 and 5, with some cutting additional routes on top of that. In alternatives D through G, the agency would put “reinvestment” funding into certain routes to improve their service.
By the end of the presentation, a longstanding ideological split reared its head again. Some board members have argued since last year that the bus routes simply don’t carry enough people and aren’t efficient enough to warrant their cost. Others, particularly Denton representative Alison Maguire, have opposed that thinking.
“All of these alternatives are sort of based on an underlying assumption that the appropriate response to this disparity between Connect and GoZone in the ratio of cost per ride to productivity is to eliminate less productive routes or times of day,” Maguire said. “I’m just wondering why … we’re not focusing more on trying to bring that Connect ridership up as a way of addressing that disparity.”
Maguire was referring to data from the presentation showing that buses cost over twice as much per hour to operate than a GoZone van but aren’t getting enough ridership to make up for the difference. However, she said the system will only get more difficult to use if more routes get cut.
“I’m just very concerned that any alternative that involves cutting routes is only going to address the cost part of it,” Maguire said. “Ridership will go down if we cut routes. The system will get harder to use.”
As board members went down the list of options, Maguire was adamant no routes should be removed. She showed support for Alternative D — which includes upgrades to Routes 2, 3, 6 and 7 — but only on the basis Routes 4 and 5 be added back.
For the most part, though, her efforts failed to reach a consensus. Lewisville Mayor TJ Gilmore was the most vocal board member on the other side of the aisle, after being an advocate in December for the removal of his city’s Connect routes.
“This entity has had over a decade of professionals planning routes, of putting every bit of money we can into a fixed-route service that just doesn’t line up with the build patterns of the municipalities,” Gilmore said. “If it did, we would have better ridership.”
Gilmore suggested focusing on specific routes and maximizing their ridership. He said the agency is “financially constrained” and that other routes’ money could be used to provide more accessible service to more people.
“I’m not against a bus route; what I’m against is inefficient spending of dollars between modalities,” Gilmore said. “If I were absolutely militant on data, I’d be saying [Route] 6 needs to go away. But I think there are some synergies … that could actually increase ridership across that.”
The board didn’t take formal votes on the bus route options but did collectively decide which ones to move forward with. Ultimately, alternatives A and B were scrapped, but the other five will be brought back next month for a final decision. That essentially spells the end of Routes 4 and 5, with others potentially on the chopping block.
“If the board makes its decision in July, this service change would go into effect in a November, December timeframe,” interim CEO Paul Cristina said. “Then, it would be at the board’s discretion as to when the bus service is revisited again.”
When it came to GoZone costs for riders, the board narrowed its options down even further. The current promotional cost for every GoZone ride is a flat 75 cents, but that will likely double moving forward. Instead of a flat fare, board members settled on a $1.50 base price plus either 25 or 50 cents per mile, starting at 4 miles.
Put simply, that means rides under 4 miles will cost only $1.50. Rides longer than 4 miles will cost $1.50 plus an additional charge for each mile traveled. From DCTA’s perspective, that’s meant to discourage long-distance rides, which are highly inefficient for GoZone.
Finer details on the pricing proposals will come back to the board next month, along with the proposals for the bus system.