With drastic changes to the Denton County Transportation Authority’s fixed bus routes going into effect next week, GoZone’s promotional period offering 75-cent rides will stick around as evaluations continue on a permanent cost for the service.
Monday’s DCTA board meeting — at which CEO Raymond Suarez’s resignation was accepted — included ample discussion on how GoZone will work alongside the revamped bus routes. Board members authorized substantial changes to the Connect bus service in December, voting to save all but Lewisville’s two fixed routes and Denton’s Route 1. Denton will get a new route: Route 5.
The six remaining routes within the Connect service, Routes 2 through 7, will look much different to riders. In general, the changes tighten up DCTA’s bus coverage area, particularly to south and east Denton. Each route will start at a later time, and some will even end earlier in the day, although the time between departures will be slashed by nearly 33% in some cases. A full listing of changes and schedules, which will go into effect March 14, can be found on DCTA’s website.
The radical adjustments are aimed at increasing the efficiency of the Connect service, with the specific goal of having buses run in tandem with GoZone in a hybrid system. DCTA hired New York-based Via Transportation, whom it contracts for the GoZone service, as a consultant for that process.
It will be months before the intertwined system goes live, and DCTA staff suggested the current pricing arrangement for GoZone rides stay in place. Rides currently cost 75 cents, a rate that was originally pitched to last for the service’s first six months. Some board members took issue with the idea of pushing the final pricing rate further back.
“I’m a little concerned that the promotional fare is going to be moving out to almost a year,” DCTA vice chair TJ Gilmore said. “My understanding was, in December, the fare and route changes were going to take place in March.”
Staff answered that changing the fare structure would need to have a public involvement period to comply with federal government laws. Suarez added it could be confusing to the public to update the fare structure once in March and again when the new system goes live.
Gilmore, however, said he was concerned the price difference between GoZone and buses is influencing riders’ choices. Bus fares come in at $1.50, twice as high as the rideshare rate, though that amount buys either an a.m. or p.m. pass for unlimited use through those respective hours. A person who goes to work in the morning and leaves in the evening, for example, would end up paying $3.
“The sooner we can get those to be equitable price alignment, the less likely we are to have an argument in September that one mode versus the other has been subsidized,” Gilmore said. “I’m also seeing that we’re going to be spending more money regardless, so we probably need to start capturing a bit more of that revenue now versus later.”
Gilmore was likely referring to the increase in service hours that has become necessary for GoZone, as Via has needed to increase the number of vehicles and drivers to keep up with demand. That ongoing issue has caused wait times to steadily increase, and it will soon require DCTA to allocate more funding to the service.
There appear to be several options in play for a long-term pricing arrangement. Suarez suggested Monday that a mileage rate could be on the table, which was originally pitched in December. Denton County Judge Andy Eads suggested a fare rate based on each individual — for example, offering the promotional fare for a person’s first 10 GoZone rides.
“There’s also concepts of fare capping,” Suarez said. “Once you purchase a certain number of rides, the rest of your rides for the month are free. That helps take care of some socioeconomic issues. There’s a lot of variability in how it can be defined.”
Despite multiple board members expressing interest in speeding up the process, staff maintained that the end of March would be too soon for a change.
“If the board were to provide direction to staff to end the 75-cent fare, we need ample time to go back out to the public to say what the new fare is going to be,” Suarez said. “At the time, we did not recommend what the new fare should be at the end of the six months.”
The end result is that a final pricing structure likely won’t be up for board approval until around June, and if so, wouldn’t be implemented until September.
While pricing structure dominated a large chunk of the GoZone conversation Monday, the board also spent substantial time on the agency’s promotional efforts. Eads led an effort to start getting monthly reports on how DCTA advertises and communicates with the public, which was backed by Denton representative Alison Maguire.
During a presentation on the agency’s communication strategies, Gilmore sounded off on the agency’s practices over the implementation of QR codes on signs near bus stops. Scanning the code is supposed to send the user to DCTA’s website to get information about GoZone and service changes, but Gilmore said he had difficulties getting his phone to read one of them.
In a different attempt, Gilmore said, the QR code took him to a page where he could plan a trip. However, he said the engine told him to use Lyft and included no information about GoZone.
“Can I ask who thought this was acceptable?” Gilmore said, receiving no response. “There’s a reason that there is an undercurrent in this community that there’s a bunch of people who sit here in a boardroom and make decisions that impact peoples’ lives and are not paying attention. This is a massive misstep. I think my point’s been made.”
Deputy CEO Paul Cristina, who will become the agency’s interim CEO with the departure of Suarez, presented on options for “enhancing the value” of the A-train. DCTA’s rail system is currently a modest contributor to its overall ridership, leading to a dedicated agenda item for the topic.
The presentation broke down into three main objectives: improving the train’s schedule and frequency, considering a service extension in Carrollton and considering a new station in Corinth.
For each, DCTA has grant funding at its disposal. The prospective rail station in Corinth, however, is unique in that the city could partially fund the project through becoming a member city. Member cities (currently Denton, Lewisville and Highland Village) pass sales tax funding along to DCTA in exchange for use of its transportation services.
Corinth City Manager Bob Hart presented to the board at the January meeting about the proposed A-train rail station, which would be part of an enhanced downtown area the city is looking into. Any member city agreement between the city and DCTA is still a ways off, as Corinth would need to go through the legal process of authorizing the sales tax.
Cristina’s presentation Monday did not include firm numbers as to how much the objectives could increase A-train ridership.