Mass transit has always been a dirty word in this city. Three times — in 1980, 1995 and 2002 — Arlington voters defeated efforts to fund a mass transit system.
Now the city is preparing to tackle the issue again but with a high-tech twist.
Think of a service like Uber or Lyft but with vans traveling specific corridors of the city. The on-demand ride-share system wouldn’t pick you up at your door, but stop within walking distance.
In June, the city put out a request for proposals to private companies for such a “pop-up transportation system” using 14-passenger vehicles. The city hopes to start a pilot project early next year.
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It’s the first outcome of a 31-member Transportation Advisory Committee, which spent a year studying transit issues in Arlington. Its task was giving the city a long-term transportation vision for the next 20 to 30 years with both mid-term and long-term recommendations.
While the committee report released last week includes traditional options, such a high-intensity bus routes that would speed commuters down a freeway to their workplace, that doesn’t appear to be the direction city council members are headed.
“We’ll be trying these things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t,” said Mayor Jeff Williams. “And we’ll be monitoring what new transportation inventions come online because we are at the beginning of a transportation/technology revolution. We want to be a test city for that, as we have been for the autonomous vehicle.”
For example, Milo, a free autonomous shuttle that can carry 12 passengers, is operating as a pilot project in the entertainment district during Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys games.
It also means that Arlington’s lone regularly scheduled bus service is going away.
MAX, short for Metro ArlingtonXpress, currently runs from the TRE/Centreport station to downtown Arlington and the University of Texas at Arlington. But City Manager Trey Yelverton said that service will cease when the contract expires at the end of the year.
MAX ridership has been dropping. In May, there was an average of 220 rides per day, down from 235 in May 2016, according to data from the city. In April, there were 242 average rides per day, down from 299 in April 2016.
“Right now, MAX gets you from Centreport to downtown,” Yelverton said. “The new service will fulfill that same niche but in a more on-demand type service. Then it actually lets you broaden out to other zones. It’s taking the spine of what you get with MAX and replacing it with a smaller and scalable-technology service.”
The total budget for MAX for 2017 is $708,406, with $354,203 coming from a Federal Transit Administration grant. Arlington contributes $169,601.50 and UTA’s contribution is $169,601.50. Private businesses contribute $15,000.
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The cost for the demand response ride-share pilot project would be $700,000-$900,000, with half the cost covered by a Federal Transit Administration grant. The city and community partners would fund the other half.
Susan A. Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center of the University of California-Berkeley, said many cities are looking at new transportation technologies.
“More research is needed to understand opportunities and challenges with flexible route/on-demand high-occupancy services (micro-transit) either replacing or augmenting existing bus networks,” Shaheen said. “To maximize success, cities should consider supportive public policies, such as bus/high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane access and signal prioritization. Other policies could include pricing to incentivize individuals to take alternative modes (e.g., subsidies).”
In Arlington, Yelverton said there are several proposals from viable companies that are still being studied by city staff.
The Transportation Advisory Committee, composed of leaders from major Arlington institutions like UTA, the Texas Rangers and Six Flags Over Texas, identified key corridors and hubs for Arlington.
Hubs included the CentrePort TRE Station, the entertainment district, downtown /UTA, and the Parks Mall/Arlington Highlands shopping areas. Minor hubs include Viridian, Arlington Memorial Hospital, General Motors, Senior Center, Medical District, the U.S. 287/Interstate 20 area, the I-20/Texas 360 industrial area, Tarrant County College Southeast campus and Mansfield.
Major transportation corridors included CentrePort to the entertainment district, the entertainment district to south Arlington via Cooper Street, the entertainment district to Tarrant County College Southeast Campus along State Highway 360, Interstate 30, Interstate 20 and Spur 303 (Pioneer Parkway).
Other recommendations include supporting a proposed high-speed rail project that would cross Arlington and develop a future station. The city should also plan for a multi-modal center in the entertainment district where passengers can transfer between a variety of transportation modes.
After a year as the committee’s chair, Bill Verkest, a former Fort Worth transportation and public works director, said it is clear that Arlington residents are interested in transportation issues. Both Williams and Yelverton have said there will be town hall meetings later this year or early next year.
But Verkest said it’s also clear residents want something different.
“They do not want buses running all over town and we did not make that recommendation,” Verkest said. “I think this mayor and council are committed. They’re going to use our report as a basis for going out and soliciting public input.”