TX: The Woodlands Bringing Bus Service In-House

July 16--With help from regional officials, The Woodlands is entering the bus business, a decision that might give south Montgomery County commuters more options down the road.

Population gains pushed the Woodlands-Conroe area from a "small urban area" to a "large urbanized area" of 230,000 residents for the 2010 Census. That bump means someone has to take responsibility for federally awarded transit money.

"Now those dollars are coming to us," said Nick Wolda, spokesman for The Woodlands Township, the local governing organization.

With the money, however, comes responsibility for overseeing a bus system and stocking up on buses. To get the fleet started, Woodlands officials reached out to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out federal transit money in the Houston area.

Council officials Tuesday approved a $14.1 million agreement that uses $11.3 million in federal funds and $2.8 million from The Woodlands to buy 25 buses over a number of years, starting with five in the first year.

"It is not all the buses they need, but it is gives them a great start," said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for H-GAC.

Riders of The Woodlands Express will hardly notice a change, officials said. For a Woodlands-to-Houston round-trip ride, mostly along Interstate 45, commuters pay $12. The same park and ride locations will continue operating.

The contract for the bus service, managed by Brazos Transit District, expires in 2015. Brazos Transit contracts with private bus companies to operate the routes.

The cost of operating the service has grown since 2012, when the company providing the service went bankrupt and officials scrambled to find another. To lower costs and maintain more control, Woodlands officials opted to work on a bus-buying program.

Conroe will maintain its own transit funding and develop its own service. The city is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to put a park and ride lot beneath Interstate 45 at FM 2854.

Controlling bus service in their communities means the township and city can adjust service more to their liking and move more quickly, Clark said. By owning buses -- and potentially having the funding to invest in more lines -- transit officials in southern Montgomery County can start to position the buses to meet the area's explosive growth.

"This is kind of the maturity of these communities," Clark said. "Everything is coming together on this. They have made additional investments in sidewalk infrastructure."

The spending follows rapid growth in the area that extends beyond the township limits to Conroe and unincorporated Montgomery County.

"Everyone is feeling the development pressure," Clark said.

Reverse commutes

Job growth is now turning bus service into a two-way system. Reverse-commutes, where people live in the urban area and commute to suburban jobs, are becoming more common.

"With more people working in The Woodlands and large employers like ExxonMobil moving operations north, it only makes sense that we investigate adding this service to The Woodlands Express operations," said Chris LaRue, transit planner for the township.

Though solo vehicle trips dwarf bus rides in southern Montgomery County -- and are expected to for some time -- officials believe transit is a vital part of reducing traffic.

"Very few people would want to see however many bus trips they are providing from Montgomery County converted to cars on I-45," Clark said.

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