Monday, January 23, 2012

FastTrans Revisions

About ten years ago, I moved from the Community Services Department to the Planning Department. I had just finished my Masters in Planning and Community Development, and was actually looking for a planning job. It was one of my lucky moments, that I finished my degree, was looking for a job, and there was an opening, albeit temporary on the surface of it, within the City.

So, with the agreement that I'd have a job for 2002, but need to find a new job by July 2003 (when the funding for my position ended), I moved over to Planning on tax day 2002. So, one of the first projects that I was immersed in was the creation of a downtown transportation loop. The project was one the City had applied for Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality monies from the Federal Government for. The goal of the project was to offer fast, and economical transportation options in and out of the downtown area, to encourage people to not drive into downtown.

The City's goal in designing these routes was to bring dense residential areas, remote parking lots, and transportation centers, with the core downtown area.We knew that COAST was going to be a partner with the City on this project, after all who else would you work with, outside of a bus operator, on developing a intra city bus line? I am sure most of the readers know, COAST is the regional mass transit provider. COAST operates bus service throughout the seacoast, and has been located in Dover for most, if not all of the last ten years.

Dover FastTrans provides regular, hourly bus service from downtown to homes, businesses, and remote parking in the city. Currently, there are three FastTrans routes, numbered 33, 34, and 35, which run every hour, from about 7AM until 7PM, Monday through Friday. Also as part of the FastTrans project, service on COAST Route 1, which serves downtown as well as the Dover Housing Authority, has been increased to hourly frequency.

There are two phases I remember about the project setup. First, working with residents and stakeholders to identify the design and layout of the routes, and the phasing in of the routes. We knew we couldn't have all the routes online at once, so route 33 can online first, in December of 2008. From there we expanded the options to include connections to Durham Road and Knox Marsh Road, as well as Shaws and the Union Street senior housing.

The second phase was the roll out. We had a VIP ride/tour of Route 33, where elected officials, staff and other stakeholders road the trip from the Transportation Center trough the Sixth Street destinations. It was fun hearing people exclaim that they didn't realize buses can be clean and welcoming. This expression has continued throughout the life of the project. We have seen a continual increase in ridership that the project realized year in and year out. It is a very rewarding project to have worked on.

Flash forward to 2011. As we noted in the fall/winter, due to budget concerns, the City and COAST had to look at revising the project. We treated it like a business would treat a service. We looked at where efficiencies can be made, where cuts are required and where we need to change out focus. These changes come in two bursts. The first was January 9, 2012, and the second will come this summer.

Beginning January 9, the hours for the service were trimmed and the schedule was adjusted. You can see the slightly modified schedule, and review the full adjustments by reading the flyer COAST put out prior to January 9th, 2012.

Basically, though the changes are being made to the after-6PM timeframe when ridership is extremely low on each route.
  • Route 33: service will end at 6:22pm. There will be no 6:36pm or 7:26pm runs. Also the schedule between 4pm and 6:22pm has been adjusted significantly.
  • Route 34: the 6:30pm run will become outbound only. The 7:30pm outbound run will continue.
  • Route 35: service will end at 6:38pm. There will be no 6:45pm run.
Why did we cut something that is successful? I think there are two answers, the first, is to that FastTrans was started with CMAQ grant-funding. We knew it was funded for 3 years, and hoped that there would be monies to continue the grant funding, but that is not the case. The grant will be running out in Spring of 2012, and in order to stretch it as far as possible, we have to adjust the services now to ensure we can run as long as possible on the grant funding.

The second reason we cut something that was successful, is that you have to make tough decisions to continue success. We all know the adage what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, well this is a similar situation. We stepped back and looked at the areas of the program that were not thriving and looked to reduce the impact they might have on dragging back the rest of the service. In this light we see that people are not using the service as much after 6 pm, as they are at 4 pm. Also, we see that routes 34 and 35 are not as heavily traveled as 33 is. We are choosing to put our focus on route 33 and help it thrive.

I've said the program is successful. How so, you might ask. Well, below is a chart from September of 2011, analyzing the Dover COAST routes. It compares August 2010 and 2011.

You can see that there has been an increase among most of the routes in double digits. The Community Routes are a bus route that focuses on the high school, so we won't focus on that. But overall mass transit is a popular service in Dover. That said, we know there is a cost.

The cost for the three routes is close to $600,000 a year. The City pays approximately $140,000 of that cost, as part of the matching requirements for the grant.We raise $10 - 15,0000 in fare box revenue and some committed stakeholders, such as Strafford County, pay a portion to help ensure service. Finally, as you might have guessed, we receive the bulk of the funding from the CMAQ grant. When 80% of your funding is removed, no matter what the total cost is, you have to review the options for the program. In this case, we could not justify asking the City to increase funding tri-fold.

So what happens in July? Well, presuming that the Federal government doesn't reverse itself and continues to cut transportation dollars, we will have to dig deeper and adjust the program further. Most likely we will look at eliminating route 35 and 34 if we have to so that a modified route 33 can survive. We will be looking for ways to increase stakeholder investment as well, sot that the City funds can be leveraged further.

So, why do you care? I hope you care, because like me you see the value in developing the community in a thoughtful and sustainable way. We hope you  understand that mass transit isn't for the poor, that it is smart and sensible for all ranges of income. It is an alternative that has value when you consider 4 dollar gas and when you consider the environment and when you consider the long term health benefits.

This is a topic I want to return to more in 2012, so get ready to read about the joys and value of mass transit, in Dover and the world (insert evil laugh).

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