The Denton City Council probed DCTA officials to learn how the agency sees its declining ridership during a work session Tuesday.
Ridership has dropped every year on the A-train since 2014, according to Denton County Transportation Authority data. Agency officials said the system is weathering public transit’s perfect storm: a growing economy, lower gas prices, a newly widened Interstate 35E and ride services like Lyft and Uber.
Jim Cline, president of DCTA, said the decline in A-train riders follows a pattern of declining transit ridership nationwide.
“But I want to make this clear: I don’t consider this acceptable” Cline told council members, adding that the agency is taking specific steps to boost ridership. “It’s a long game.”
DCTA started in 2003 as a separate public entity. The agency took over Denton’s small city bus system in 2005. The A-train debuted in June 2011 and connected Denton County to the regional system through a Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail stop in Carrollton.
The main source of DCTA’s funding comes from a portion of the sales taxes collected in Denton, Highland Village and Lewisville. By contract, DCTA runs buses for the University of North Texas and North Central Texas College as well as on-demand rides for people with disabilities in Denton and parts of Collin Counties.
Even as the city and university populations have grown, bus ridership has remained flat and A-train ridership has dropped.
Nationwide, transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas last year, according to a March 24 report in the Washington Post. Houston was among the few cities that bucked the trend after years of declining ridership. In 2015, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County overhauled its bus routes and won back Houston riders almost overnight with its new, grid-like system.
Denton City Council members pointed to the $12.4 million in sales tax revenue the city sent to DCTA last year as they peppered Cline with questions about how to improve service.
Council member Gerard Hudspeth said it bothers him that he doesn't have an answer for constituents who say the system is underutilized for the amount of money being spent. He encouraged DCTA to improve parking security at its train stations to encourage more people to park and ride.
He also told Cline that the A-train schedule sometimes strands a regional rider in Carrollton for 30 minutes to an hour.
“Your sales competition is I-35E,” Hudspeth said. “What does it cost to commute?”
Cline said he didn’t have a specific answer for that, but that DCTA estimates it costs an individual about $10,000 a year to own a car in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In addition, the agency recently commissioned an economic study that shows the average Denton County driver loses $763.33 a year simply from being caught in traffic.
Council member John Ryan said DCTA needs to remember that people’s time is valuable, too. For example, Ryan and his wife needed to travel in opposite directions one day, so his wife looked at the bus schedule. Because the ride would take about 2 1/2 hours, she opted instead to spend about $10 more to save time and hail a ride from Lyft.
DCTA recognizes that ride services like Lyft are part of people-moving, Cline said.
“We as an agency have chosen not to fight that, but embrace it,” Cline said.
DCTA has a contract with Lyft to provide better service in Highland Village and will soon make Lyft part of its service contract with UNT to cover the campus from 2 to 7 a.m., Cline said.
Council member Keely Briggs asked that the agency make more clear how it offers discounted passes through local nonprofits that help people who are homeless get back on their feet. She learned the benefit wasn't as easy to tap as she expected after she tried to help someone buy a monthly pass so he could get to his new job, she said.
DCTA also has faced increasing criticism that the agency is not as efficient as it could be, particularly when compared to other public transit systems.
Cline told council members that the agency commissioned the Texas Transportation Institute, a 68-year-old research body at Texas A&M University, to compare the agency to its peers. The report and analysis are expected later this month.
Council member Sara Bagheri said she was surprised to learn that Denton has only one voting member on DCTA’s 14-member board. Because of the way the agency was created 15 years ago, the board includes representatives from other cities that aren’t paying sales tax to DCTA.
Bagheri urged fellow council members to press for more representation on the board, since almost half the sales tax DCTA receives is collected in Denton. She put a bullhorn on the work table to illustrate her point.
“If I’ve learned one thing being involved in politics, it’s that sometimes your voice needs a little bit of amplification,” Bagheri said.
She also asked council members to consider another recommendation: asking DCTA to spend more money installing bus shelters, benches and standing pads in Denton.
Of the 300 bus stops in Denton, 29 have a shelter and another 10 have a bench.
Council members agreed to ask DCTA to appropriate more of its annual budget to such rider amenities in Denton. While council members didn’t agree on a specific figure, they agreed that the $60,000 or so spent each year for the past five years has not been enough.
Mayor Chris Watts said he has no doubt public transit is needed in Denton, both in moving people around and alleviating parking problems on city streets.
“We need that service for the [college] students, but we need to make sure that UNT is not subsidizing service for the city nor is the city subsidizing for UNT,” Watts said. “We need that data.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.
FEATURED PHOTO: Passengers get on and off the A-train Tuesday at the Denton County Transportation Authority's Denton Downtown Transit Center.