The Woodlands considers the future of its cart system

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Nearly 15 years after launching its streetcar system, the Township of Woodlands is considering the future of the service and what options might better suit the community.

At The Woodlands Township board meeting on Thursday, Ruthanne Haut, assistant director of community services at The Woodlands, presented information on what it would entail to expand the service.

Launched in July 2007, the trams serve the city centre, Hughes Landing, The Woodlands shopping centre, Market Street and the waterway. The free service operates seven days a week with four trolleys operating at peak service.

Haut said ridership has been cyclical over the years.

“We’ve seen ridership rebound recently,” Haut said. “We expect to be fairly close to pre-pandemic ridership levels this year.”

Over the past few years, Haut said, there have been discussions between residents and the board about extending the service, particularly to village centers and downtown hotels.

Haut said that in the past the council had implemented several expansion concepts, including route realignment, schedule changes to add a fourth carriage during peak hours and expanded service to Hughes Landing.

Haut explained that some of the challenges facing the expansion include: funding; additional drivers, vehicles, fuel and maintenance; acceptable progress; paratransit service; approval of the owners of the village center; and public comment from the Federal Transportation Administration.

Director Bruce Reiser asked how many calls the township receives for paratransit service. Haut said they currently receive about one application per month.

“I will say that given the requirements of the program, most people are not eligible to contact us,” she said. “We’ve had two people who have been eligible in the last year, neither have chosen to take a ride.”

Chairman Gordy Bunch noted that the township has agreements with Interfaith of The Woodlands and Meals on Wheels to provide paratransit services to residents.

Manager Shelley Sekula-Gibbs asked if the carts were suitable for going at higher speeds. Haut said yes and even noted that the cart could be driven on the highway.

“The issue of service expansion has never been about security, it’s always been about expense,” Bunch said.

As for carts picking up and dropping off at village centers, Bunch said when the township inquired that in the past landlords didn’t want carts entering centers. He added that the township’s desire to expand service in the past ended up being too costly.

According to township information, $949,191 is allocated in the 2022 budget for the existing streetcar program, of which $94,200 is budgeted for capital projects. Currently, funding for the program includes $740,280 in CARES Act funding, $75,360 in FTA funds for cart enhancements, and $133,551 from the Woodlands Township general fund.

Haut said there are options, including grants, that would be used to fund a feasibility study for the expansion.

Reiser said the study should include an option beyond carts.

“Most carts are nearing the end of their useful life,” he said. “So we have to include in that whether it’s actually the appropriate vehicle to maintain that particular function or to expand it.”

Bunch said the bottom line is that the township already knows it will be prohibitively expensive to expand the system.

“I appreciate the feeling of going through the motions, but we’re going to waste a lot of staff time going back to what we already know,” he said. “It’s the least profitable public transit we operate today.”

Bunch added that the public is not “begging” for service.

The board took no action on the matter, but agreed that it would revisit the matter at a future meeting.

cdominguez@hcnonline.com


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