Arlington has long been among the largest American cities without public transportation. Since 1980, the city’s voters have rejected transit proposals three times, with opponents citing fears ranging from costs to worries about an increase in crime.
Last year, the City Council unanimously approved a commuter bus line as a two-year pilot program, and six months in, the MAX (short for Metro ArlingtonXpress) has begun to draw riders. Supporters are optimistic that the service will prove popular enough to continue beyond 2015. But they are also hoping for something more: that the bus could shift local views on the value of transit and prompt the city to develop a more robust system over time.
“The people of Arlington have been raised in an environment where there is extreme reliance on vehicles, and it will take time for people to warm up to the idea of public transportation,” said Varun Mallipaddi, a MAX supporter who serves as student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington.
But detractors say public transportation in Arlington will be underutilized and will never justify the cost.
“This city does not need mass transit, because it is low-density,” said Warren Norred, a lawyer and community activist who helped defeat an Arlington bus proposal ballot measure in 2002. “People don’t realize how expensive these systems are, and you have no idea what other things this money could be doing.”
The MAX is funded by the city of Arlington, local businesses, UT-Arlington and the transit systems in Dallas and Fort Worth. It is largely designed to facilitate travel to and from UT-Arlington and to link riders to the broader transit system in North Texas.
MAX riders can also connect to the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter rail line that runs across the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
City officials said the MAX is currently averaging between 260 and 300 riders per day, roughly 10 percent more than when the service was first introduced. Officials are aiming for 300 to 500 daily riders by the end of the two-year pilot program.
City planners have joined with the university to market the new service using paid advertisements and billboards. Results from a rider survey conducted in September showed that almost 40 percent of the riders were students.
“We are starting to see more and more students taking advantage of the MAX, and we have also noticed a decline in the number of parking permits that we sold to students this year for parking vehicles on campus,” said John Hall, UT-Arlington’s vice president for administration and campus operations.
Hall said a permanent public commuter service could help raise enrollment, and would be particularly useful for international students, many of whom do not have cars or driver’s licenses. According to university data, while 5,100 people live in campus-owned housing, thousands more live off campus and regularly travel there by car.
Krystal-Rose Agu, a senior at UT-Arlington, used to drive 30 minutes to campus from Grapevine. She now drives 10 minutes to a rail station, where she parks and takes the bus the rest of the way.
“It is a smooth drive,” said Agu, who said she was saving $40 to $60 in gas every week. “I can do homework while I’m on the bus because they have Wi-Fi.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Arlington is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/04/07/arlington-monitors-success-first-ever-commuter-bus/.