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DASH Seeks Rider Input

How to improve transit service?

With escalating congestion combined with diminishing parking, the need for reliable, efficient and affordable public transit service is constantly increasing. But how to maintain and improve those qualities of transit service presents an ongoing challenge.

To explore the issues and receive public input, the Alexandria Transit Company, operators of DASH, held a "Service Improvement Planning Session" Feb. 22 at Alexandria City Hall. The 90-minute session gave participants the opportunity to review options and provide feedback on proposals under consideration as part of DASH's 2007 ATC Transit Development Program.

"We're at a point where we wanted to take a breather and reassess our ridership, routes, fares and other elements of our future development," Sandy Modell, general manager, Alexandria Transit Company, told the 30-plus attendees gathered in Room 3000.

"We want to be positioned to meet the future needs of the community. But we'd be remiss if we didn't stop and find out what you want," she said.

One of the items under consideration is a base fare increase from $1 to $1.35. Both the rail-to-bus transfer fee of 35 cents and the monthly DASH Pass of $30 will remain the same, according to the recent presentation.

"The present city budget proposes no increase in their share to DASH," Modell said. The city subsidizes DASH costs at 70 percent with 30 percent of expenses being paid by riders, according to Modell.

TWO MAJOR ISSUES raised by attendees were frequency of buses along the routes, particularly in the West End, and making buses more accessible to the disabled. The second applied more to the difficulty faced by bus drivers getting close enough to curbs due to parking adjacent to bus stops.

"We are operating in a more urban environment than we were 20 years ago. And, people have more transit demands than they did then," Modell said.

"Although increased traffic has slowed our buses, riders should not have to wait more than 15 minutes between pickups," she said. That was in response to one attendee pointing out that they have experienced gaps of up to one hour between buses.

In addressing questions pertaining to DASH service in the West End, Modell assured the crowd, "The whole West End is very important to us. We intend to increase service in that section of the City." She also noted that "most routes are run seven days a week."

As for disabled accessibility, several in the audience noted that vehicles parking too close to bus stops hindered DASH drivers from getting close to the curb thereby causing those in wheel chairs to struggle to again access. Modell pointed out that DASH buses are all equipped with wheelchair lifts and that DASH preceded the federal mandate on that transit requirement.

"Parking limits handicap accessibility to your buses. This is especially true in Old Town," said Alexandria resident Anne Mitchell, president and CEO, Montgomery Hospice, whose mother suffers from low vision and rides DASH nearly daily.

"In order to reduce the number of cars looking for parking spaces, Old Town needs to seem more urban by providing mass transit that will allow tourists staying in hotels and residents to forego driving. Perhaps, the hotels would be able to contribute a bus for set times as a city/private venture," Mitchell said.

To further increase DASH use, ATC plans to test the use of Smartcards this fall, according to Modell. Utilization of the prepaid fare cards aids passengers by reducing the need to carry and utilize cash as well as help the transit service by decreasing time spent in processing fares.

ESTABLISHED IN 1984, DASH is a non-profit public service corporation, wholly owned by the City of Alexandria. It began with a fleet of 17 buses which has grown to 57. Providing a fixed route service, DASH operates eight routes within the city. Two of those serve The Pentagon with peak period service. Presently DASH carries "more than 3.3 million customers annually," according to the presentation.

The primary purpose of the public hearing was to address both short- and long-range planning. It focused on increasing transit demands caused by such items as population and employment growth, changing travel patterns, and new development areas, both residential and commercial.

All of these factors impact service by increasing demands and patronage which, in turn, is impacted by both "traffic congestion and bus travel times," according to DASH. "We need to increase service levels and frequency. This is done by improving connections throughout the city," Modell said.

DASH's planning efforts began in the fall of 2004. They have employed operational analysis, on-board marketing surveys, on-board passenger counts, embarking and disembarking by stops and trips, and time checks performed at each stop. This was succeeded in the fall of 2005 with an Origin-Destination Survey.

The just-completed public hearing-workshop will be followed by another public input session in the spring. A phased-in implementation plan is scheduled to begin in June 2006.

The 2005 on-board survey produced the following statistics relative to DASH riders:

* 68 percent are commuters going to and from employment.

* 50 percent have a vehicle available.

* Over 93 percent rated the weekday service as good or excellent.

* Only 37 percent rated the weekend service as good or excellent.

* The top four improvements requested by passengers were:

1. Provide more frequent service;

2. Improve on-time arrivals;

3. Extend service hours; and

4. Extend service areas.

Modell cautioned the audience, "Realize that there are budget and facility constraints that prevent us from doing everything we would like to do in the short term. However, it may be possible to consider doing many of them in the long term."