The Woodlands Township pilot program to run a Woodlands Express bus shuttle service from the township to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo saw more than 1,500 riders use the new service over a three-weekend period, but the program did not break even financially and township officials expect to see a loss of about $10,000 from the program.
John Powers, assistant general manager of community services for The Woodlands Township, said members of the township’s board were aware that the pilot program would likely lead to a loss in revenue, but that the program was important to see if there is a desire to have such a weekend service from the township to other regional events in the Houston region.
“We think it was successful considering the fast implementation and not being (involved) in the marketing with the Livestock Show folks,” Powers said, referencing the late approval for the project only a month before the event began. “We had 1,515 passengers for those three weekends. We did not break even. We collected about $20,000 (in fare revenue), it cost about $30,000 (to provide the service). We didn’t break even, but all the feedback we got was incredible.”
The program was developed out of an idea from former township Transit Director Chris LaRue, who began to lobby the seven members of the township board in October, 2018, with ideas for new bus routes from The Woodlands to various regional events in the Houston region. Other proposals for weekend special service — which could qualify for federal funding to assist with costs — included buses to Houston Texans games, the Super Bowl or other events like the Final Four. However, none of those ideas were viable, hence the choice of the rodeo trips.
The township board unanimously approved the special bus service from the township to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo during their Jan. 16, meeting, and after slow ticket sales drew concern from officials, the initial price of a $25 round trip fare was reduced to only $13 in an effort to stimulate interest.
The service, which saw buses depart from The Woodlands at nine departure times and as many as 14 return times during the final three weekends of the event — March 2-3; March 9-10; and March 16-17, took passengers from the Sterling Ridge park and ride lot to the Livestock Show and Rodeo. Ticket reservations were made through a new online ticketing portal.
Although final financial numbers were not available, Powers said with only half the riders needed to break even, plus the cost of renting the buses from First Class Tours as well as a brief marketing campaign, the township would likely see an expected loss of about $10,000 or more from the program.
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“The board knew when they approved it they could have lost all of the money,” Powers admitted. “We needed about double (the riders we had) to break even. We dropped the fee to $13 and (ticket sales) kind of exploded.”
There were some minor hiccups, though, Powers said of the pilot program, but all were a result of the quick-nature of organizing the new service. One area of concern was the trend of customers buying bus tickets only 24 to 48 hours before their trip to the rodeo, something that made planning the daily bus departures difficult. Once at the rodeo, some riders opted to come home earlier than their ticket time, or to stay later, which created a need for more bus departures back to The Woodlands, Powers added.
“People were waiting until 24 hours, or 48 hours, before a trip to buy tickets. Our First Class Tours operator had to reschedule some departures,” Powers added. “ At the last minute, we had to bring in extra buses, but everybody got down there and back OK.”
Now, township transit officials are working to prepare a report on the pilot program for presentation to the board during the April 24 meeting, Powers said.
“Everything was really positive, we had a lot of great suggestions (from riders) like to do (the service) every day (as opposed to only weekends) and to (depart) from a different (park and ride) lot,” Powers added. “There were a lot of good suggestions we’ll present to the board and explore. We will ask the board to consider doing it again in 2020.”