The two-year-old METRO Houston Community Connectors service is costing the transportation agency and taxpayers millions.
The two-year-old METRO Houston Community Connectors service is costing the transportation agency and taxpayers millions.

Taxpayers to Spend $1.3 Million on a Failing METRO Houston Pilot Program

According to METRO Houston figures, Harris County taxpayers will cough up an annual $1.3 million subsidy so that around 55 people per weekday can ride what’s essentially a limited neighborhood shuttle.

When METRO implemented its debatable new “System Reimagining” bus network in August 2015, critics say that METRO attempted to scrap key routes on the poorer northeast, east and southeast sides in favor of a pilot program called Community Connectors. The “bus,” which looks more like a squat airport shuttle, allows anyone to reserve a “curb-to-destination” ride to any destination within a specified zone – for instance, from someone’s front door to the store – for $1.25 each way.

“METRO wanted five zones to use for Community Connectors, all located in minority neighborhoods,” says Houston METRO watchdog Paul Magaziner. “It was one of the few things we stopped on the new bus network. All of them got scrapped, except for Acres Homes.”

Two years later, the Acres Homes Community Connectors Route 344 doesn’t seem to be doing so hot.

Taxpayers to Spend $1.3 Million on a Failing METRO Houston Pilot Program (2)
Houston METRO finanical statement

METRO's route ranking model shows that there will be an average of 109 daily boardings during the weekdays in fiscal year 2017, which started October 1, 2016. The annual cost for taxpayers: $1,297,970 (or $46.83 per boarding).

The Monday-through-Friday version of Route 344 will bring in just $16,278 in annualized fare revenue; in fiscal 2017, Route 344 will run up a $1.3 million tab in operating expenses.

It won't cost taxpayers as much loot for Saturday and Sunday riders – a respective tax subsidy of $29.98 and $25.12 per boarding – but it’s still an obscene burden, explains Magaziner.

“It’s a god-awful idea for a transit agency to receive a reservation phone call and then send a small bus. Regular scheduled bus service is much better,” says Magaziner.

He adds that the previous bus routes in the area (44 Acres Homes and 64 Lincoln) weren’t perfect because they, too, relied on high-dollar subsidies — in 2014, $6.66 and $19.29, respectively — but “the new 344 simply took half of the ridership of 64 Lincoln on the old bus network, with METRO spending another $1.25 million a year.” According to METRO data, there was an average of 172 daily boardings for the two old routes in 2014.

“They brought up killing this program twice in the past year and then they let it operate as usual,” says Magaziner about Community Connectors, which METRO originally pegged as a three-month pilot program. “Meanwhile, they’ve wasted a million dollars and they haven’t increased ridership.”

The Houston Press asked Laura Whitley, spokesperson for METRO Houston, if METRO plans on discontinuing what appears to be a failing Community Connector service in favor of another bus route in Acres Homes.

The Acres Homes Community Connector like all transit service is subsidized. The amount of the subsidy depends on several variables including the cost of operation and average revenue collected. The Community Connector has been operating as a pilot program to provide a “proof of concept” for the service in the Houston region.

The METRO Board elected to operate the underlying local bus service and the Connector for all of FY 2017. Its performance is lower than would otherwise be expected since it is directly competing with this other bus service. Should one service be removed, it is expected the performance of the remaining service would greatly improve and the subsidy will be reduced. The service options in that community will likely be reviewed by the Board as part of the budget process for FY 2018. 

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