Saturday, December 06, 2008

More Dallas commuters avoid toll road cash traps, choosing mass transit instead

Where have all the drivers gone?


By David Schechter
WFAA-TV (Dallas)
Copyright 2008

Tolls are out; mass transit is in.

The North Texas Tollway Authority says fewer drivers are using its pay-as-you-go highways. As a result, the agency is anticipating a $24 million shortfall while thrifty commuters are flocking to cheaper public transit options.

The NTTA says it has already identified about 7 percent in cuts to its operations to compensate for reduced revenes, but adds that long-term construction plans are not affected.

The $24 million shortfall is equivilent to roughly seven million trips; that's a lot of quarters.

When gas prices spiked earlier this year, the NTTA says the number of motorists using its network of tollways sagged.

So now that gas is relatively cheap again, where are the cars?

"We haven't seen the ridership return," said NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt.

Traffic on the President George Bush Turnpike is down 6 percent; there's been a 3 dip on the Dallas North Tollway.

NTTA says the cuts will come primarily from a hiring freeze on open positions. It will also delay opening new offices in Dallas and Fort Worth.

"Service levels are going to stay the same," Coffelt said, adding: "We were able to do these budget cuts without doing any layoffs."

While NTTA suffers, DART celebrates. The Dallas transit agency says bus ridership is up 7 percent; trains are seeing a 12-percent spike; and high occupancy vehicle lanes are 40 percent busier.

Light rail commuter Todd Ghristensen of Garland thinks travelers who made the switch to mass transit will stick with it.

"Why wouldn't they? It's so much easier," he said. "Once people see how convenient it is and so easy and they see how much they're saving — and not just in the gas, but parking and the stress you don't have to go through — I think people will stay with it."

NTTA, however, is counting on those drivers getting back in their cars. In the long run, it needs that $24 million in revenue to sustain its ambitious expansion plans.


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