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More than two years after it began operating, a “now open” sign still hangs from the side of a giant, 400-space parking garage at the corner of south Highway 281 and Stone Oak Parkway.
It almost seems to say to drivers zipping down Highway 281, “Hey, don’t forget about me.”
But even with the construction equipment and lane changes keeping drivers on their toes in that part of the city, the size of the garage and now its proximity to passing traffic means drivers certainly couldn’t forget about it. Neither could we.
So, we went to VIA with questions about how many passengers are using the garage, and what we learned might surprise you.
But let’s put this in reverse for a moment. The Stone Oak Park and Ride facility opened in June 2018 as a place where drivers can park their car and hop on a VIA bus that ran two routes throughout the city: one into downtown and one to the Medical Center.
A VIA spokesperson told KSAT in an email, “these routes were designed to provide faster, more direct access to major job and activity centers for commuters, workers, students, and people accessing jobs and critical services.”
Since its opening, construction to expand Highway 281 has taken over north of Loop 1604. The park and ride garage was built proactively to be ready for buses to have direct access when the expansion is complete, said VIA President and CEO, Jeffrey Arndt.
“It will go over the southbound lanes and then it will drop into the center lanes, which is where the high occupancy vehicle service would be,” Arndt said. “And then on the return, obviously, it would ramp up from the center lane over the southbound lanes again and into the transit center. It’s a direct connector.”
The proactive approach, Arndt adds, was also a fiscal one.
It cost $4.5 million to buy the land, according to VIA, which was paid for using bond funds.
The price tag to build the garage totaled $20.6 million, 80 percent of which came from state or federal grants that were available at the time.
“If taking advantage of 80 percent outside funding and being ready in advance is the wrong thing to do, then I will confess that I did something wrong,” Arndt said. “But I don’t think it’s wrong.”
Since its 2018 opening and before the pandemic hit, when VIA temporarily halted the route into downtown due to COVID-19, VIA says buses transported passengers 275,000 times from the Stone Oak garage.
That’s an average of about 520 per day.
While easing traffic congestion and giving drivers more transportation options are both goals of providing the park and ride service, Arndt adds that creating access to employment opportunities is a goal the transit agency is already seeing realized.
“A third of the people that rode that service before had incomes below poverty level. And so clearly, they were more likely going to Stone Oak for work, for a job and not necessarily from Stone Oak to get into town,” Arndt said. “I think that’s a wonderful thing. People can get employment. And that’s why that will be a mobility hub and tied to mobility on demand, which will give them a lot more convenient access to all the employment opportunities. From an employer’s perspective, their employment market greatly opens.”
VIA says ridership has decreased because of the pandemic and highway construction, but the agency expects passengers to return.
We asked Arndt if the transit agency also expects to see increased use by residents of Stone Oak, an area that hasn’t seen much buy-in when it comes to mass transit in the past.
Ardnt said yes, based on similarities seen in suburban communities of Houston.
“People that live in the Woodlands or people that live in Kingwood or Sugarland or Katy, communities much like Stone Oak, right? Communities that are not comprised of what we would consider the traditional transit rider,” Arndt said. “When those kinds of investments that gave a travel time and reliability benefit to use of high occupancy vehicles were present, the demand just mushrooms.”