Written by: Leonard Parker | Houston Business News | 21st April
Like other business centers in the region, west Houston's Energy Corridor has fewer people working in its offices because of the pandemic, with a number of major employers in oil and gas choosing to work from home.
But even with an increase in remote work, officials are developing plans for a new commuter bus service between the Energy Corridor and The Woodlands.
"From our vantage point I think we are still pretty bullish that there will be a significant return of workforce," said Elijah Williams, executive director of the Energy Corridor District. "We want to make sure our employees have every opportunity to access the district in the most convenient way."
Williams told Houston Public Media the district actually started planning for the new bus service before the pandemic. A pilot program was approved by the boards of the Energy Corridor and The Woodlands Township about a year ago.
He added that they were prompted to develop the service after Shell moved its offices from downtown Houston to the Energy Corridor.
"They had significant ridership on the Woodlands commuter service to downtown," explained Williams. "Given their move to the Energy Corridor we wanted to explore some opportunities to continue to support the level of ridership that they had."
About 1000 people a day commuted in from The Woodlands prior to the pandemic, according to Energy Corridor Transportation and Mobility Manager Elizabeth Whitton. Post-pandemic, commuters could be doing things a bit differently, and Whitton said the pilot program will give them a chance to explore some of those issues.
"One of the other things we're seeing is that the types of trips are changing," she said. "They might not be coming during the peak hour. They might be coming at other parts of the day."
As the corridor plans for the new service, Whitton said they’re staying in contact with local businesses as to when they expect to bring employees back into their offices. They're also monitoring current ridership on other transit routes, and looking into the expected cost of operating the service.
"One of the key determinants for cost for us is social distancing mandates and how many people we can fit on a busm and how many buses we need to run," Whitton said.
A $1.6 million congestion management and air quality grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council will be used to launch the commuter service. It's expected to cover 80% of the operating costs for three years. The Energy Corridor District and The Woodlands Township will split the other 20%.
Woodlands Transit, the transportation department of The Woodlands Township, would operate the buses. In a statement, The Woodlands Township Chairman Gordy Bunch said they've already seen strong ridership on their downtown and Medical Center park and ride routes.
"As many residents work in the Energy Corridor, this allows additional opportunities for our residents," Bunch said. "We look forward to seeing how this service can progress for our residents."
The grant application for the program estimated that The Woodlands commuter bus service would eliminate about 55,000 vehicle trips to the Energy Corridor every year.
Officials hope they can start the service in the latter part of 2021, but depending on when people start going back to the office, it may be in early 2022.
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