As Pierce Transit rebuilds from deep recession-era cuts, agency leaders hope free car rides to the bus stop could expand ridership.
Pierce Transit, Washington's second-largest transit agency, received a $205,000 federal grant this month to cover rides from app services like Uber or Lyft -- or conventional taxi companies -- to and from certain transit centers.
The pilot program is expected to begin early next year and cover more than 15,000 rides, said Rebecca Japhet, communications director for Pierce Transit. Agency leaders are still determining where in the transit system the rides will be available and how exactly it will work, she said.
The program is a test of whether speeding people along the first or last couple miles of their transit journey could expand ridership. Pierce Transit runs buses for about 9 million riders a year in the South Sound region.
"For folks who haven't tried transit yet, not used to using transit, the issue to solve is the first mile or last mile of accessing transit," said Ryan Mello, a Pierce Transit commissioner who also sits on the Tacoma City Council.
Mello called the grant "a really innovative way to try to get at that problem of getting customers to the transit center who might be a mile, two, or three away."
The program could also free up parking spaces in the Pierce Transit's packed lots. Mello said the system's parking lots tend to fill up by about 7:30 a.m. on weekdays -- and covering the cost of rides could prove more cost-effective than building new parking facilities.
For riders without access to a smartphone app, transit officials hope to offer a phone service or another way to call for a pickup, he said.
Pierce Transit has been gradually building back after slashing more than one-third of its service during the recession of the late 2000s. Agency officials are weighing changes to the system's map as they plan to add 35,000 service hours next year.
One proposal would eliminate or consolidate six bus routes officials say are redundant or underused while offering more frequent buses and longer hours elsewhere in the system.
"Sometimes, when you cut, cut, cut... building back in the same areas doesn't make a lot of sense, because things have changed, ridership has changed, development has changed," Japhet said.
Pierce Transit officials, she said, are "taking a very comprehensive look at our routes" and "it's very likely that we'll see a number of changes, efficiencies, and improvements."
A public hearing on the changes is scheduled for Nov. 14. Commissioners may vote on the plan by mid-December, Japhet said.