Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Riders want expanded VanGo service, longer hours

County transit official says Ride On remains a priority over popular shuttle buses

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For six years, the free VanGo shuttle service in downtown Silver Spring has provided commuters, shoppers and residents with a way to get around in the central business district.

The purple shuttle buses have become so popular that community groups, including the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce and Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board transportation and pedestrian safety committee, are calling for expanded service and longer hours.

The average daily ridership for the VanGo shuttle is 789, with two buses operating every 7 to 8 minutes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to Phil McLaughlin, manager of operations and planning for Montgomery County Transit, which operates the county’s Ride On bus system. Unlike the shuttle, riders pay fares to take Ride On buses, which circulate throughout the county.

‘‘We would love to expand the VanGo service,” McLaughlin said. ‘‘The greatest challenge is that Ride On ridership is up 28 percent across the board. The highest priority is to augment those services with any new resources.”

The VanGo route starts at the Silver Spring Metro station, goes as far north as Cameron and Fenton streets and circles around downtown Silver Spring along Fenton and Wayne Avenue. After traveling south on Georgia Avenue, the shuttle turns around at 13th Street and heads back toward the Metro station along East West Highway and Colesville Road.

Darian Unger, chairman of the advisory board, said he would like to see the VanGo service more closely mirror that of its Bethesda counterpart, the Bethesda Circulator, which runs until midnight and offers extra hours in November and December for holiday shoppers.

‘‘Ideally, not only would VanGo run later, but also more often, and in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions,” Unger said. ‘‘Businesses in south Silver Spring were especially keen on these ideas because it would make that part of the [central business district] more accessible.”

The Silver Spring chamber of commerce is also in favor of more hours for the VanGo shuttle and has submitted testimony to the County Council supporting expansion, according to chamber President Jane Redicker.

Mel Tull, who works with small businesses in the downtown area at the government-operated Silver Spring Regional Center, said while he hasn’t heard specifically from any businesses about VanGo, he’d like to see an expansion to accommodate downtown residents at night.

‘‘It will get them to a place where they can do some shopping and dining, but you’re not always finished in time to hop on for the trip back,” Tull said. ‘‘I think that’s the big need in the future, particularly since the construction of new residential areas and apartments. It’s a couple of extra blocks to walk from south Silver Spring, and it’s good to have that bus.”

Unlike the Bethesda Circulator, which is operated by a Bethesda nonprofit and funded by profits from the Bethesda Parking District, VanGo is operated by Ride On. Tull and Unger noted that Ride On had other budget priorities, and it would not be easy to immediately create improvements on a free service.

During rush hour on a recent Friday morning, most VanGo riders got off at the Silver Spring Metro station. Some used the stop at Wayne Avenue right outside the Discovery Communications headquarters, but others said they use the VanGo shuttle when they don’t feel like walking to restaurant or shopping areas in extremely hot or cold weather.

‘‘It’s very easy and it’s always on time, so I take it downtown to eat or to meet friends,” said Tatek Teka, who lives in the Bennington Apartments on East West Highway.

The annual operating cost for VanGo is about $470,000, according to Esther Bowring, a county public information officer. But when construction starts on the Paul S. Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Center this fall, VanGo will add a third bus to the route at an additional cost of about $235,000 to help with expected delays.

On Friday, Teka used the VanGo shuttle to go to Tastee Diner on Cameron Street, which would have been a long walk from his apartment. But while Teka said an expansion of VanGo services into the evening hours and weekends is a good idea, he’s satisfied with the present system.

‘‘It’s a good idea, but it’s costly,” Teka said. ‘‘It’s better for us to stick with this procedure because if you extend it, you can take on too many problems.”