May 8, 2024 - News

Des Moines hires New York company to rethink its metro transit future

Illustration of a city bus that says "Next Stop."

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The city of Des Moines last month hired a New York-based company to study DART routes and recommend a "multimodal transit vision" for the metro, according to records obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: Via Transportation is behind some of the biggest reforms in recent public transit history across the country.

  • The company recently helped Wilson, North Carolina, for example, park all its buses and launch a publicly subsidized on-demand van service, the AP reports.

Catch up fast: DART has for years wrestled with operational costs, warning recently of a possible 40% service reduction if the agency doesn't shore up its finances.

  • The regional service is made up of about a dozen metro communities with DSM being the largest.

Yes, but: Most cuts were avoided in the next two fiscal years thanks to a $3.6 million award from the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and extra money contributed by the city.

What they're doing: Via will use DART's recent Transit Optimization Study to identify opportunities to provide coverage in hard to serve areas both through on-demand and fixed route models, according to its contract with the city.

  • The review will develop a regional concept "with a focus on the city of DSM."

Context: City Manager Scott Sanders in a December press statement said DART failed to deliver on years of DSM's requests for revised service plans.

  • Sanders signed the $35,000 contract with Via on April 19, which Mayor Connie Boesen mentioned at a DART meeting a few days later.

Friction point: Urbandale City Council member and DART board member Bridget Carberry Montgomery voiced concern during that meeting about a "significant conflict of interest" for Via, which already provides on-demand support services to DART and other Iowa transit agencies.

  • "So they're going to want to have on-demand service as part of what they give you," Carberry Montgomery said.

The other side: Boesen said the city was trying to be transparent and help find long-term solutions.

Behind the scenes: Carberry Montgomery tells Axios that she would prefer a metro-wide solution rather than one with a focus on one city or area, like the DSM-funded Via study.

The intrigue: DART staff is not directly involved with Via's study but will work with the company to provide information, spokesperson Erin Hockman tells Axios.

  • Via completes multiple consultations for cities or transit agencies every month and goes into each project as "transit mode-agnostic," spokesperson Sara-Jessica Dilks tells Axios.
  • The goal isn't to cannibalize bus routes but compliment or extend their reach by using on-demand as Via helped cities like St. Louis do, Dilks says.

What's next: Via's work will take about four months to complete.

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