Capital Metro at a crossroads as it winnows routes, considers impact

5:09 p.m Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Local
Capital Metro officials expected to see increasing ridership last year after a several-year slump in boardings. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN

So, is Capital Metro a transportation utility? A social service?

Both?

As the transit agency and its board wrestle what would be the most sweeping bus route changes in its 32-year history, and face a vote on those changes Nov. 15, the underlying debate is about what Capital Metro’s mission should be. And what it can be, given the available money. The discussion among the board, staff and the public (or, at least, the small slice that is participating in that debate) has an unusual urgency to it.

And it should, given the transit system’s falling-to-stagnant ridership. The agency’s relevance, due to its shrinking share of the transportation market, seems to be at stake.

RELATED: Capital Metro’s plan for more frequent routes will leave some behind

First, some numbers, some of which regular readers will recognize.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Capital Metro had about 30.4 million boardings, or about 83,000 a day. That average includes very low ridership on weekends, so the weekday boardings (when the roads are most choked) are closer to 100,000. But, given that most transit riders are taking round trips, we’re talking about something like 50,000 people in a city of almost 950,000 people and a metropolitan area of close to 2 million people.

Capital Metro ridership, after trending gently upward for a while, has fallen in recent years and now is actually slightly lower than it was in 1997. The agency’s operating budget that year — supported then as now primarily by a 1 percent sales tax on purchases within its service area, rather than fares — was about $70 million. And Austin’s population — the city has the bulk of the people within Capital Metro’s service area — was right near 577,000.

The operating budget this fiscal year will be around $260 million.

So, the ridership is right where it was 20 years ago, while the budget has grown 270 percent and the population has gone up 64 percent. As Capital Metro board Chairman Wade Cooper put it this summer, the public will only stand for that trend for so long. That it has stood for it this long is a testament mostly to the invisibility of Capital Metro’s sales tax — people don’t tend to notice they’re paying 8.25 percent on purchases, or have any idea what portion of that goes to which government — and to the agency’s low profile.

RELATED: Why Cap Metro ridership has been declining

And perhaps the public is tolerant with funding that social service role. Many people who never ride a Capital Metro bus or train might simply accept a civic financial responsibility for providing transportation for people with no other choice. For those, in other words, who can’t afford a car or can’t operate one (or a bicycle) or walk places, due to disability.

But Capital Metro officials, and transit advocates in general, have long seen the agency as having the potential and the responsibility to do more, to lure Central Texans out of their cars in a meaningful way. Why does this matter to them? Air quality, mostly, it would seem. But all because of a general belief in urbanism and density, both in housing and in the distance between butts sitting in seats on the way to work or home, or wherever.

Buses and trains, in this world view, are just better than cars occupied by a single person. Obvious to any thinking person, right?

But, as the numbers make clear, a smaller and smaller percentage of Central Texans have been choosing the transit option. Gas prices are low, people are employed, and there are increasingly other options such as ride-hailing services, bike lanes and working from home. And that’s where the proposed route makeover to take effect in June — 16 of the 82 current routes would be eliminated completely and fewer than half would be unchanged — comes in.

SEE IT FOR YOURSELF: Details of the proposed route changes

The Capital Metro staff, mostly following the dictates of a half-a-million-dollar consultant study approved by the agency’s board in February, wants to emphasize bus frequency over broad coverage. Fourteen routes, drawing something of a north-south and east-west grid over Austin and some near suburbs, would have service seven days a week that would show up every 15 minutes. The idea is that more of those “choice riders,” people who have a car, would ride the bus instead because it would be just so dang handy.

But Capital Metro, while it has something like $150 million banked in reserves, says all of its money is pretty much spoken for. Though agency leaders are willing to increase bus and rail service somewhat — service hours would go up 9 percent in the first full budget year after the system overhaul takes effect in June — there is a fiscal limit, they say.

That means that, if that skeleton of routes is going to run more frequently, and on more days, some current, lightly ridden routes have to go. Which is what is causing an outcry from those losing service, and the current debate in the last few weeks before the board has to vote.

At least some board members, particularly elected officials, have made it clear in recent weeks that they won’t stand for people losing services, or being a cumbersome walk away from newly instituted service. The staff has already added back in some routes — the No. 30 near West Lake Hills, the No. 19 in Northwest Hills, the No. 322 in Northeast Austin — and more could follow. Regular riders of the agency’s door-to-door MetroAccess service who might lose service because of the changes — there are about three dozen affected, officials say — likely will have their service grandfathered.

There will be another public hearing before the board Wednesday, with more emotional testimony.

But it appears that the bones of the proposal — the frequent routes, the added days — will stick. Perhaps to some degree Capital Metro can be both the social service and the transportation utility, at least as long as the sales tax continues to grow a few million dollars a year.

Will this change the overall picture by growing ridership appreciably? That’s far from clear, as I reported last week. Houston did a similar makeover and, after an initial surge in boardings, two years later has ridership at or below what it had before the changes.

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