Concerns remain as Capital Metro board weighs bus system overhaul


Highlights

Capital Metro board Wednesday could vote on sweeping bus system changes pushing frequency over broad coverage.

But some board members worry that those dependent on transit service would be left behind.

Capital Metro has seen ridership declines for several years as Austin and its transportation options change.

Capital Metro’s bus system overhaul, which seeks to boost ridership by more than doubling the number of high-frequency routes while dropping some regular ones, comes to the transit agency’s board Wednesday for possible approval having undergone something of an overhaul itself.

Those numerous tweaks in the plan, the agency asserts in a newly released “equity analysis” required under federal civil rights law, have softened or eliminated the plan’s negative effect on neighborhoods with significant percentages of minority and low-income residents. Those revisions came over the past few months as customers, drivers and the agency’s own board of directors offered their critiques of the new plan.

“The potential disparate impacts are mitigated on almost all of the eliminated routes,” the analysis says, “as these routes will be replaced or served by one or multiple new or changed routes. Similarly, most of the modified routes will be replaced or served by one or multiple routes.”

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

Furthermore, by increasing the frequency of bus service on eight routes — giving Capital Metro a total of 14 “frequent” routes with buses coming every 15 minutes during daylight and evening hours — the new plan will better serve some minority and low-income customers, the analysis says.

The plan, which originally would have eliminated 17 of Capital Metro’s 80 or so routes and significantly modified 22 others, now eliminates 13 and modifies 20.

And instead of adding five routes, the plan now adds seven.

The changes, which would go into effect in June if approved by the Capital Metro board, would increase the agency’s annual operations cost by more than $10.2 million. Agency officials hope that investment will reverse Cap Metro’s years of persistent ridership losses, with buses now coming so frequently that people can catch one without a long wait or advance planning.

The board Wednesday will take a last look at the plan, and yet more changes could be tacked on. Or, potentially, the board could delay a decision, given that the proposed system changes are still seven months away.

At least one board member, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who joined the board only last month, said Tuesday that the plan’s emphasis on cost benefit over community benefit, on frequency of service in the city’s core over route coverage of outlying areas where many transit-dependent people live, doesn’t sit well with him.

“The most important priority for me is need,” Travillion said. “If we first address the areas where transit is needed for everyday operations — getting to dialysis, to work, to day care and to the grocery store — and have that as our core, then we can start thinking about other areas of convenience. I want to make sure we have solutions for problems that we know are on the ground.”

HOW WE GOT HERE: Cap Metro, fighting ridership slump, nears an overhaul of bus system

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, also a member of the transit board, said that in particular she will be pushing for restoration of the No. 21 and No. 22 route combination, which trace a rough rectangle between Tarrytown, downtown and near East Austin.

Kitchen contends that the board, in approving a broad system blueprint in February called Connections 2025, had told the Capital Metro staff that certain routes would be taken out only after a plan for an “innovation zone” and replacement service had been worked out. Those innovation zones, in Tarrytown and elsewhere, remain only an intention at this point.

“I’m not going to vote for cutting that service until we go through the process,” Kitchen said. “I have remaining concerns about a number of different areas.”

That includes door-to-door, “paratransit” service for people whose disabilities make it difficult for them to use regular bus routes. Federal disability law requires transit agencies to provide such rides, which come at great cost to the agency, for people whose homes lie within a quarter-mile of a regular bus route. The dropped or altered routes that Capital Metro originally had in mind would have put about 90 current paratransit customers outside those geographic corridors.

That number is now down to about 34, Kitchen said.

“I’m going to propose just grandfathering those folks,” she said. And unlike some board members — who have indicated that the continued service for those customers might be temporary, at a cost of about $215,000 a year — Kitchen wants no time limit.



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