Wear: Capital Metro’s growth next year goes beyond the buses

Capital Metro, over the past decade riding a riches-to-rags-to-riches financial roller coaster, in recent years has been cautiously investing at least some of that tax-driven largess into added service.

That will continue next year, but perhaps not on the services you might expect.

According to a preliminary budget plan released last week, hours provided through the transit agency’s menu of options would go up 13 percent next year, including a 7 percent jump in the regular bus service that is the system’s bedrock. Well, sort of. Most of that additional bus service is actually the continuation of more frequent buses added to five routes last month, late in the current fiscal year.

The majority of the 13 percent jump in overall transit hours would come in two specialty services: MetroAccess door-to-door rides for people with certain disabilities, and the agency’s van pool service, which is used by small groups that apply to use an agency vehicle for commuting. The van pool users cover about 40 percent of the costs, Capital Metro officials said last week.

The agency, in a curious mix of optimism and math, predicts that its van pool fleet will increase from 183, as of last week, to 301 by the end of the next fiscal year in September 2016, and it says that 65 percent increase will somehow lead to a 202 percent increase in van pool hours. Agency officials, who now offer the program to people living outside its service area, say they’re basing their prediction on what has been a rapid jump in the number of vans groups over the past year and longer commutes by the van poolers.

Anyway, thanks to a five-year run of rapidly increasing revenue from its 1 percent sales tax, Capital Metro in fiscal 2016 (which begins Oct. 1) will have about $65 million more in tax money to spend than it did in 2010. That year and 2009 were the agency’s recessionary low points. At one particularly dire moment in 2009, the agency had just $4 million in reserves on hand.

By Sept. 30 of this year, the agency’s chief financial officer expects its reserves to be $143.3 million. Quite a change.

But despite calls to ramp up bus service in the wake of light rail’s electoral defeat last year, not all of that stash will go to putting buses on the street for longer hours. During the recession, Capital Metro delayed replacing many of its buses as they reached the recommended retirement age of 12 years. Some of the vehicles on the streets now are a geriatric 15 to 18 years old, Elaine Timbes, the agency’s chief operating officer said last week, which leads to more frequent breakdowns and added maintenance costs.

So the agency is playing catch-up on bus purchases, spending about $23 million next year on bus replacement. Meanwhile, it is spending almost $50 million next year on new MetroRail cars, an expanded downtown station and track improvements in an effort to boost the 5-year-old commuter rail line’s still modest ridership.

The projected tripling of the RideShare program, budgeted to cost Capital Metro $1.5 million this year before the estimated uptick, will carry a cost as well. And the steady increase in the door-to-door, on-demand service for people with disabilities — calls for rides have basically doubled over the past decade — carries a heavy cost. The agency expects to pay more than $25 million this year for about 600,000 rides, or almost $42 each.

But agency officials, other than overseeing the steady shrinkage of the University of Texas shuttle service, have been working to add regular bus service.

Capital Metro created a new type of bus service last year, MetroRapid, with wider stop intervals and souped-up stations, in its two most popular corridors: North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet Road/South Lamar. In June, it increased the frequency of buses on five other regular routes so they now run 15 to 20 minutes apart (that accounts for most of the 90,000-hour increase in bus service in fiscal 2016). And sometime in the summer of 2016, assuming the MoPac Boulevard toll lane project is complete by that time, it will add express routes using those toll lanes. The preliminary budget includes 4,500 hours of service for what would be a quarter of that fiscal year.

Even so, and even accounting for a prudent setting aside of about $70 million for reserve funds (and $26 million still owed to the city of Austin under a long-ago agreement), Capital Metro proposes leaving almost $30 million unspent and uncommitted next year. That money, in theory, could go to still more added bus service, and, given the stagnant ridership numbers, there would seem to be urgency to do so. Most people, those able to afford their own cars, won’t consider riding unless the buses are ubiquitous, comprehensive in geographic coverage and frequent.

Officials with Capital Metro, which depends on the sales tax for more than three-quarters of its revenue, know that it is a capricious form of taxation. Yes, the annual take has jumped on average about $13 million each of the past five years. But there was a three-year dip just before that, and 2001 and 2002 were a rough period as well. The next recession, though perhaps not as severe as the 2008-10 cataclysm, will turn up sooner or later, and then the next one a few years after that.

And the agency’s rail operations figure to take a multimillion-dollar toll. The Federal Railroad Administration is requiring all rail providers over the next few years to install “positive train control,” rigorous systems that allow moment-to-moment tracking of where all trains are in hopes of avoiding crashes. And officials say that same federal agency is considering requiring that each train have two crew members, which would significantly increase MetroRail costs.

And when those new rail cars come in and the extra tracks are ready, Capital Metro plans to double rush-hour MetroRail service. That’ll carry a price tag as well.

When the light rail initiative died at the polls in November, then-Council Member Mike Martinez, at that point Capital Metro’s board chairman, called for creating the best bus system possible. For now, despite all the new money, what is possible remains modest.

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