Can Capital Metro give commuters bus service that fits their needs?

There are many solid recommendations in Capital Metro’s proposed makeover of its bus system, called Connections 2025, that could greatly improve bus routes and boost lagging ridership.

The challenge for Capital Metro, however, is getting them done timely enough to meet the mobility needs of a public more willing to give public transit a try in Austin’s ever worsening congestion — but only if bus service is efficient, reliable and user-friendly.

The plan still needs a public education component. Not even the best system will work at its full potential if too many people are in the dark about how to use it. Public transit can be confusing and intimidating for people who have never used it or only use it periodically. That has been a barrier for many Central Texans in using Capital Metro’s current bus routes.

At this point, Capital Metro has a lopsided system in which bus service in some portions of the Austin area is working well, with buses that run every 15 minutes, are reliable in reaching their destinations on time and offer affordable fares and seamless connections with other transit. But that is not the case for bus routes in other parts of the transit agency’s service area, where routes are infrequent, less reliable and circuitous.

Such factors no doubt have contributed to Capital Metro’s double-digit ridership decline, down by 20 percent over the past four years — from about 130,000 boardings a day in 2012 to just over 100,000 a day this spring, the American-Statesman’s Ben Wear recently reported. That trend happened as the region’s population ballooned to 2 million; happened as roadways became ever more clogged; happened at the very time people should be turning to public transit. Consider that the state lists Interstate 35, which runs through Austin’s downtown, as one of its most congested roadways.

Certainly there are factors beyond the transit agency’s control, such as lower gas prices, that negatively impact its ridership. But that kind of drop is an indication of a larger problem. We’re encouraged that the agency is not making excuses but working to fix its problems.

With limited resources, the challenge of upgrading the system pits two goals against one another: Investing in bus routes aimed at maximizing ridership in key corridors or providing widespread coverage that makes bus stops more available in single-family neighborhoods or other low-density areas.

To that point, the plan recommends that some routes be scaled back, consolidated or eliminated to accommodate the build-out of a frequent service network, which Capital Metro officials say, would put over half a million people within a half-mile of a frequent bus route. That would be a big improvement, if the agency can pull it off.

Capital Metro plans to do that by increasing the number of high-frequency routes, from 6 to 17. Those routes would run buses that show up at stops every 15 minutes or less. The plan also calls for doubling the number of MetroRapid routes and increasing frequency on that service to every 7 to 10 minutes during peak travel times.

Riders would get six different service options, including high-frequency and rapid transit routes, as well as local bus service connecting most neighborhoods to high-frequency routes and major destinations. Park-and-ride service also would be available, as well as community transit that provides circulator routes to serve certain areas and communities. MetroRail also is part of the mix.

The Connections 2025 report also says Capital Metro should add more east-to-west service, make its routes straighter and thus more comprehensible, and work with the city to create more “transit priority” lanes, which are largely reserved for buses. There are only two such lanes in Austin, on Lavaca and Guadalupe streets downtown. Recommendations also covered fares, saying that the agency should have two fare levels instead of the current three.

Something to keep in mind going forward is that the plan is not yet finalized. Capital Metro will hold nine community open houses Sept. 6 through Sept. 16 to get public input. Revisions will be made based on that input, and the Capital Metro board is expected to vote on a final draft in November.

There’s something positive to be said for Capital Metro’s timing in overhauling its bus system and the synergy in play regarding regional mobility.

In November, Austin voters will consider a $720 million transportation bond package, a portion of which would finance bus pull-outs on major corridors, so drivers don’t get stuck behind a bus, and special signals for transit, so the bus can get back into traffic quickly.

In January, Capital Metro buses are slated to start express bus routes on toll lanes coming to MoPac Boulevard. Plans call for express bus routes on U.S. 290 to Elgin, as well. Similarly, the planned toll lanes for Interstate 35, when completed at some time in the future, will have Capital Metro express bus routes.

As it continues finalizing its bus overhaul, we would caution the transit agency to be strategic. Trying to be all things to all communities has resulted in running empty or near-empty buses at the expense of improving service in places that make sense, such as near major employers, shopping centers, colleges and universities and suburbs, which daily empty tens of thousands of cars onto Austin roadways. So stay the course.

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