Cap Metro, fighting ridership slump, nears an overhaul of bus system

1:38 p.m Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 Local
Suzanne Majors Davis
Riders board Capital Metro’s No. 30 bus, which runs on one of the routes that would be realigned under the Connections 2025 plan before the transit agency’s board of directors.

Capital Metro, beset by several years of falling ridership, is about to take a sharp turn.

The transit agency board late this month will likely approve a Connections 2025 plan that calls for eliminating, replacing, rerouting or changing the frequency of all but three of the agency’s 80 or so bus routes over the next couple of years.

The point would be to emphasize increasing ridership over providing broad, if inefficient, coverage. The frequency of buses arriving, now spaced as much as 45 minutes to an hour apart, would be tightened, with a goal of most buses showing up every 10 to 15 minutes on weekdays.

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Todd Hemingson, the agency’s longtime vice president of strategic planning and development, said the agency has been in something of a “death spiral” in recent years. Falling ridership has suppressed revenue, both from fares and federal grants, which then lead to being able to offer less bus service — which then brought on yet more ridership losses, and so on.

“When this sort of trend starts to happen, it tends to feed on itself,” Hemingson told the Capital Metro board at a Friday morning meeting, “and it is not a good thing.”

Instead, by providing frequent and better targeted service, Hemingson and the Connections 2025 consultants predict the agency could initiate a “virtuous cycle”: increased ridership, leading to more community acceptance and revenue, funding more service and perhaps generating public support for controversial policy decisions such as creating more bus-only lanes, which again would boost ridership by facilitating speedier service.

The plan predicts that overall ridership, languishing last year at 30.5 million boardings (a 10.8 percent decrease since 34.2 million in 2013 and roughly equally to Capital Metro’s 1997 ridership), could grow to 42.1 million annually within a decade if the changes it recommends are made.

Among the highlights of the innumerable suggested changes in the plan, which can be found at http://connections2025.org/draft-plan, are:

• Several areas that currently generate extremely light ridership — below a Capital Metro standard of 15 boardings for each hour of service on the road — would find themselves without service. That includes many areas west of MoPac Boulevard that aren’t considered transit-friendly.

• Forty-six routes would have different routes or more frequency or different operating hours.

• Thirty routes would be replaced, discontinued or consolidated with other existing routes. That would include all five “night owl” routes, whose service would be taken up by the 801 and 803 rapid bus routes, as well as a new rapid route, the 820. And three University of Texas shuttle routes would be gone, with overall hours for that service reduced by about 40 percent.

• Fourteen new routes would be created, including three rapid bus routes and three “shuttle” routes in the city’s core. One would prowl Congress Avenue from the Capitol through the South Congress entertainment district, while another east-route route would go between the Austin Convention Center and the Seaholm Power Plant area.

• The creation of seven “mobility innovation zones” in areas of low ridership. Pilot programs in these areas could provide something other than regular bus service, perhaps using ride-hailing services or shuttle services such as Chariot.

The Capital Metro board, after what could be some final tweaks to the plan, is scheduled to take final action on it Feb. 27. Hemingson emphasized that even that action wouldn’t close or create any new routes, instead those decisions would be made during the “service changes” that Capital Metro tends to do in January, June and August of each year.

But he also said that much of the system change would be complete by June 2018, just 16 months from now.

“We have to make sure we have a financially sustainable system,” Hemingson said. “In a world of many mobility choices, we need to be competitive. And frequency (of service) is one of the best ways to do that.”

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