A divided Capital Metro board on Wednesday approved a bus system makeover that, starting in June, will eliminate 13 routes, significantly reroute 20 others and more than double the number of “frequent” routes with buses showing up at least every 15 minutes.
The new plan, officials with the 32-year-old agency said, amounts to “the most significant changes to the agency’s bus service in its history.”
That vote, made over the objections of many current riders who would find bus stops farther away than they do now, is intended to boost what has been chronically falling Capital Metro ridership by making buses “more useful for more people,” said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro vice president for planning.
Specifically, the agency will go from having six “frequent” routes to 14. The theory is that buses will become more widely accepted and used in Austin, particularly by those who can afford other transportation modes, if they show up so often that a rider has no need to consult a schedule.
The board amended the plan Wednesday to ensure that none of the customers who currently qualify for door-to-door MetroAccess service would lose that right, at least through June 2019. There are 36 such people, officials said Wednesday, riders with disabilities whose homes would no longer be within three-quarters of a mile of a regular bus line once those routes are dropped or moved.
Federal law requires that expensive service — almost $6,500 a year for each of those 36 people — only for those who live within 1.5-mile-wide corridors defined by Capital Metro’s 80 or so bus and rail routes. But the board can choose to provide that service to other people, as it did Wednesday. The annual added cost would be about $215,000 out of Capital Metro’s $250 million operating budget.
The overall bus system makeover, principally because of the additional frequent routes, would add about $10.2 million to the agency’s annual operating cost. That figure was also boosted by four routes that were added back to the plan in recent weeks because of public objections to eliminating them.
The Capital Metro staff, aided by a consultant study completed in February, devised the new plan because other transit agencies around the country have seen ridership increases from adding frequent routes. Capital Metro’s annual ridership, after peaking above 35 million in 2008, fell to just over 30 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Hemingson and other agency officials have said that the new plan would almost double the number of low-income people living within a quarter-mile of a frequent bus line. Currently, about 15 percent of the low-income people within Capital Metro’s service area live that close to a frequent route. Starting June 3, about 27 percent would be that close.
In other words, while there are people who would no longer have bus stops handy to their homes, many more people would be within a five-minute walk of what would be more useful transit service.
But the board at various meetings over the past year has heard from current riders telling them that they would no longer be able to get to work or meet other needs. Some are older or disabled riders who can’t walk appreciable distances.
Board member Terry Mitchell, moments before voting for the plan, said the bus makeover had put his mind “into a knot” because of the push-pull between providing service to current customers and attempting to address the area’s larger transportation challenges. He said that the expanded service will be affordable for the agency only if the area avoids a recession that would lower revenue from Capital Metro’s 1 percent sales tax.
“We’re attempting to do an awful lot with very limited dollars,” said Mitchell, a housing developer.
Board members Delia Garza and Jeff Travillion cast the dissenting votes in the 6-2 decision.
Garza, who is also an Austin City Council member, said that despite what agency officials said were extensive efforts to tell the riding public about the plan, many people nonetheless will be shocked when the routes change in June and will see their lives seriously disrupted.
Travillion, a Travis County commissioner serving in his first meeting on the transit board, said that gentrification of near East Austin has transformed U.S. 183 into “the new I-35,” with low-income people moving farther east to affordable housing. The agency, he said, needs to serve those people who are dependent on transit.
Board Chairman Wade Cooper said the changes, “while not perfect, will do an awful lot of good for an awful lot of people.”