- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Capital Metro President and CEO Linda Watson has announced she will retire at the end of this year after more than seven years running the Austin-area transit agency.
Capital Metro board Chairman Wade Cooper said the board plans to launch a national search for the agency’s next leader. That next Capital Metro chief — the 12th chief executive in the agency’s 32 years — will face falling ridership and a transit industry puzzling over its place in period of transportation innovation.
“Capital Metro is developing a plan to look at bus electrification and autonomous vehicles,” said Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who also serves on the Capital Metro board. “I will be looking for leadership in a challenging time. We’re kind of past due in getting the transit system that a city of this size needs.”
That includes a further, serious look at expanding rail, said former Capital Metro board member John Langmore, who was on the board that hired Watson in August 2010. And the agency’s new leader, he said, will need to be a strong voice in revisiting rail after voters rejected one plan in 2014.
“The rail issue has not really been resolved,” Langmore said, noting that Capital Metro is in the middle of a study of “high-capacity transit” that could include the prospect of rail beyond the existing MetroRail commuter line. “Either move it forward, or say it’s not going to happen in Austin. But don’t let it languish and be in purgatory forever.”
Watson, meanwhile, will be in full-fledged retirement, traveling and painting and spending time with a North Carolina grandchild. Watson, who has a base salary of $285,218, turns 65 before her Dec. 31 departure date.
“It has been my honor and privilege to serve this community and Capital Metro,” Watson said in a prepared statement. “I’m incredibly proud of our team and what we have accomplished together, and am confident that this organization and its employees are well-positioned to tackle the challenging transportation issues facing Central Texas.”
Picked to pick up the pieces
Watson won the job in August 2010 at a critical time in the agency’s turbulent history. The agency only the year before had been slapped on the hand by the Legislature, which for the second time since Capital Metro’s 1985 creation had forced local leaders to in effect fire the previous board and appoint a new one with new criteria for the eight positions.
The agency, which had expected to complete the MetroRail project by 2008, instead opened it two years later in March 2010. It had depleted its financial reserves, which went from more than $200 million just after the turn of the century to a dangerously low $4 million at one point. The agency also owed the city of Austin as much as $85 million based on agreements and promises made after a failed light rail election in 2000. And it had experienced labor turmoil for several years, including two short strikes, based on an unusual structure that involved “outsourcing” its bus driver and mechanic services to what was really an internal arm of the agency.
The new board picked Watson to pick up the pieces.
Watson oversaw a major shrinkage of the organization, with those driver and mechanic jobs being contracted out to genuinely private companies. And the agency, with sales taxes on an upward trajectory virtually throughout Watson’s time at Capital Metro, replenished its financial reserves. At one point, before the agency dipped into the bank for various deferred needs such as bus purchases, those reserves exceeded $100 million.
“Under Ms. Watson’s leadership, every aspect of Capital Metro has dramatically improved,” Cooper said in a statement. “She has been very successful in putting together a great team dedicated to quality service, and she has been a good steward of public resources.”
Watson, Langmore said, “was the right person at the right time, and she did a truly great job” of repairing the agency’s functioning and its public image.
Transit of the future
The agency in recent years launched two “rapid bus” lines through the heart of the city, buying special buses and installing upgraded bus stops for what it hoped would be a popular service. It hasn’t been, with ridership in the major North Lamar Boulevard/South Congress corridor falling significantly.
Ridership overall has been a problem in recent years, dropping nearly 11 percent between 2013 and 2016. Agency officials have pointed to several years of low fuel prices, which have encouraged people to use their cars rather than mass transit, as well as competition from ride-hailing services and a hollowing out of its lower income customer base because of increasingly high housing prices in the core of Austin.
Watson and her staff hired consultants to look at the situation, and they have begun putting in place a redesign of the bus system that emphasizes frequent bus service on major corridors over broad geographic coverage. The results of that changed focus won’t be known for some time.
The agency, with the help of federal and state grants, is well into an expansion of MetroRail, with four added rail cars undergoing testing, planned added passing track at several locations and a larger downtown station under design. Those changes will allow the agency within the next couple of years to double the frequency of rush-hour service.
And under Watson, the agency has begun to reach agreements with some suburban cities that aren’t a part of its service area, such as Round Rock, to provide bus services in those communities.