Randy Clarke will work his first day as president and chief executive officer of Capital Metro on Wednesday, taking over a transit agency with $185 million in the bank, falling ridership, a single rail line in the midst of an expansion and a looming June makeover of its bus system likely to unnerve many of the agency’s most steadfast customers.
Clarke, 40, who is leaving a job at the American Public Transportation Association, spoke to the American-Statesman about the challenges and opportunities awaiting him in Texas. What follows is that conversation, edited for space.
Welcome to Austin. So, tell me how you envision your first week on the job, and your first month?
The first week will be rather intense. Day one, I’ll be taking the bus in to work, and we’re going to do a little (press conference) at Republic Square. I have a lot of meetings set up the first week with big community stakeholders, city people, board members. And, of course, meeting with my senior team and the employees, digging into the details of the operation.
We’re also putting together a couple of events that first week to get out and meet customers … to engage and learn how they’re experiencing the service. The fourth day leads right into South by Southwest, one of the big events for us the whole year.
What do you consider the agency’s chief strengths?
There’s a good culture of innovation. Capital Metro was one of the first agencies in transit to have a really good app for customers, for example, and then there are the innovation zones (lower-demand areas where Capital Metro will tailor services). And there is a dedicated funding source. Is it enough for all the needs of the community? Probably not. But at least it helps create some type of fiscally sustainable framework. And I’ve been pretty impressed with the staff. Not just their knowledge and experience, but also the dedication and belief in what they do.
What about its greatest vulnerability?
The fiscal side is also a bit of an Achilles heel, because it is so based on the (1 percent) sales tax. So major recession periods have impacts, and we will not have enough funding to do all the things the community clearly is eager for. If we want to grow mobility options, we’re going to have to look at other funding sources.
Transit’s market share in Central Texas commuting has generally been well below 5 percent, and falling over the past 20 years. Is this endemic to a post-World War II, heavily suburbanized metro area? Or can transit’s share of the pie here be increased?
Americans’ love of the automobile is there, no question about that. Gas prices are cheap again. And you can borrow money at incredibly low rates right now, so automobile sales the last few years have been very, very high. With that said, ridership is one metric, but it isn’t a metric that should determine if transit is valuable or not. One person going five blocks in the car is not equal to a single mom getting to a job to help raise her two kids. Or getting an elderly person to a medical appointment on a bus when otherwise they wouldn’t have an option. There’s a larger, holistic community benefit that transit provides.
But ridership can definitely grow in Austin, there’s no doubt about it. Austin has to come to a decision about what it wants to be for the future. I’m a big believer that you can’t build your way out of congestion with roads. There are 1.9 million people now and (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization)’s prediction is that by 2040 there might be 4 million. That’s double the population, and I would think that you can’t double the road network, nor should you. Slowly but surely the public is starting to come to a general realization that high-capacity, dedicated transit corridors are the ways that prosperous cities work for everyone.
Capital Metro has been engaged in Project Connect (studying high-capacity transit options) for over a year, and a map showing a potential Central Austin light rail line recently got out. How realistic is light rail for Austin, given the local, state and federal funding picture?
Could light rail happen? There’s no question it could. But instead of letting the mode be the tail that wags the dog, let’s all agree first on what we want the dog to do. Are we trying to create north-south links? East-west links for health care, for education, for jobs? Light rail moves a lot of people, but also is fairly expensive. At the same time, bus rapid transit may be cheaper but less scalable for future growth. There’s a lot more work we have to do to agree on the corridors to dedicate for high-capacity transit for the community. Then we can figure out if it’s going to be steel or rubber tires.
There’s going to be three factors one way or another: It’s going to be autonomous, it’s going to be connected, and it’s going to be electric. If all of that happens, at a certain point there’s not a lot of difference between light rail and bus rapid transit.
Your experience at the Boston transit agency (from 2009 to 2016) included trying to keep an aged transit system in good repair, and the New York subway system’s maintenance problems have been much in the news. What is your evaluation of the condition of Capital Metro’s infrastructure?
When you build something, you have to make sure you have the money to keep it in the right condition. Overall, Capital Metro is in good shape, especially on the rail side. It’s really pretty young. And we’re working with our freight (contractor) on track renewal. We have a big signal program underway.
On the bus side, they’re expensive and get a lot of miles. Overall, my take is that Capital Metro seems to be pretty good on that. But I plan on digging into the details a lot more.
The June service changes, with added frequent-service routes and about half the agency’s bus routes changed or eliminated, could cause a stir as riders adjust. Is dealing with that job one in the beginning for you?
Outside of getting to know people in the community, no question. It’s a lot more than people realize, all that way from training operators to moving signs to updating apps. All of our staff is blocked out from vacations during that time period. The agency is taking it incredibly seriously. Change is hard. But I think most people will end up really liking the service changes. And it is going to create a lot more mobility options for them. This has happened in multiple cities across the country, and most every city has seen a dramatically beneficial outcome.
What is your thinking about the balance between providing broad coverage for transit-dependent riders, and increasing frequency on main routes to boost ridership overall?
I really don’t think it’s one versus the other. Clearly, high-capacity corridors are needed in a thriving city, especially one that is becoming more dense in those corridors. At the same time … we need to serve different people in the community, not just because they might not have an option, but because it’s the right thing to do.
But not every person needs to be served with the same mode or same type of technology. We don’t need to be running a 40-foot bus at 11 o’clock at night with two people on it. This is the whole new challenge of mobility, to think about outcomes and different services, getting out of the old box of transit that there are bus and trains and paratransit and that’s it.
There’s a lot of talk in the transit industry – including sometimes from Capital Metro board members – about some sort of fundamental change in transit service being in the offing. What form might that take, and how likely are we to see that sort of seismic shift during your first years here?
You’re going to hear me talking a lot about mobility as a service. We’re the original ride-share. If you get a single Uber trip, you’re not a ride-share. You’re replicating a taxi through an app. But transit is going to have to continue to evolve, probably more rapidly than it ever has. And Austin is poised to be one of the leaders in the industry of doing that. That’s why I’m so grateful for the opportunity.
Capital Metro by the numbers
Fiscal 2017 ridership: 29.95 million, down 1.7 percent from fiscal 2016.
Services: 83 bus routes, including UT shuttles, 32-mile MetroRail commuter rail line, door-to-door services for people with qualifying disabilities, and registered van pools.
Fiscal 2018 budget: $262.4 million for operations, $156.7 million for capital projects.