Cap Metro considers bus system overhaul offered by consultant

Capital Metro, beset by ebbing ridership in an evolving Austin, is considering a significant overhaul of its bus system.

That makeover, presented in draft form Monday by a consultant to the Capital Metro board, would include nearly tripling the agency’s “frequent” bus network, with 17 routes showing up at stops every 15 minutes or less. That roster would include four MetroRapid routes, doubling the current number.

The consultant, San Diego-based Transportation Management & Design, also recommends that the agency have two fare levels, rather than the current three, eliminating the higher, “premium” fare charged for MetroRapid. That would allow riders to transfer more easily from local routes to MetroRapid buses.

The consultant in its Connections 2025 report said Capital Metro should add more east-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. Dedicating lanes for bus use generally means a loss of lanes for cars and trucks, other than for right turns.

“It’s more frequent, it’s more reliable, and it is more connected,” consultant Russ Chisholm said of what his company is recommending.

Chisholm’s other recommendations include express bus routes in the toll lanes coming to MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and on U.S. 290 to Elgin, and “rapid transit” on Interstate 35, which officials said would be comparable to express bus service but with a handful of stops along the highway. This service would run on I-35 toll lanes that won’t be built for several years.

Some of the changes could be put in place as soon as January, while others might take several years because, in the case of MetroRapid, they involve buying customized buses and building special bus stops with automation used by that service. That would take time and substantial capital spending that is not necessarily in Capital Metro’s long-range plan right now.

Chisholm said the plan his company has proposed could be done by spending at most 7 percent more on operations than Capital Metro spends now and expects in coming years, and that a “tuneup” of the plan could close that gap. Several existing routes, including the No. 1, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 20, would be eliminated or severely curtailed to divert those bus hours to more frequent service. But the plan includes adding MetroRapid stops to make them a quarter-mile to a half-mile apart (half the current spacing), a change that the consultant estimates would put 82 percent of Capital Metro’s current customers within a 10-minute walk of a stop.

The proposal by Transportation Management & Design is posted at The plan will be the subject of nine community open houses Sept. 6 through Sept. 16. The consultant will alter the plan, based on community and Capital Metro board comments, and the board is expected to vote on a final draft in November.

Officials said the North MoPac express bus line could come on line as early as January and that other changes in the frequent bus service could occur by August 2017.

Capital Metro hired the consultant in September 2015, at a contract price of $466,500, to provide recommendations for the next five years and ideas for the five years after that.

Capital Metro’s ridership has fallen more than 20 percent in the past four years, from about 130,000 boardings a day in 2012 to just over 100,000 a day this spring. The agency attributes the drop to many causes, including lower gas prices, higher fares, fewer University of Texas students taking transit because they can walk or bike from closer West Campus housing developments, and the migration of lower-income riders to the suburbs because of rapidly increasing housing price.

Houston Metro in August 2015 put into place a complete restructuring of its bus system, emphasizing frequent and simplified bus routes. Transit agencies, including Capital Metro, have to weigh whether to design their bus routes to maximize ridership on key corridors or provide the sort of widespread route system that makes the bus stops more handy. Houston opted to emphasis ridership over coverage.

The changes were initially disruptive, with some Houstonians finding that bus routes they had depended on no longer existed or were farther away from their home or work. But Houston Metro has seen ridership gains.

Total system ridership, including the city’s light rail system, went up 7 percent, or about 15,700 boardings a day, between October 2015 and June 2016, compared with the same nine months a year earlier. Ridership on its local bus routes was up 2.3 percent during that same period.

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