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Council approves pilot program to use electric vehicles

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Two years after Capital Metro discontinued free Dillo service downtown, City Council approved two measures at their Thursday meeting to fill in service gaps along or near two former Dillo routes with low-speed electric vehicles. The first measure amends city code to establish regulations of the operation of electric vehicles for hire, and the second authorizes the implementation of a pilot program to allow those vehicles to operate through Sept. 30, 2012.


On Sept. 30, 2010, Council directed the city manager to conduct a ground transportation study – including taxis, pedicabs, and low-speed electric vehicles – to service downtown transportation needs. The result, the Comprehensive Transportation Study, which was presented to the Urban Transportation Commission on Sept. 20 of this year, calls for two jitney-style routes, one east/west and one north/south, similar to the former Dillo routes, to serve downtown bus stops, taxis stands, and off-street parking facilities.


According to the resolution approved Thursday, a pilot program “will allow the city to collect data and monitor the safety of the vehicles and their integration into the current transportation system downtown before creating a permanent set of comprehensive regulations.” 


The resolution’s sponsor, Council Member Chris Riley, called the pilot program an “interesting experiment” that could improve the “whole holistic transportation program we have here in Austin.”


Co-sponsor Council Member Mike Martinez said he supports the report’s call for north-south, east/west jitney service but said he wants to make sure the Transportation Department, as it moves forward with the pilot program, has the “flexibility to amend the routes as demand and safety and other considerations come into account.”


In particular, Martinez said, he wants to make sure at least one of the routes goes across I-35 to the east side, “where there’s another train stop, and two, another entertainment district.”


Transportation Department Assistant Director Gordon Derr responded that the department will have all the flexibility it needs when it is evaluating applications for the pilot period. The application, which, Derr said, the department hopes to present to the Urban Transportation Committee at their meeting tomorrow, would require that companies interested in supplying electric vehicle service provide their proposed routes, schedules and frequencies of operation, and proposed fare structures.


“Basically, anyone can come in and apply for a route with fixed stops,” Derr told Council. “During the pilot period, we want to have flexibility to see what works. We have that flexibility.”


Derr said he anticipates a “best-case” timeline where applications are due by Nov. 1, staff makes its decision on those applications by Dec. 1, and operations begin in January of next year. Staff will present their recommendations on the pilot program to Council sometime next October, most likely.


When asked by Council Member Bill Spelman how the department will make its recommendations after the pilot program is complete, Derr listed several criteria, including data concerning ridership and the number of accidents and incidents. “Anything else unusual that we need to know, it will be the responsibility of the operating authority to provide that data,” Derr said. “So we’ll have at the end of the pilot period a good picture.”


In addition to the information provided by the operators, the Transportation Department will be using staff inspectors and a regulatory inspector to determine the value of the program and each operator involved with it. “Evening parking enforcement officers will also be trained to identify irregularities going on,” said Derr. 


“Is there a means of verifying that the information you’re getting from the operators is accurate,” Spelman asked. It was a question which Derr seemed at a loss to answer.


“Let us sit and think about that,” he said.


Council voted unanimously in favor of the pilot program and approved the ordinance amending city code on first reading, with a directive to staff to clarify language regarding the equipment criteria for participating vehicles, such as rack-and-pinion steering, disc brakes, and a volt or amp meter.


Council will consider that item on second and third reading at its Oct. 20 meeting.

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