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Travis County Commissioners scold Capital Metro for lack of services

Thursday, July 24, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is seeking $160,000 annually in Travis County money to establish a flex bus route in East Austin, Vice President Todd Hemingson told Travis County Commissioners Tuesday. However, County Commissioners did not receive the news, or a briefing of current transit options, with open arms.

Commissioners Margaret Gómez and Ron Davis asked Capital Metro to educate the county on its service areas after a July 1 meeting discussing a plan for population growth and transit options in unincorporated areas of the county.

The county’s Growth Guidance Plan, approved for public review and comment at the meeting earlier this month, was intended to create high-density, low-impact transit areas with the idea of limiting car use and heightening the use of public transportation. During the meeting, Commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Gómez were concerned that these future growth areas would not get sufficient public transportation from Capital Metro, mentioning that transportation was needed now, despite a lack of population density. (See Austin Monitor, July 2)

Hemingson said Tuesday that Capital Metro takes many different factors into account when planning service routes. Those include where people are traveling and for what purpose, how many people are using the service, what kind of service will meet the public need, how the service will be funded and what the cost will be and whether any community will be harmed by establishing a service route.

Hemingson said already-established basic infrastructure, like well-paved roads, streetlights, safe pedestrian and bicycle crossings, also plays a role in determining a transit route.

Capital Metro currently provides service in Austin, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Manor, Point Venture, San Leanna, Volente and portions of Travis County and Williamson County that are part of the urbanized Austin area. Each member jurisdiction voted to join the transit authority and support services with a one-penny sales tax.

The transit authority is also looking at partnering with areas within the county but beyond these jurisdictions, where no sales tax is collected.

“There’s large amounts of area that don’t have the land use that traditionally is associated with being supportive of fixed route transit,” Hemingson said.

However, he said, establishing a new service route could take six months to a year if Capital Metro assesses there is enough population density to warrant services.

Gómez said that model presents a problem. There are areas where tax is being collected and a singular route has been established, like a Del Valle route that runs near the Circuit of the Americas race track, but other transit routes are not available for taxpayers who need it, Gómez said.

“If they (Capital Metro) don’t see the density, they are not going to provide the service. We can’t leave people stranded without some kind of form of transportation,” she said. “We can’t leave people out just because of numbers. They’re paying the sales tax already and usually we assume that when people pay a tax that they’re going to get something in return.”

Daugherty said the density of an area shouldn’t make any difference if Capital Metro is already collecting sales tax in a specific area.

Davis said the Woodland Hills subdivision in East Austin is also such an area, and doesn’t get needed bus services from Capital Metro. “It is an outcry and I think it is a shame,” he said with raised voice. “Your service is not there for the people that need it the most. It appears that you’ve turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the folks that deserve this kind of service.”

Davis also mentioned sending multiple letters to Capital Metro and receiving no response.

For the new East Austin flex route, which offers some bus deviation due to passenger need, Hemingson said Capital Metro is looking for funding through the county’s community development block program and is planning to have the route available by January 2015.

Gómez asked for consideration of a flex plan for southeastern parts of the county as well. Commissioner Bruce Todd requested Capital Metro look into more partnerships to provide service to unincorporated areas.

Both Davis and Daugherty, however, thought a request for money was an insult, especially due to the money generated by the one-penny sales tax, and what Daugherty said was throwing “money down a rat hole” regarding the MetroRail train line.

“If the (Capital Metro) board was not so adamant, insistent, on spending money on things that take away from the basic, the basic things that public transit is supposed to do (you could) apply the money that you got into the areas where you know the basic needs are,” Daugherty said.

Hemingson noted that the monies would go to provide transit in areas of the county and East Austin that do not fall under the transit authority’s tax.

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