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Cap Metro CEO: Austin “not ready” for light rail

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The head of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Tuesday put a wet sponge on the feverish hopes that light rail transit in Austin could become a reality sooner rather than later.

“I probably echo what I’ve read (Mayor Steve Adler) has said about it recently: that we’re gonna grow to the point where it’s hard to see this community without rail,” Cap Metro CEO Linda Watson told the Austin Monitor. “We’re just not ready for that at this point. A lot more work has to be done.”

Watson’s comments came during a scheduled interview in her office, one of a series of one-on-ones she is conducting with local journalists to discuss the agency’s plans for 2016.

During her hourlong discussion with the Monitor, Watson covered a range of initiatives, including MetroRapid and MetroRail upgrades, a new downtown corridor study, the ongoing process to create a new five-year service plan and the creation of new park-and-ride facilities in some surprising places.

Conspicuously absent from Watson’s list of priorities was specific planning for light rail. Although Adler said earlier this year that Austin could have rail in 20 or 30 years, the Urban Transportation Commission recently passed a resolution requesting that City Council consider putting a light rail project on the ballot this November, only two years after the resounding failure of a $1 billion bond that included money for an urban rail line.

“Based on that election and the plan that was presented, I don’t think the community of Austin is ready for that at this point,” Watson said. “And we aren’t, either. We don’t have another option to offer.”

Watson said she did not want to “discount rail at all” and explained that part of an upcoming study of downtown Austin infrastructure will consider the potential of new high-capacity transit services, including rail. She said, “I don’t want to force transit or any project on a community that is not interested in having it. That’s part of our focus: to collect the data, do the plans, get the public input, and plan the best service that will be used, and help with the congestion problem.”

To achieve those goals, Watson and the agency are pursuing a litany of projects in 2016, a year she calls “pivotal.” In addition to conducting the downtown study, Cap Metro is embarking now on a massive study ahead of the launch of its upcoming Connections 2025 service plan.

Last September, Cap Metro selected Transportation Management & Design Inc. as its consultant on the project. “It’s a major effort,” Watson told the Monitor. ”We collect a ton of data on growth and development, both planned and in the future, the demographics, and trip generators. We interview passengers, nonriders, do focus groups and surveys. I mean, we really collect a lot of data.”

That data will be used to upgrade the service network and could mean higher frequencies on certain routes. Watson said a recent increase to 15-minute headways – the intervals between buses – drove ridership up 10 to 25 percent on the 7, 20, 300, 325 and 331 bus routes.

While she declared both the 801 and 803 MetroRapid routes to be successes, she also acknowledged that ridership numbers on the 801 as well as the local 1 still lag behind the combined ridership of the express 101 and the higher-frequency 1 that served the route two years ago.

“Ridership tends to be down overall in general,” Watson explained. “Part of it is the low fuel prices. Transit systems across the country are experiencing that. And also, as people are moving out into other areas, they’re not using our service as much as they were before.”

Watson said the agency expects the 801 to meet its initial ridership projections by August of this year.

Those numbers could rise even higher with the completion of another project in the works: the installation of eight new stops along both the 801 and 803 routes. Watson said the money for that project is locked away in Cap Metro’s long-range budget but that the agency is doing what it can to move those funds forward as quickly as possible.

Last year, Todd Hemingson, Cap Metro’s vice president of Strategic Planning and Development, told the Monitor that the agency couldn’t simply put up temporary signs at the planned stops, in part due to MetroRapid’s branding. On Tuesday, Watson said there was more to it than that.

“If we add more stops, it’s gonna slow the service down, and we wouldn’t be able to meet the headways and frequencies. So we have to buy new buses, and that’s one of the biggest costs of the services,” explained Watson. “And then if you think about it, the service is kind of built on the real-time signage and all the technology, and so it’s really kind of a package unto itself.”

As for larger regional service, Watson revealed that one of Cap Metro’s biggest priorities for 2016 is the expansion of park-and-ride facilities. The agency is planning seven new park-and-rides within its service area (one of which will replace the existing park-and-ride in Oak Hill). More ambitiously, however, the transportation authority is also plotting the construction of 11 new facilities in communities outside of its service area, including Georgetown, Round Rock, Buda, San Marcos, Lockhart and Dripping Springs.

Many of those cities cannot legally join Cap Metro because of a state-mandated sales tax cap. However, several of them are working on developing their own transit systems, according to Watson.

She said, “We want to make sure that their services fit with ours so that there can be seamless service in these communities at some point. Our major focus is our service area, but it makes sense for us to look at these areas – especially if they are willing to pay for service that would get cars off the street in our service area.”

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