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Updated: Raise for Watson as Cap Metro ridership declines

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority President Linda Watson is getting a raise despite the agency’s falling ridership.

Cap Metro’s board of directors voted on Monday to award Watson with a 5 percent bump in pay. According to the agency’s website, Watson’s current annual salary is $271,637, although that sum does not include deferred compensation. In previous years, Watson earned $25,000 in deferred compensation.

Watson had stood to receive a 4 percent raise, but the board increased it by a percentage point in order to reflect a policy adopted for all employees in November.

The measure was included in the board’s consent agenda, which means that members did not discuss it before taking the vote.

Backup material prepared by Cap Metro staff provided the reasoning behind the raise, saying that it “improves organizational development by linking compensation to the accomplishment of Capital Metro’s strategic plan.”

After the board approved the consent agenda, it heard several briefings from staff, including Todd Hemingson, vice president of strategic planning and development, who reported that ridership in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2015-16 dropped 7.7 percent compared to the same period a year before.

Hemingson cited a number of factors behind the decline, including wet weather, a fare increase and the presence of ride-for-hire companies such as Uber and Lyft.

“Fuel prices being down substantially is also a contributor,” Hemingson said. “There’s no one single thing we could point to.”

Hemingson did note that over the last year, ridership has actually increased on bus routes that ran more frequently than in the past. Cap Metro began running buses every fifteen minutes on a handful of lines, though that did not include the popular route 1 bus that runs along South Congress Avenue, up Guadalupe Street, and then continues on North Lamar Boulevard. That local route is complemented by the high-frequency MetroRapid 801 express bus. The higher-priced 801 and its sister line, the 803, both saw a 1.6 percent decrease in ridership.

Also sliding was the MetroRail Red Line, which lost 2.7 percent of its riders in the past year. Hemingson explained that there is virtually no way to increase the number of passengers during peak times since the train is generally packed during the morning and afternoon rush. He said that future expansions of the service – including new trains and track improvements – will bring relief to cramped riders.

When the Austin Monitor asked Watson after the meeting to comment on her raise given the declining ridership, she said, “Ridership is one measure of success. There are many others that the board took into consideration in addition to ridership.”

Watson was unable to name any of those considerations by memory, but she said she would provide a list of “significant milestones” to the Monitor. As of Monday evening, neither Watson nor any Cap Metro staff had sent along that information.

Update: Cap Metro’s Communication Manager Francine Pares responded late Wednesday morning to the Monitor’s request for more information about the considerations that factored into Watson’s raise.

“The criteria for Linda Watson’s annual performance review is based on Capital Metro’s strategic plan, and the completion of the objectives under the goals,” Pares wrote. She provided a link to a page on the agency’s web site that elaborates on those goals, which include providing “great” customer experience, improving business practices, demonstrating regional leadership, and demonstrating the value of public transit.

Pares also provided an exhaustive list of what she called “significant milestones during the past fiscal year.” She noted among other things the deployment of the new high-frequency bus lines, the implementation of real-time departure information on the agency’s digital platforms, and the execution of an agreement with TxDOT for a $50 million grant that will go towards MetroRail investments.

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