Wednesday, July 27, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Cap Metro ponders fare-ly big changes to MetroRapid service

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced plans on Monday to add eight new stops to its two premium MetroRapid routes, but even bigger changes for the two-year-old service could be right around the corner.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that the agency could potentially scrap the two-tiered fare system that has been blamed for MetroRapid’s depressed ridership.

“That is being discussed, and in fact our Connections 2025 consultants have already hinted to the board that they may recommend, when they roll out the service recommendations next month, that that be remedied,” Hemingson said. Connections 2025 is the ongoing process to create Capital Metro’s newest five-year service plan.

Currently a single ride on either MetroRapid routes – the 801 or 803 – costs $1.75, while a ride on the more conventional MetroBus service is $1.25.

When MetroRapid was first launched in January 2014, Capital Metro justified the higher fare by branding the service as bus rapid transit, known as BRT. BRT is generally understood to feature much higher frequencies compared to traditional bus service, operate in dedicated lanes, have fewer stops and utilize transit priority systems such as the ability to hold green lights a few seconds longer.

However, despite the enthusiastic marketing, MetroRapid has posted underwhelming ridership numbers. The No. 801 effectively replaced the No. 101 express bus, which ran during limited hours on South Congress Avenue, Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard. Both services complement the No. 1 local bus, which saw its frequencies drastically reduced when MetroRapid was launched.

The combined average weekday ridership of the No. 101 and No. 1 in fall 2013 was 15,567. Two years later, Capital Metro’s data shows that those two routes the No. 801 and No. 1 only accounted for an average of only 12,261 rides per weekday.

The No. 803 and the No. 3, both of which run on South Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road, have fared somewhat better. Together, the routes served an average daily ridership of 7,570 in fall 2015, an improvement over the ridership along that route two years earlier, when it was served only by the No. 3 at an average of 5,311 rides a day.

Nonetheless, when both corridors are combined, the number of daily rides is still more than 1,000 fewer than the pre-MetroRapid days.

Several reasons for that difference have been floated, including bad weather and the low cost of gas. However, one expert puts the blame on the decision to institute MetroRapid’s premium fare.

“That is a very unusual thing to do for BRT, because the real point of BRT is to be an intrinsic part of the network,” transit consultant Jarrett Walker, creator of the blog Human Transit, told the Austin Monitor on Monday. “Generally, almost anywhere else in the country, the bus rapid transit, or the rapid bus or whatever they call it, has the same fare and the same transfer agreement as everything else because it’s not a premium service. It’s better for the rider and it’s better for the transit agency if the riders use it.”

Hemingson said that any potential equalization of the fares could be part of another major change that Connections 2025 may have in store. He hinted that Transportation Management & Design, Capital Metro’s consultant on the project, could also recommend a high-frequency network of buses. Walker gained fame for implementing a similar system in Houston two years ago, helping that area’s transit agency buck national trends and grow its ridership.

“What the consultant has noted is that, if we’re going to redesign our service network and think of it in terms of a network and not in terms of individual routes, then the ability to move across the network by making connections between routes becomes increasingly important,” Hemingson explained. “And if you have a fare difference, that basically is creating a barrier to that network effect.”

Hemingson cautioned that he could not “say with 100 percent certainty” what the consultant will recommend when it presents its draft plan at a board of directors work session on Aug. 22.

Hemingson also shed light on other efforts to increase ridership on both MetroRapid lines. Capital Metro’s board on Monday voted to approve $10.2 million to buy 15 new MetroRapid buses. That includes eight 40-foot buses for the No. 803 route and seven 60-foot, accordion-style buses for the No. 801 line. Those extra vehicles will help the agency increase MetroRapid’s weekday frequencies from 13 minutes to 10 minutes, Hemingson said.

He explained that optimized service on the transit agency’s busiest corridors could lead to the next evolution in high-capacity transit.

“If you want to build the case for rail on Guadalupe and Lamar, the best thing you can do in the near term is to maximize ridership on the service you have,” said Hemingson. “And so that’s kind of what we’re trying to do … because that’s how you’re going to convince the feds to invest in a higher-capacity, more expensive service.”

Hemingson noted that the discussion of rail service will be renewed during the upcoming Project Connect Central Corridor planning process this fall. He also said that all options and routes are on the table.

As for the proposed new MetroRapid stops, Capital Metro plans to install eight pairs of stations up and down the two routes. The estimated cost is $3.6 million and must be approved in the upcoming budget for the next fiscal year. That means the stations won’t be on the ground until spring 2018.

Hemingson explained that when planning began for MetroRapid in 2008, the agency decided to follow BRT “best practices” and place the stops far apart from one another. The new proposal would close some key gaps along the routes.

One of the stops, at West 31st and Guadalupe streets, would bring MetroRapid riders to the front door of campus-area grocery store Wheatsville Co-op. Earlier this year, a company representative appeared at a board of directors meeting and said the reduced frequency of the No. 1 bus and the distance from any MetroRapid stops had hurt business.

On Tuesday, Wheatsville brand manager Raquel Dadomo told the Monitor that the co-op is “happy” that Capital Metro plans to install the new stop. “But, of course, it goes without saying that we’re very disappointed with the two-year timeline,” Dadomo said. “Due to the heavy volume of traffic on Guadalupe Street and the fact that the service we had prior to the changes met our shoppers’ needs better, we were hoping to have the plan in place sooner, or at least have a better interim solution.”

Dadomo expressed hope that Capital Metro could still provide the store and concerned stakeholders with an interim solution ahead of the expected installation of the new stop in spring 2018.

When asked whether Capital Metro had any plans to restore frequencies on the No. 1, Hemingson again brought up the consultant and Connections 2025. “They will make recommendations with regard to that as well,” he said.

This story has been corrected.

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