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side of a MetroRapid bus

Capital Metro embraces frequency as its future

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled on Tuesday a proposed major overhaul of its entire transit system, and the watchword is “frequency.”

The Connections 2025 service plan will be the guiding document for operations at the agency for the next 10 years and beyond.

The draft proposal outlined on Tuesday indicated several drastic changes, including new MetroRapid lines, significant editing and even outright elimination of some local routes, the addition of a new express service on Interstate 35 and the simplification of the two-tiered bus fare policy.

The linchpin, however, is the implementation of a high-frequency network of 15 routes on which buses would operate at least every 15 minutes. That network includes two new MetroRapid lines – in addition to the existing two – that would operate around the clock and provide service every 10 minutes during peak travel times.

“You don’t even think about the timetable,” Russ Chisholm of Transportation Management & Design, Capital Metro’s consultant on the project, told the board of directors. “You may glance at the sign that tells you when the bus is coming, but you’re just not gonna have a long wait at all.”

The new MetroRapids would distinguish themselves from the north-south running Nos. 801 and 803 by servicing parts of East and West Austin. The proposed No. 804 would run along Lake Austin Boulevard to East Seventh Street and Shady Lane. According to the interactive map published on Tuesday, the route design assumes “7th Street will become bidirectional.”

Meanwhile, the No. 820 would run from Manor Road and U.S. 183 to the University of Texas campus before hooking through downtown on Guadalupe and then over to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport via East Riverside Drive. The jog down that latter stretch could one day include dedicated lanes, per the East Riverside Drive Corridor Improvement Program.

Of the agency’s existing MetroRapid lines, the No. 803 would be extended farther south down Manchaca Road, while the local No. 3 that currently supports it would be phased out entirely. The No. 801 would see its peak time frequencies ramped up to seven minutes, while its supporting No. 1 would be drastically transformed. Long a well-worn staple along North Lamar Boulevard, Guadalupe Street and South Congress Avenue, the No. 1 would, under the Connections 2025 draft plan, shift over to provide 15-minute service along Kramer Lane, Rundberg Lane and Dessau Road, never venturing south of U.S. 183.

Chisholm said that the MetroRapid routes would see an increase in the number of stops in order to accommodate for the loss of the locals. Other local routes, Chisholm said, would support the MetroRapid lines and run at 15-minute frequencies themselves. He also said that the “premium” fares riders currently pay for MetroRapid would be eliminated and replaced with the existing local fares.

The cost of transforming the entire system, complete with its proposed network of high-frequency buses operating around the clock, would represent only a 6 percent increase in the agency’s 2016 budget. Chisholm said that the consolidation and elimination of routes and services would largely offset the new and improved lines.

As for MetroRail, Chisholm explained that the service could see some new stations along its existing 32-mile stretch in addition to planned frequency increases that are courtesy of a $50 million Texas Department of Transportation grant.

“The proposal for MetroRail is to help it evolve from just providing commuter service to actually becoming another all-day, all-week workhorse of a system,” Chisholm said.

One of the overall results of the Connections 2025 effort, Chisholm explained, would be an increase in ridership. Board Member Terry Mitchell asked if he had any range of expectations, and Chisholm replied, “It’s not unusual to see this kind of a rethinking of the system to experience double-digit increases.”

Houston’s METRO service adopted its own high-frequency network in August 2015 and recently reported an 8.6 percent bump in ridership in the year since then. While the majority of that increase was driven by that agency’s light rail service, any opportunity to goose bus ridership would reverse continuing declines at Capital Metro. Also on Tuesday, the board learned that ridership in the third quarter of 2016 was down 2.9 percent compared to the same period in 2015, the latest example of a trend that the agency has largely blamed on heavy rains.

All of the proposed changes in the Connections 2025 draft plan still face another round of vetting from the public. Once that round of input sessions is concluded, staff and the consultants will bring forth the final version for the board’s approval in November. The earliest change to expect, senior planner Lawrence Deeter said, is the launch in January of new express routes aimed at taking advantage of the new toll lanes coming to MoPac Boulevard. Other changes, including the new fares, will be rolled out over time. It’s possible that implementation of one of the draft plan’s biggest projects – an express bus that runs between unbuilt stations on unbuilt toll lanes along I-35 – could be years in the future.

As it stands, the draft did not fall on an altogether receptive board. City Council Member Ann Kitchen questioned the scarcity of east-west running high-frequency routes in parts of far South Austin, some of which includes her Council District 5.

Chisholm told her that low-density land use along roads such as Slaughter Lane is not ideal for transit. “And it’s not just the density,” he said. “It’s the fact that the area is so automobile-centric. It’s the ability to cross streets easily.”

“They’re strongly oriented around cars because the buses aren’t there,” Kitchen challenged. “There’s a lot of density being built on 1626 and south of Slaughter and all of those areas, so I just want to make sure we’re considering all of that now and not just assuming that it’s going to take 10 years” to develop into a more transit-friendly environment.

Council Member Delia Garza raised her concerns about the proposed MetroRapid No. 820’s route to the airport – a change that would apparently replace the No. 100 Airport Flyer.

“While I feel that that is sexy that we can get you a 10-minute ride out to the airport, I didn’t see that as a priority on any of the surveys,” Garza said, referring to the public input surveys that were part of the buildup to the draft plan. “If we’re trying to build our network to serve our riders who are low-income and make Austin more affordable, I feel like we could … concentrate more of an emphasis on some of our lower-income neighborhoods.”

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