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Cap Metro seeks input on plan that rewrites late-night and shuttle service

Friday, September 9, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is probing the public one last time before putting the final touches on a system-wide overhaul. That overhaul promises to increase frequent transit but also reduce late-night routes and University of Texas shuttle service.

The agency has already conducted four open houses across Austin to show off the draft details of Connections 2025, which lays out the long-range road map for transit service across the region.

The agency’s consultant on the project, Transportation Management & Design, unveiled the draft plan last month. The open houses serve as a channel to inform curious residents and also gather input to further refine the proposals. There are five more on the calendar, plus one online webinar.

The defining feature of Connections 2025 is a simplified route map that features more buses operating on headways (the intervals between arrivals) of 15 minutes or less. It would also add two new MetroRapid lines and have that service run 24 hours per day with headways of eight to 10 minutes during certain stretches.

However, the plan also proposes to eliminate or drastically alter some UT shuttles and terminate completely the Night Owl service. Filling the gaps to some degree, according to the draft plan, will be the MetroRapids and other bus lines. The focus on frequency over coverage area could leave some riders high and dry, but Capital Metro staff says nothing is written in stone just yet.

“There are some people that are very concerned about some of the losses of service, and we try to explain our rationales,” senior planner Lawrence Deeter told the Austin Monitor. “At the same time, we do let them know that the final decision rests with our board of directors and that the plan is in the draft phase, and we fully anticipate changes to it.”

The draft plan scraps all six Night Owl routes, the agency’s overnight service. The 24-hour MetroRapids would replace portions of those routes, but some areas – such as Burton Drive from East Riverside Drive to East Oltorf Street, and Rutland Drive between Metric Boulevard and North Lamar Boulevard – would lose direct service.

Two MetroRapids themselves could also see truncated service after midnight. The No. 801’s overnight terminus in the south would move from South Park Meadows up to the South Congress Transit Center. Meanwhile, the proposed No. 820 would stop at Mueller instead of continuing on to the Springdale Shopping Center.

Also, according to the draft plan, all non-MetroRapid buses – classified as either local or frequent local – would end their service at 11 p.m., a much earlier curfew for many buses. William Chow, senior planner for Transportation Management & Design, reiterated to the Monitor that these proposals are likely to change.

“After we get this approved by the board, we’ll start looking at the fine details in terms of when the last trip will be,” Chow said. “It’s not going to be exactly at 11 p.m.”

Also included in the draft is the outright elimination of four UT shuttles, the Nos. 641, 653, 663 and 681. The Nos. 671 and 672 will be consolidated into one route, and the Nos. 656 and 661 will operate on abbreviated schedules. Once again, MetroRapids and local buses are expected to carry the loads of these diminished lines.

“Historically, with the UT services, we have been moving towards mainlining the students,” Deeter said. “We want them to use just regular routes.”

He explained that the shuttle cuts reflect the fact that the money that UT pays Capital Metro to run the service has not increased in years, even as operating costs have increased. He also noted that the shuttles currently do not operate on Saturdays and run infrequently on Sundays. The draft plan calls for MetroRapids and local buses to run frequently through the weekend.

Also proposed to run frequent weekend service is MetroRail. Capital Metro has already had plans to increase peak daytime service thanks to a federal grant that will purchase new trains and double-track parts of the 32-mile line.

According to Transportation Management & Design’s review of Capital Metro’s current service, MetroRail sees 2,800 riders per weekday, “which corresponds to the 13th busiest weekday route in the system.”

The document, published in June, identifies two reasons for the system’s low ridership. “MetroRail’s role is primarily a commuter service with station locations that do not necessarily support all-day ridership,” it says. It also points to the 30-minute headways as a barrier to “attracting spontaneous choice users.”

The Connections 2025 draft plan calls for trains to run from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. Trains would arrive every 15 minutes during the daytime and 30 minutes at night. Once again, however, those plans are subject to change.

“There’s still some details we’re considering with how it would as part of the network. So we’re not finalized with that yet,” Deeter said.

After the final open house next week, Capital Metro staff and Transportation Management & Design will process their findings and bring them to the board of directors in October. A vote to adopt the final version of Connections 2025 is expected in November.

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