side of a MetroRapid bus
Tuesday, October 25, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Opting for parity, Cap Metro kills premium fare

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors voted on Monday to eliminate the agency’s maligned premium fare tier. The vote was unanimous, at 7-0, with Board Member Juli Word absent.

Starting in January, a single ride on MetroRapid buses and the limited-stop flyer routes will drop from $1.75 to  $1.25, the same fare riders pay on conventional local routes. The commuter tier, which includes MetroRail and MetroExpress services, will not change.

It’s the first time the agency has ever reduced fares, aside from an experiment in the early 1990s to operate without any fare at all.

It also represents a retreat from Capital Metro’s prior efforts to brand MetroRapid as a distinct service with amenities superior to regular bus lines.

The high-frequency service features newer vehicles with wider doors and lower floors for easier boarding. MetroRapid stops display real-time arrivals for the next two buses, and each vehicle is equipped with free wireless internet.

However, those perks were never able to attract the ridership that Capital Metro expected when the agency in 2014 restructured local and express service on the existing No. 1 and No. 3 routes to make room for the new No. 801 and No. 803 buses.

The incompatibility between the local and premium fares requires riders to purchase the higher tier if they hope to transfer between services. Meanwhile, more cost-sensitive passengers have opted to settle for the less-frequent local buses.

“I’ve seen that our buses can be a little segregated because of the fare difference,” City Council Member Delia Garza, a member of the agency’s board, told her colleagues on Monday.

The elimination of the premium fares will take effect on Jan. 8, 2017. Capital Metro staff estimates that the change by itself will cost the agency between $500,000 and $735,000 each year.

However, those losses do not account for any potential increase in ridership driven by cheaper fares. Dan Dawson, vice president of marketing and communications, told the Austin Monitor that Transportation Management & Design Inc., the agency’s consultant on Connections 2025 – its long-range service plan – indicated the change would attract more riders to the MetroRapid lines.

Dawson said neither TMD nor Capital Metro put together a formal projection of ridership increases linked to the fare reduction. He did note that TMD expects that the change, when coupled with the high-frequency network envisioned in the Connections 2025 draft, could increase MetroRapid ridership by 10 percent. According to the agency’s website, both MetroRapid lines saw a combined 8,425 riders per day in August.

“I think the real big advantage is going to come as we begin to put new service out on the street,” said Dawson. “We’ll attract even more people because they can see how quickly they can travel all around the city with just one ticket.”

Any increases in ridership on the Nos. 801 and 803 due to the fare leveling could come at the expense of the local services that support the limited-stop routes. Dawson said the agency has no estimates for those possible reductions.

For the No. 1, declining ridership could be moot. The Connections 2025 draft proposal dramatically reimagines that line, which has long served as the spine of Austin’s transit network running from South Congress Avenue through the Drag and up North Lamar Boulevard. If the board approves the plan in its current form, the No. 1 would be limited to frequent service on Metric Boulevard and Rundberg Lane.

To make up for that proposed change, Capital Metro plans to add more stops along the MetroRapid routes.

“We are adding new stations and getting new vehicles,” Dawson said. “That will really drive our ridership, too. It’s not just the cherries in the pie; it’s the whole pie, right?”

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Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

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