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Now approaching: A final vote on Connections 2025

Friday, February 24, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

After months of delay, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors is prepared to take a final vote on the agency’s proposed five-year service plan.

The board held one final work session last week to discuss Connections 2025, the framework that will guide a sweeping overhaul of the Austin region’s transit network.

Originally set for board approval in December, outcry over proposed changes to and outright eliminations of certain bus routes led to several postponements in order to allow for more scrutiny.

On Friday, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson spoke to several of the lingering concerns while at the same time reminding the board that the proposal’s emphasis on increasing frequent buses is aimed at pulling Capital Metro from the brink of the “transit death spiral” of declining ridership, revenues and services.

Hemingson reiterated that the most controversial adjustments to existing routes are proposed for areas on the fringes of the agency’s current service network, where low-density land use and poor diversity of destinations have led to underperforming ridership. The current proposal would eliminate 630 daily bus trips and 227 MetroAccess trips for disabled riders. Currently, Capital Metro provides 103,000 daily trips across its entire suite of services.

Hemingson illustrated four scenarios to address anxieties about the proposal, one of which was to keep it as is at an estimated first-year budgetary impact of $259 million. The other two involved keeping all or parts of the routes in question, at an extra cost of $5.6 million and $2.5 million, respectively.

The fourth and favored scenario, according to Hemingson, would keep the current proposal and create so-called Innovation Mobility Zones in the areas that are subject to reduced bus coverage. That plan would increase the first-year expenses by $2.8 million.

In a memo sent to the board, Hemingson wrote, “The overarching goal for mobility innovation zones would be to significantly reduce the subsidy per passenger. The way Planning believes this can occur is by leveraging emerging mobility options. Since these are emerging options, Planning doesn’t have a polished product to present. We believe it will take 12-18 months to develop the solution.”

In the same memo, Hemingson explained that the capital costs of Connections 2025 will total up to $39 million for the first three years. That bill includes $19 million for regional and community “mobility hubs,” or areas of convergence between an array of mobility options such as taxis, bikeshare, carshare “and ultimately autonomous vehicles.” The regional variety of the mobility hubs would be distinguished by the inclusion of parking.

The initial capital investments would also purchase transit priority treatments such as bus lanes and queue jump signals, new articulated buses to increase frequencies on the No. 801 route to 7.5 minutes during peak hours, and 75 pairs of MetroRapid stations for the proposed Nos. 804 and 820 routes as well as the extension of the No. 803 south to Slaughter lane.

As for the No. 820, City Council Member Delia Garza’s concerns about providing frequent bus service to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport seem to have finally been allayed during Friday’s work session.

Pointing out that ridership on the existing No. 100 Airport Flyer falls short of the agency’s own standard of 15 passengers per service hour, Garza questioned why Capital Metro would invest in a more robust connection to ABIA.

Hemingson and senior planner Lawrence Deeter explained that the 820 is proposed to serve E. Riverside Drive, a busy corridor long targeted for improved transit service. Extending the line all the way to the airport abrogates the need to maintain the No. 100 along with other connectors, and thus actually saves the agency almost $2 million in annual operating costs, Deeter said.

After the meeting, Garza told the Austin Monitor, “I’m finally in a comfortable place in terms of the information, but I still have concerns about the plan as a whole.” She said she’s worried about the impacts on vulnerable residents, including those in her Southeast Austin district who have been unable to weigh in on the process.

However, as Hemingson and Deeter stressed during the work session, the Connections 2025 proposal that the board members will finally vote on at their Feb. 27 meeting will provide only the framework by which future triennial service changes are crafted and proposed, processes that themselves require further opportunities for public input.

“That kind of comforts me because that means we have more time to talk about all these things and what our options are,” Garza said.

Photo by John Flynn.

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