Capital Metro blames cheap parking for one sector of ridership declines
The University of Texas isn’t the only institution of higher education whose students are turning cold on public transit.
On Monday, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors learned that a partnership with Austin Community College has seen dwindling fortunes since its launch at the beginning of the decade.
Since the spring of 2011, Capital Metro has provided ACC with discounted transit passes that can be purchased by students and faculty. The Green Passes provide unlimited transit access at only $25 per semester.
In 2012, Green Pass ridership peaked at 107,000 trips. Four years later, that number fell to 52,000.
“In my personal opinion, I think the reason we’re seeing a decrease in ridership is because of the relative price of parking versus transit,” Capital Metro’s business development coordinator Greg Buford told the board.
The drop in ACC-related trips is reminiscent of Capital Metro’s largest share of lost ridership, the UT Shuttle service. According to recently published statistics, total ridership this past June was 0.6 percent higher than the same month last year, despite the shuttles losing more than 16,000 riders in that time. Capital Metro staff has pointed to a number of reasons for the decline, most notably service cuts as UT’s financial contribution has not kept up with rising operating costs.
As for ACC, Buford explained that the college originally handed out the Green Passes for free until it slapped on a $25-per-semester charge in the spring of 2014. Ridership immediately tumbled by nearly 50,000 trips compared to one year before the fee was enacted.
In the meantime, the price for an ACC parking pass is $15 for one full year.
Buford broadly outlined three steps to address the Green Pass’s declining popularity. First, he said Capital Metro staff will “continue to address the price of parking versus transit” with ACC. Other barriers will also be addressed, including the point of purchase. Students can purchase the parking pass online when they register and pay for classes. That option is not available for Green Passes.
Finally, Buford said the transit agency will ramp up efforts to promote and market the Green Passes.
Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested that Capital Metro Chair Wade Cooper open up a dialogue with ACC Board of Trustees Chair Barbara Mink. She also asked Buford if any lower-level discussions between the two entities had cast any light on the discrepancy between the price of parking and the price of the transit passes.
“To be frank, in so many words, I’ve been told there is very little political will to address the issue,” Buford told her.
Cooper offered one possible reason for reluctance on ACC’s part: The agency charges the college 80 cents for each bus ride provided to a Green Pass holder.
“So they have increased costs if we see success,” Cooper said.
Vice Chair Beverly Silas used her experience as a former ACC board member to add further evidence of the college’s disinterest in adjusting its parking prices. She explained how little has changed in the last 20 years.
“When I was on the board in 1998, it was $15 then … and had been $15 for a long time,” Silas said.
Despite the concerns, the board voted unanimously to authorize President and CEO Linda Watson to negotiate a one-year extension of the current interlocal agreement governing the partnership.
ACC spokesperson Jessica Vess told the Austin Monitor that the college’s board of trustees will take up the issue at its meeting next Monday. With that discussion pending, she declined to comment on the points raised at the Capital Metro board meeting.
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