Capital Metro board hears about proposed changes to proposed changes
The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is making adjustments to a long-planned massive overhaul of its fixed-route bus network just weeks ahead of a scheduled vote on the sweeping changes by the board of directors.
During an extended work session on Tuesday, agency staff gave the board an overview of the tweaks they are making to the proposed June service changes. Those changes represent a wholesale network redesign that will be the largest implementation yet of the Connections 2025 service plan the board approved earlier this year.
The spirit of the plan is to goose flatlining ridership by emphasizing bus frequency in denser parts of the city over service across the broader region.
Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, told the board at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting that the agency is facing disruptive challenges that require it to change the way it delivers service.
“We have a very fast-changing mobility environment outside of Cap Metro unlike what we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “We have TNCs, we have microtransit, we have bike-share and car-share, and we have autonomous vehicles on the verge of coming forth in the not too distant future.”
When the board approved the Connections 2025 plan in February, staff insisted that the planned changes to the bus network were not finalized and would be subject to revision based on community feedback. Agency officials have been fishing for that feedback in recent weeks at open houses, through street teams and via online comments. Residents also aired their concerns about potentially modified or eliminated service before the board during a public hearing in September.
Tuesday’s briefing was aimed at assuaging any anxiety the board members may have developed after the often emotional testimony they have heard.
“We can show you that the changes we’re making, to the best of our abilities, are doing the greatest benefit for the greatest good,” Hemingson promised. He reminded the board that the June service changes would put an additional 210,000 residents within a 10-minute walk from a frequent bus route – though not necessarily a bus stop.
Senior planner Lawrence Deeter walked the board through the major changes envisioned in different sections of the city. Central Austin will see the elimination of nine routes, including the Nos. 21 and 22, which run the same circuit between East and West Austin but in opposite directions. The scotching of both routes will leave Exposition Boulevard without bus service, a controversial scenario that led the agency to create Mobility Innovation Zones. In those lower-density areas on the outskirts of town, Capital Metro promised to replace lost bus service with still-undetermined alternatives, perhaps in the vein of on-demand ride-hailing options.
Citing the resolution the board passed when it approved Connections 2025, City Council Member Ann Kitchen said she had interpreted that promise to mean that the agency would not delete any bus routes until the Mobility Innovation Zone solution was already in place. She warned that she would not vote in favor of the service changes if buses did not remain on Exposition Boulevard.
The planning team defended its decision to keep the routes in the scrap pile by pointing out that the average number of weekday boardings along Exposition between Westover Drive and Enfield Drive is an anemic 26. Furthermore, each of the stops along that stretch is within a half-mile walk from the Nos. 4, 17, 18, 20, 322, 335 and 663.
Deeter highlighted a number of other proposed changes that drew significant public comment in recent weeks and explained the planning team’s rationale for either tweaking them or leaving them alone. He said the agency won’t restore the No. 5 to apartment-rich Speedway Boulevard from its proposed new home to the west along Woodrow Avenue and North Lamar Boulevard. The reason, he said, is that the many students and other riders along the corridor will be within a 1/4-mile walk to the No. 7 on Duval Street and a 1/3-mile walk to the Nos. 801 and 1 on Guadalupe Street.
However, the team will maintain bus service on Tuscany Way in Northeast Austin, Deeter said. The original plans called for the elimination of the No. 323 on that road. Instead, the revisions would create the new No. 339, which will operate once every hour.
Addressing other concerns, Capital Metro chief counsel Kerri Butcher assured the board that the changes are completely in line with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids the agency from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.
“What you see in these proposed changes are very, very significant improvements to service in those areas that have high concentrations of low-income and minority populations,” Butcher said.
Other vulnerable riders who qualify for Capital Metro’s paratransit service will also benefit from the changes, according to the head of MetroAccess operations, Chad Ballentine. MetroAccess is available to riders within a 1 1/2-mile radius of an active bus line. Under the proposed changes, only 36 registered riders would find themselves outside of the service area, though an estimated 80 new riders would gain access, Ballentine explained.
However, Min Liu, a MetroAccess rider for 19 years who is slated to find herself outside of the new boundaries in June, urged the board to develop a plan to maintain existing service.
“I will lose independence and lose the opportunity to live a normal life. It’s a huge change for me because I don’t have another alternative,” said Liu.
Ballentine offered several proposed scenarios for MetroAccess, including extensions of 90 days, 12 months or two years. Kitchen expressed her desire to see the existing riders completely grandfathered into the new regime.
Another critic of the plan, bus driver Ken Daniels speaking on behalf of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, blasted the planners’ reliance on half-mile walking distances, an unusually lengthy standard that has been embraced based on the theory that riders will be willing to walk greater distances for frequent service.
“When you say ‘half-a-mile walk,’ you say it and it rolls off your tongue very easily,” Daniels said, looking at the table where Hemingson and his colleagues were sitting. “But when you ride with some of these elderly or mobility-impaired people, it’s not very easy for them. Some of these roads don’t even have sidewalks. It’s rainy, it’s dark, they don’t have lights, it’s a long way, it’s hot. It’s hard to do it.”
The board will host two more public hearings on the revised proposals ahead of the scheduled Nov. 15 vote. At Monday’s board meeting, Kitchen expressed reservation about keeping that schedule without a full eight-person complement on the dais. The Travis County Commissioners Court had recently appointed Commissioner Jeff Travillion to fill the vacancy created by former Vice Chair Beverly Silas’ resignation. However, he has voluntarily delayed taking the oath of office while the County Attorney’s Office determines whether the appointment was legal.
With the clock ticking, Kitchen told the Austin Monitor that she hoped the matter could be resolved in time.
“This is a huge decision,” she said. “Connections 2025 is a big change to our system. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and I just think it’s important to have the whole board be part of that decision.”
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