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Capital Metro board approves major renovation of its bus network

Thursday, November 16, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The first time was all it took for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s contentious June 2018 service changes.

The sweeping overhaul of the transit agency’s bus network earned the board of directors’ stamp of approval on Wednesday, avoiding the months of delay the board afforded to Connections 2025, the service plan from which the changes originated.

However, unlike Connections 2025, the service changes did not score unanimous approval on the dais.

Council Member Delia Garza and Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion – at his debut board meeting – both voted against the proposal. Garza, who had frequently questioned the community outreach effort throughout the development of the proposed changes, lamented the difficult decision before the board.

“I have seriously gone from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ 25 times in the last 24 hours,” she said. “I think this is good for the system. But it is very difficult for me to vote ‘yes’ on this when I feel like … there were flaws in the public input process.”

Meanwhile, Travillion decried the planned reductions, particularly in the eastern parts of the agency’s service. Much of that land falls within the area he represents on the Commissioners Court. It is also an area low-income residents are flocking to as central city housing costs continue to rise.

“If you can afford to live in Austin proper and you are trying to get from one part of town to the other, I think that there are a lot of good things here,” said Travillion. “But I am really, really concerned about folks who are displaced from Austin and don’t have the means to get to your basic needs. Your job, your doctor, your grocery store.”

During several board meetings and public hearings leading up to Wednesday’s vote, Council Member Ann Kitchen also aired her skepticism about some of the proposed changes, including the 36 current MetroAccess customers who stood to lose their service. Per federal law, Capital Metro must provide paratransit service to qualifying customers who live within a 1 1/2-mile radius of a conventional bus route.

The resolution brought before the board on Wednesday included language that pledged to maintain service for those riders through June 2019 and committed staff to develop alternative solutions in the interim. Kitchen offered an amendment that would explicitly grandfather the existing customers permanently, but the high cost of that commitment – $200,000 to $300,000 per year – made Chair Wade Cooper uneasy. Ultimately, Kitchen was able to simply strike the deadline language from the resolution.

That amendment won unanimous support, as did Kitchen’s second alteration that bound staff to work with residents losing service due to the elimination of the Nos. 21 and 22 routes and revisions to the No. 333, as well as other service reductions in Oak Hill and in Northeast Austin along Rogge Lane. Under the original Connections 2025 plan, those areas were defined as Mobility Innovation Zones where the agency will explore nimbler service alternatives such as its experimental on-demand service, Pickup.

Travillion was able to inject into the final resolution similar considerations for areas in East Austin due to see service reductions.

Ultimately, the new service changes will affect more than half of the agency’s existing routes and increase from six to 14 the number of high-frequency routes that operate every 15 minutes during daytime and evening hours throughout the week. So far, the changes are the largest fulfillment yet of the Connections 2025 vision, which seeks to increase flagging ridership by focusing on a frequent network rather than geographic coverage.

Before the final vote, Board Member Terry Mitchell noted the difficult decisions the agency has to make due to its finite resources and limited budget. He suggested land use reform as one possible solution to the agency being forced to cut service to residents on the outskirts of the city.

“You know, the best thing we can do as a community, by the way, is make sure that we put jobs where houses are so that (people) don’t need transit,” he said. “And make sure that we make good use of where we do have transit, to put as many people as we can there, so that they will ride transit.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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