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Anxieties abound on the eve of Cap Remap

Thursday, May 24, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

In its final meeting before a historic overhaul of Austin’s bus network, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors heard another blast of concerns from riders and stakeholders over potential service disruptions.

A handful of speakers complained about the loss of bus service in their neighborhoods, while Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder suggested the initiative known as Cap Remap will disproportionately disadvantage low-income minority residents east of Interstate 35.

“I think sometimes we don’t understand how a lack of access to public transit affects poor people,” Linder told the board. “I’ve heard story after story from people who live in East Austin who have never gotten quality service anyway, and now all of a sudden you have the Remap that’s going to further the disparate impact, and I don’t understand that.”

The sweeping network redesign set to take effect on June 3 is the most significant realization of the Connections 2025 service plan the board initially approved in February 2017. The route-by-route changes, which will alter roughly half of the agency’s bus lines, scored the board’s endorsement last November following extensive public testimony.

Capital Metro’s planners expect that by increasing from four to 14 the number of routes that arrive at stops every 15 minutes or less, the agency will reverse its chronically sagging ridership. The proof, they say, is in the increasing popularity of the existing frequent routes. Since switching to 10-minute headways last fall, the two MetroRapid lines have seen a roughly 25 percent boost in boardings compared to the same time last year.

However, to achieve the increased frequency, Cap Remap will straighten out, shorten and altogether eliminate some routes, particularly in low-density neighborhoods on the edge of the city. That will leave some transit-dependent riders who have chased affordable housing into those areas without a ride.

Several speakers on Monday protested the elimination of the No. 240, the only bus that provides front-door service to St. David’s North Austin Medical Center and the neighborhood behind it.

“I’m here to ask you to please not remove route 240,” Maria Hernandez told the board through an interpreter. “I depend heavily on it. There are 15 of us that depend on it. I would hope that you wouldn’t take it away, please.”

Zenobia Joseph, an activist and longtime critic of the upcoming changes, warned the board that Cap Remap does not comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Joseph alleged that some low-ridership routes in whiter parts of town will receive improvements while low-ridership routes on the east side are being cut or dramatically diminished.

According to the November resolution that approved the Cap Remap changes, the agency has conducted a federally required equity analysis on the proposed redesign. That study “found that any disparate impact (minority) or disproportionate burden (low-income) on affected populations had been mitigated in these changes.”

Nonetheless, the concerns raised by the speakers on Monday found resonance with two board members, Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen and Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who had attempted to address public concerns in November by amending the resolution to provide for more community engagement ahead of Cap Remap’s rollout in June.

On Monday, Travillion suggested that the type of engagement he had in mind had not yet occurred.

“So I don’t know how we’re going to address making sure that the community feels like they’re a part of this, but I’m convinced from the churches that I go to and the community groups that I go to that they do not feel like they’re adequately a part of what has been decided in Cap Remap,” he said.

Backing Travillion up, Kitchen reminded the board that the November resolution as approved included direction to staff to mitigate concerns about changes to bus routes in East Austin. At the time, Chair Wade Cooper suggested that “mitigation” could simply mean community outreach, a interpretation that Travillion concurred with.

“And it sounds to me like Mr. Linder and Ms. Joseph have suggested sitting down at the table and having that conversation,” Kitchen said on Monday. “And that really is the process, if I’m remembering correctly, that Mr. Travillion contemplated in his resolution.”

Noting that the agency’s staff has executed an exhaustive public outreach strategy that currently includes print and radio advertisements, onboard announcements, and 900 representatives scouring routes and bus stops to engage with riders, CEO and President Randy Clarke affirmed to the board that he is willing to sit down with any stakeholders willing to give productive feedback. He also said that, once implemented, the Cap Remap changes will require close review.

“It’s impossible to get everything 100 percent correct,” he said. “And as a credible organization, we have to acknowledge when things don’t go right. And when we have a good sample size of data, then we make adjustments. I’m convinced in the late fall that we’ll have enough data points and they will impact our January service change.”

Echoing Clarke, Cooper added, “We’re not going to make it where everybody loves it, and we’re not getting paid the high dollars that we get on this board to make easy decisions.”

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