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Longtime VP Todd Hemingson to leave Capital Metro

Monday, July 22, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

After more than a decade with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency’s executive vice president, Todd Hemingson, will step down Friday, July 26.

His immediate plan, as he told the Monitor in an interview at the agency’s headquarters on Friday, is to take some time to breathe before figuring out what comes next. While that will likely involve similar work, helping cities integrate land use with transportation, Hemingson said he doesn’t yet have a job in mind.

“It’s a bit risky on my part,” he admitted. “Some people have said I’m either crazy or having a midlife crisis.”

But after almost 13 years, much longer than anyone else in the agency’s history has held the same position, Hemingson is ready for a change. In the long term, he said, that may involve leaving the political environment of Texas.

“Trying to be an advocate and a professional helping make public transportation happen in the state of Texas is not an easy thing,” he said. “Austin is the best place to be in the state of Texas, but we’re still very much in an auto-oriented culture.”

Politically, Hemingson was at the helm as the agency underwent what he considers among its most successful system upgrades to date: the rollout of MetroRapid in 2014 and last year’s fixed-route bus service redesign known as Cap Remap. In both cases, his role was to marry the technical with the political, working with Austin’s active community, the agency’s board of directors and the city to steer the projects through to completion.

Though he acknowledges that not everyone in the community holds MetroRapid and Cap Remap in such high regard, Hemingson sees both as major milestones for Austin transit and considers Cap Remap the biggest, most consequential effort of his career, reversing years of steadily decreasing ridership by simplifying bus routes and boosting frequency.

Ridership numbers can be misleading in some cases. A single ride under the previous network may now require a number of transfers to get to the same destination. But Hemingson highlighted that June numbers show a significant increase in system ridership even from June 2018, the first full month of the new grid network.

Taking a page out of Seattle’s book, Hemingson also worked to form a collaborative Transportation Priority Working Group composed of Capital Metro and city staff with the purpose of making transit improvements a bigger part of the city’s decisions. The group’s biweekly meetings have led to a number of recent and ongoing infrastructure projects that he said represents a new trend at City Hall. “Not to bash them, it’s just that it wasn’t necessarily on their radar screen to make transit work better.”

Not all of Hemingson’s efforts have had such success. When the Texas Department of Transportation was gearing up to make improvements to Interstate 35 through Austin years ago, Hemingson joined forces with state Sen. Kirk Watson to help make transit connectivity a part of the upgrades. Hemingson’s plan, however, initially featuring nine “inline stations” along the I-35 corridor that would connect with east-west routes in the middle of the highway, was deemed too ambitious and expensive by even Watson.

Due to the anticipated costs of acquiring the necessary right of way and building the facilities to make the plan possible, the roughly $500 million plan eventually unraveled, leaving no similar alternative in its wake. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s goal to have an express bus service as part of the state’s new $8 billion I-35 redesign, Hemingson said, is not at all similar to his original plan.

Besides serving only a small portion of the market which fits into the traditional work schedule, he explained that the express bus route model only works well in one direction at a time and does not integrate well into the broader transit network.

“It’s inherently inefficient because you pick up a bunch of people in the outer areas and you bring them in in the morning, so your bus going in one direction may be completely jam-packed, but then the bus goes almost empty in the return direction to go pick up round number two.”

Though he hasn’t been closely involved with Project Connect in the past year, Hemingson said he feels generally confident in the plan as it’s shaping out. There’s still a lot of work to be done, he added, and “the devil is in the details.”

Far from being entirely consumed by Project Connect, the next executive vice president can be expected to have their hands full with the broad applications of emerging technology, from integrating the transit system with dockless mobility to preparing for vehicle automation and leading the agency’s transition into an account-based payment system that may also help the agency keep track of where anonymous customers are getting off the bus and respond to that data.

Though he’ll be working his last day this week, Hemingson plans to stick around Austin for at least a short while.

This story has been changed since publication. Photo by WhisperToMeOwn work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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