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Capital Metro responds to COVID-19 with changes to service schedule and operations

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

At the tail end of a 17-month run of climbing ridership increases, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority system ridership has plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic. CEO Randy Clarke said the agency does not expect numbers to recover for many weeks, if not months.

“There is no question … this is going to be a significant hit for Cap Metro,” Clarke said at an emergency board meeting Tuesday morning.

With system ridership currently down by about 40 percent, Clarke suggested the community brace itself for an end to the streak of ridership growth that has been going since October 2018. On Monday, ridership was down by a third on local routes, by half on MetroRapid and by roughly 60 percent on commuter bus and rail.

In response to the slack in demand, the agency is reducing operations across the system. As of today, most local and MetroRapid bus routes are operating on a Sunday schedule, MetroRail is scaled back to Monday-Friday with no late-night service, commuter bus routes are running about half as many trips, and the on-demand Pickup service will run from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Having cut service on shuttle routes serving the University of Texas, those services will resume at a limited “registration level” next week for students and faculty who may need to get to campus despite classes being moved online and large gatherings being canceled through May 1, said Dottie Watkins, Capital Metro’s chief operating officer.

To keep customers and bus operators as safe as possible, Capital Metro is asking customers using a physical or electronic fare card to board buses through the rear door. Watkins said only those paying in cash should board through the front door and approach the fare box. For those using the rear door, the agency is trusting that the community will respect its fare system.

The decline in ridership revenue is likely to have a limited impact on Capital Metro’s operations. The larger unknown, Clarke said, will be the significant impact to the city’s sales tax revenue, which makes up approximately 73 percent of the agency’s yearly budget.

As spending continues to slow, Clarke said the agency is taking steps to slow and halt some of its ongoing projects and working through its potential responses to various financial scenarios. After posting a job listing this week for the position of vice president of bus operations and maintenance, Clarke said a hiring freeze is now also in place.

Looking ahead, Clarke said Capital Metro is fortunate to have three months of emergency reserve funds, no debt and a fully covered State of Good Repair asset management plan.

“We may be one of the best transit agencies in the country, financially, going into this type of crisis, so we feel good about that,” Clarke said. “With that said, for every dollar of reserve that goes away, we’re going to have to put that back into reserve eventually.”

Ultimately, Clarke said the agency’s outlook is to consider this moment a marathon as opposed to a sprint. Without speculating on possible outcomes, Clarke said that marathon will likely stretch into November and may impact some elements of Project Connect.

In the immediate future, Capital Metro has postponed a series of planned in-person Project Connect public input meetings next month and is exploring options to hold remote meetings that community members can easily access.

Photo by Zeebra D’Angelo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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