Dec 12, 2016

Cap Metro’s 2025 Plan Leaves Some Austin Bus Riders Behind

Reporting Texas

Edith Duarte boarded Capital Metro’s Route 21 bus at Exposition Boulevard about 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. It’s one of two buses she relies on almost every day to get to and from her job in the affluent Tarrytown neighborhood west of the MoPac Expressway, where she works for a family in their home.

But the bus’ route along Exposition is one of about 13 routes at risk of being canceled, changed or consolidated because of low ridership under Capitol Metro’s Connections 2025 draft plan. The plan would remove service going through Tarrytown if the regional transportation agency’s board of directors approves it in January.

“I’ve been taking this bus for 15 years,” said Duarte, who commutes from South Austin.

Capital Metro conducts an in-depth study every five years to reassess routes and make changes based on population growth, which has been steadily declining over the last four years. In spring 2012, average daily ridership for the bus system was 128,129; in spring 2016, it was 101,813.

Capital Metro says one bright spot in Austin’s bus network has been the six high-frequency routes, where buses come every 10 to 15 minutes, it introduced in January 2015.  The Connections 2025 plan proposes more high-frequency routes in an effort to boost ridership, but that requires shifting resources and cutting less-traveled routes like Duarte’s.

Marina Muñoz is another regular on the 21 bus. Muñoz takes three buses to get to the job she’s held for nearly a decade, working for a family in the area. She said she had not heard about the proposed cancellation of her route until she sat across from Duarte on their recent ride home.

“There’s a lot of people who take this bus in the morning,” Muñoz explained in Spanish, disappointed to hear the news. “It goes to hospitals, restaurants and businesses.”

The bus makes a big loop that starts on the east side of downtown, heads west to Exposition, north to 38th street and then east to Chicon. The loop passes or goes near three grocery stores, the University of Texas, Seton and St. David’s main hospitals and Huston-Tillotson University.

Farther south, workers at the Goodwill thrift store Newton Drive near Exposition, share similar concerns about the impending termination of the route along that street.

“We were talking about if Goodwill is going to start losing employees and how they’re going to get to and from other places, not just work,” said Amber Brasseux, 20, a full-time employee at the store. She says that the majority of employees rely on the route because they don’t have vehicles.

Capital Metro hired a San Diego-based consulting firm, Transportation Management & Design (TMD), to make recommendations for the 2025 plan. According to Capital Metro, TMD was selected for its success in increasing ridership in metropolitan areas such as Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The firm conducted community surveys to help inform the draft plan. It found that 50 percent of respondents viewed bus frequency as their top priority, even if it meant they’d have to walk slightly farther to a stop. Some have criticized the survey methods, saying the sample population didn’t accurately represent Capital Metro’s ridership. Seventy percent of respondents to the online survey were white, and 94 percent had at least some college education, while only 37 percent of Capital Metro’s current ridership is white, according to the agency’s 2015 Origins and Destinations Survey.

“While the public responded that they wanted frequency, frequency typically comes as a tradeoff to service coverage,” said Lawrence Deeter, Connections 2025 project manager, during a Capitol Metro public meeting on Nov. 16. “It can be expensive to provide nearby frequent service to everyone.”

It costs about $300,000 a year to operate a bus, Deeter said. Buses must meet minimum service standards, or ridership, to generate enough revenue to pay maintenance costs. The Route 21 bus has a current average ridership of 59 passengers and only 3.5 boardings per hour, compared to the local system average of 25 per hour.

Other routes at risk of being cancelled or changed, including the 19 along Steck Avenue and Route 30 along Bee Cave Road to Walsh Tarleton, also have an average of fewer than six boardings per hour. By eliminating or changing those low-performing routes, Connections 2025 would increase the number of routes running every 10 to 15 minutes to 17, and planners estimate the number of people within a half-mile of frequent service would increase to 500,000.

The draft plan is not final, a point Capital Metro board member and Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen stressed during the Nov. 16 meeting where local riders shared their concerns about the proposed changes.

“I particularly appreciate hearing from those people who are relying on bus service to get to work,” Kitchen said after the public comment period, “This is the kind of information that we need, this is the kind of information that we don’t get just from the numbers.”