Cap­i­tal Metro pres­i­dent to re­tire

Linda Watson to leave at end of 2017 after 7-year run; agency board plans na­tion­wide search for suc­ces­sor.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - FIRST ON MYSTATESMAN.COM CAP­I­TAL METRO By Ben Wear bwear@states­man.com

Cap­i­tal Metro Pres­i­dent and CEO Linda Watson has an­nounced she will re­tire at the end of this year after more than seven years run­ning the Austin-area tran­sit agency.

Cap­i­tal Metro board Chair­man Wade Cooper said the board plans to launch a na­tional search for the agency’s next leader. That next Cap­i­tal Metro chief — the 12th chief ex­ec­u­tive in the agency’s 32 years — will face fall­ing rid­er­ship and a tran­sit in­dus­try puz­zling over its place in a pe­riod of trans­porta­tion in­no­va­tion.

“Cap­i­tal Metro is de­vel­op­ing a plan to look at bus elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles,” said Austin City Coun­cil Mem­ber Ann Kitchen, who also serves on the Cap­i­tal Metro board. “I will be look­ing for lead­er­ship in a chal­leng­ing time. We’re kind of past due in get­ting the tran­sit sys­tem that a city of this size needs.”

That in­cludes a fur­ther, se­ri­ous look at ex­pand­ing rail, said for­mer Cap­i­tal Metro board mem­ber John Lang­more, who was on the board that hired Watson in Au­gust 2010. And the agency’s new leader, he said, will need to be a strong voice in re­vis­it­ing rail after vot­ers re­jected one plan in 2014.

“The rail is­sue has not re­ally been re­solved,” Lang­more said, not­ing that Cap­i­tal Metro is in the mid­dle of a study of “high-ca­pac­ity tran­sit” that could in­clude the prospect of rail be­yond the ex­ist­ing Metro­Rail com­muter line. “Ei­ther move it forward, or say it’s not go­ing to hap­pen in Austin. But don’t let it lan­guish and be in pur­ga­tory for­ever.”

Watson, mean­while, will be in full-fledged re­tire­ment, trav­el­ing and paint­ing and spend­ing time with a North Carolina grand­child. Watson, who has a base salary of $285,218, turns 65 be­fore her Dec. 31 de­par­ture date.

“It has been my honor and priv­i­lege to serve this com­mu­nity and Cap­i­tal Metro,” Watson said in a pre­pared state­ment. “I’m in­cred­i­bly proud of our team and what we have ac­com­plished to­gether, and am con­fi­dent that this or­ga­ni­za­tion and its em­ploy­ees are well-po­si­tioned to tackle the chal­leng­ing trans­porta­tion is­sues fac­ing Cen­tral Texas.”

Cho­sen to pick up the pieces

Watson won the job in Au­gust 2010 at a crit­i­cal time in the agency’s tur­bu­lent history. The agency only the year be­fore had been slapped on the hand by the Leg­is­la­ture, which for the sec­ond time since Cap­i­tal Metro’s 1985 cre­ation had forced lo­cal lead­ers to in ef­fect fire the pre­vi­ous board and ap­point a new one with new cri­te­ria for the eight po­si­tions.

The agency, which had ex­pected to com­plete the Metro­Rail project by 2008, in­stead opened it two years later in March 2010. It had de­pleted its fi­nan­cial re­serves, which went from more than $200 mil­lion just after the turn of the cen­tury to a dan­ger­ously low $4 mil­lion at one point. The agency also owed the city of Austin as much as $85 mil­lion based on agree­ments and prom­ises made after a failed light rail elec­tion in 2000. And it had ex­pe­ri­enced la­bor tur­moil for sev­eral years, in­clud­ing two short strikes, based on an un­usual struc­ture that in­volved “out­sourc­ing” its bus driver and me­chanic ser­vices to what was re­ally an in­ter­nal arm of the agency.

The new board picked Watson to pick up the pieces.

Watson over­saw a ma­jor shrink­age of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, with those driver and me­chanic jobs being con­tracted out to gen­uinely pri­vate com­pa­nies. And the agency, with sales taxes on an up­ward tra­jec­tory vir­tu­ally through­out Watson’s time at Cap­i­tal Metro, re­plen­ished its fi­nan­cial re­serves. At one point, be­fore the agency dipped into the bank for var­i­ous de­ferred needs such as bus pur­chases, those re­serves ex­ceeded $100 mil­lion.

“Un­der Ms. Watson’s lead­er­ship, ev­ery as­pect of Cap­i­tal Metro has dra­mat­i­cally im­proved,” Cooper said in a state­ment. “She has been very suc­cess­ful in putting to­gether a great team ded­i­cated to qual­ity ser­vice, and she has been a good stew­ard of pub­lic re­sources.”

Watson, Lang­more said, “was the right per­son at the right time, and she did a truly great job” of re­pair­ing the agency’s func­tion­ing and its pub­lic im­age.

Tran­sit of the fu­ture

The agency in re­cent years launched two “rapid bus” lines through the heart of the city, buy­ing spe­cial buses and in­stalling up­graded bus stops for what it hoped would be a pop­u­lar ser­vice. It hasn’t been, with rid­er­ship in the ma­jor North La­mar Boule­vard/South Con­gress cor­ri­dor fall­ing sig­nif­i­cantly.

Rid­er­ship over­all has been a problem in re­cent years, drop­ping nearly 11 per­cent be­tween 2013 and 2016. Agency of­fi­cials have pointed to sev­eral years of low fuel prices, which have en­cour­aged peo­ple to use their cars rather than mass tran­sit, as well as com­pe­ti­tion from ride-hail­ing ser­vices and a hol­low­ing out of its lower in­come cus­tomer base be­cause of in­creas­ingly high hous­ing prices in the core of Austin.

Watson and her staff hired con­sul­tants to look at the sit­u­a­tion, and they have be­gun putting in place a re­design of the bus sys­tem that em­pha­sizes fre­quent bus ser­vice on ma­jor cor­ri­dors over broad geo­graphic cov­er­age. The re­sults of that changed fo­cus won’t be known for some time.

The agency, with the help of fed­eral and state grants, is well into an ex­pan­sion of Metro­Rail, with four added rail cars un­der­go­ing test­ing, planned added pass­ing track at sev­eral lo­ca­tions and a larger down­town sta­tion un­der de­sign. Those changes will al­low the agency within the next cou­ple of years to dou­ble the fre­quency of rush­hour ser­vice.

And un­der Watson, the agency has be­gun to reach agree­ments with some sub­ur­ban cities that aren’t a part of its ser­vice area, such as Round Rock, to pro­vide bus ser­vices in those com­mu­ni­ties.

RALPH BARRERA / AMERICANSTATESMAN 2010

Un­der Cap Metro chief Linda Watson, “ev­ery as­pect” of the op­er­a­tion “dra­mat­i­cally im­proved,” the agency’s chair­man said.

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