Cap Metro board to weigh route changes

Agency says tweaks to plan ease neg­a­tive ef­fect on mi­nori­ties, poor.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear bwear@states­man.com

Cap­i­tal Metro’s bus sys­tem over­haul, which seeks to boost rid­er­ship by more than dou­bling the num­ber of high-fre­quency routes while drop­ping some reg­u­lar ones, comes to the tran­sit agency’s board Wed­nes­day for pos­si­ble ap­proval hav­ing un­der­gone some­thing of an over­haul it­self.

Those nu­mer­ous tweaks in the plan, the agency as­serts in a newly re­leased “eq­uity anal­y­sis” re­quired un­der fed­eral civil rights law, have soft­ened or elim­i­nated the plan’s neg­a­tive ef­fect on neigh­bor­hoods with sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­ages of mi­nor­ity and low-in­come res­i­dents. Those re­vi­sions came over the past few months as cus­tomers, driv­ers and the agency’s own board of di­rec­tors of­fered their cri­tiques of the new plan.

“T he po­tent ial d is p arate im­pacts are mit­i­gated on al­most all of the elim­i­nated routes,” the anal­y­sis says, “as these routes will be re­placed or served by one or mul­ti­ple new or changed routes. Sim­i­larly, most of the mod­i­fied routes will be re­placed or served by one or mul­ti­ple routes.”

Fur­ther­more, by in­creas­ing the fre­quency of bus ser­vice on eight routes — giv­ing Cap­i­tal Metro a to­tal of 14 “fre­quent” routes with buses com­ing ev­ery 15 min­utes dur­ing day­light and evening hours — the new plan will bet­ter serve some mi­nor­ity and low-in­come cus­tomers, the anal­y­sis says.

The plan, which orig­i­nally would have elim­i­nated 17 of Cap­i­tal Metro’s 80 or so routes and sig­nif­i­cantly mod­i­fied 22 oth­ers,

now elim­i­nates 13 and mod­i­fies 20.

And in­stead of adding five routes, the plan now adds seven.

The changes, which would go into ef­fect in June if ap­proved by the Cap­i­tal Metro board, would in­crease the agency’s an­nual op­er­a­tions cost by more than $10.2 mil­lion. Agency of­fi­cials hope that in­vest­ment will re­v­erse Cap Metro’s years of per­sis­tent rid­er­ship losses, with buses now com­ing so fre­quently that peo­ple can catch one with­out a long wait or ad­vance planning.

The board Wed­nes­day will take a last look at the plan, and yet more changes could be tacked on. Or, po­ten­tially, the board could de­lay a de­ci­sion, given that the pro­posed sys­tem changes are still seven months away.

At least one board mem­ber, Travis County Com­mis­sioner Jeff Trav­il­lion, who joined the board only last month, said Tues­day that the plan’s em­pha­sis on cost ben­e­fit over com­mu­nity ben­e­fit, on fre­quency of ser­vice in the city’s core over route cov­er­age of out­ly­ing ar­eas where many tran­sit-de­pen­dent peo­ple live, doesn’t sit well with him.

“The most im­por­tant pri­or­ity for me is need,” Trav­il­lion said. “If we first ad­dress the ar­eas where tran­sit is needed for ev­ery­day op­er­a­tions — get­ting to dial­y­sis, to work, to day care and to the gro­cery store — and have that as our core, then we can start think­ing about other ar­eas of con­ve­nience. I want to make sure we have so­lu­tions for prob­lems that we know are on the ground.”

Austin City Coun­cil Mem­ber Ann Kitchen, also a mem­ber of the tran­sit board, said that in par­tic­u­lar she will be push­ing for restora­tion of the No. 21 and No. 22 route com­bi­na­tion, which trace a rough rect­an­gle be­tween Tar­ry­town, down­town and near East Austin.

Kitchen con­tends that the board, in ap­prov­ing a broad sys­tem blueprint in Fe­bru­ary called Con­nec­tions 2025, had told the Cap­i­tal Metro staff that cer­tain routes would be taken out only af­ter a plan for an “in­no­va­tion zone” and re­place­ment ser­vice had been worked out. Those in­no­va­tion zones, in Tar­ry­town and else­where, re­main only an in­ten­tion at this point.

“I’m not go­ing to vote for cut­ting that ser­vice un­til we go through the process,” Kitchen said. “I have re­main­ing con­cerns about a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ar­eas.”

That in­cludes door-to-door, “para­tran­sit” ser­vice for peo­ple whose dis­abil­i­ties make it dif­fi­cult for them to use reg­u­lar bus routes. Fed­eral dis­abil­ity law re­quires tran­sit agen­cies to pro­vide such rides, which come at great cost to the agency, for peo­ple whose homes lie within a quar­ter-mile of a reg­u­lar bus route. The dropped or al­tered routes that Cap­i­tal Metro orig­i­nally had in mind would have put about 90 cur­rent para­tran­sit cus­tomers out­side those ge­o­graphic cor­ri­dors.

That num­ber is now down to about 34, Kitchen said.

“I’m go­ing to pro­pose just grand­fa­ther­ing those folks,” she said. And un­like some board mem­bers — who have in­di­cated that the con­tin­ued ser­vice for those cus­tomers might be tem­po­rary, at a cost of about $215,000 a year — Kitchen wants no time limit.

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