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The Once and (Possibly Future) 'Dillo

Austin City Council
The Armadillo Express, known affectionately as the 'Dillo, ran from the 1970s until 2009.

This week’s Wayback Wednesday looks simultaneously back at and forward to a one-time staple of Austin life: the ‘Dillo. The once-beloved bus line transported folks around town from its inception in the 1970s until the lines hit their last stops in 2009.

The bus was, as Richard Linklater might say, a “spiritual sequel” to the streetcar lines that traversed the Downtown corridor as early as the 1870s, but, like the city’s first gamble with mass transit, the ‘Dillo could soon see a resurgence with the help of private sector backing.

The lines started initially as a downtown-circulating park-and-ride program in the 1970s. The city officially backed the program known as the “Armadillo Express” in 1983, allocating $88,650 from the budget for five buses. Backed by downtown businesses and the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Armadillo Express was officially dedicated in May of 1984.

Credit City of Austin
A council resolution authorized the Armadillo Express in 1984.

Over the years, the ‘Dillo became a fixture of downtown life, and the program ultimately expanded to five lines, but the years — and Austin's exponential growth — were not kind to the 'Dillo.

Credit Federal Transit Authority
A map of the 'Dillo routes from 1999.

The once-free shuttle saw a rate hike up to 50 cents in 2008, as Capital Metro began diverting both attention and funds to the Metro Rail project. Additionally, thanks in part to Austin traffic, the once-advertised five-minute wait times became a thing of the past.  

As a cost-cutting measure, Cap Metro shuttered the service in 2009. While many lamented the loss, Cap Metro saw the writing on the wall, noting in a blog postthat "the ‘Dillos were seen as the least disruptive service cut, because ridership on the ‘Dillos has been very low and there is alternate service along Congress, 5th and 6th Streets."

Still, even before the 'Dillo died, Cap Metro began auctioning off the famed cars. One even briefly turned into a food truck outside of Maria's Taco Xpress on Lamar.

But, a 'Dillo-esque transit line is in the works. Transit app Ridescout is sponsoring a rollout of a similar downtown circulator.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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