Capital Metro Adjusts To Life During The Pandemic, While Planning For The Future
Capital Metro is closely monitoring data to determine how and where to ramp up transit service that was cut back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some MetroExpress commuter routes were restored earlier this week, but the bulk of Cap Metro’s bus routes remain on a Sunday schedule.
“We are holding out for as long as we can on the reduced schedules because the reduced schedules allow us the fleet and operator availability to put extra buses out every day to manage that social distancing,” Dottie Watkins, chief operating officer for Cap Metro, told board members Friday afternoon.
Watkins said Cap Metro wants to see buses remain at 50% of seated capacity, so extra buses are being inserted to routes that are seeing more riders than others.
Plexiglass shields are also being added to provide separation between drivers and passengers, as Cap Metro will resume collecting fares June 1.
Officials said they expected to receive the first payments from federal CARES Act funding next week. Cap Metro will get $104 million to help offset revenue losses and added spending because of the pandemic.
Budget Director Kevin Conlan said that should help prevent Cap Metro from having to dip into its reserve this fiscal year.
Project Connect Update
Board members also received a briefing Friday on Project Connect, the transit-expansion plan.
There were more details revealed about the decision to eventually convert the proposed Gold Line (which would run from South Congress to ACC Highland) from a bus line with dedicated lanes to a light rail line.
A projected increase in population and development along the corridor led officials to project demand would quickly exceed that for a bus.
The increased cost of using trains on the line would be partially offset by the removal of proposed long-term investments in longer platforms on the Red Line. Officials said the projected demand wouldn’t justify the expense.
The Cap Metro board will vote on its preferred plan June 10.
“That meeting is 19 days away, and it is one of the consequential meetings and one of the most consequential votes the board will take in its history,” Wade Cooper, chair of the board, said. Decisions about financing will be made later this summer, with a possible transit referendum this fall.
Cap Metro also unveiled a proposal to revamp the B-cycle bike-share program, in partnership with the City of Austin. The new program would be called MetroBike, as a way to signify more integration with the transit system. The partnership would upgrade the fleet and stations, and expand the reach of the program beyond the city’s core.
“It’s more than a rebranding of the existing bike-share program, it really goes to creating a highly visible program that changes how people get around our community,” said Chad Ballentine, VP of demand response and innovative mobility at Capital Metro.
The nonprofit Bikeshare of Austin would still run its daily operations. Riders would be able to use the Cap Metro app to pay for rides.
After a brief dip during the initial stay-at-home order, B-Cycle use is now back to pre-pandemic levels. That’s driven by the use of electric bikes, which account for 66% of ridership right now.
Cap Metro is applying for a grant through the Federal Transit Administration that would help fund a full conversion of the program to electric bikes. Right now, 200 of the 700 bikes available are electric.
In the meantime, officials are working on drafting a partnership agreement, with an eye toward unveiling MetroBike in the fall.
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