Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke said Wednesday an increase in ridership in the system is a sign its Cap Remap program is working. Cap Metro revamped its entire bus system starting in June 2018, eliminating some routes while adding higher frequency service on other routes.
Overall, passenger volume on the system increased by 3.4% from June 2018 to June 2019. Bus traffic went up by 4.1%, with MetroRapid service (lines 801 and 803) increasing by 6.8%. (MetroRail numbers were down, which Clarke mostly attributed to disruptions caused by track and station improvements.)
KUT discussed the ridership numbers, the agency’s fiscal outlook and reports that Leander is considering whether to leave Cap Metro during an interview with Clarke.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
KUT: In terms of Cap Remap, can you call it a success?
Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke: It's been a success for our customers and our community, so it doesn't really matter if I think it's a success. Overwhelmingly, I'm on the bus every day and our operators tell me that there's more people on the service. Our ridership numbers prove that.
A woman stopped me a couple of weeks ago and was like, "Randy, this remap thing ... saved me 30 minutes of my day every day. And that made my life better." ... To me, success is when the community has responded, and I think it's been pretty overwhelming that our community thinks that Cap Metro is running a better system than we were. And more people are taking advantage of that system.
KUT: What changes do you think have made the biggest difference?
Clarke: I think it's about high frequency, right? The ability to have 14 routes that are 15 minutes or less really allows someone in the largest cluster of where people work, live and play to be way more based on transit than worrying about, "Oh, does it come every 30 or 40 minutes?" When you get to that frequency level, you look at the app, you say, "OK, the bus will be there in five minutes." Our reliability has gone up as well, so we're more accurate to say if it's gonna be there in five minutes, we'll be there in five minutes.
I think our operations team is working probably more effectively than we've ever done with our new control center. And to the actual planning and remapping itself, you put those two things together, and it's made a pretty big difference in how much better of a transit system I think we are.
KUT: Do you see any places for improvement that you can tweak with the limitations and constraints that you have right now?
Clarke: Oh, I mean, listen, it's never ending. ... I take the service every day [and] it's 100 degrees here, and I thought we need a lot more shade at our bus stops. So, we've aggressively gone after more shelters, more benches and have designed shading panels at a lot of our bus stops and we're deploying that this year and next year in our budget.
We did a $3.5 million increase on bus stop amenities [for things] like shading shelters, benches, more solar lighting. It's dark at some of our stops. And how do we – you know, we're a sun-based city – how do we get some solar and light up our stops so it's safer and more comfortable to be there? I think that area we can continually push.
I think secondarily, the relationship with the city is fantastic and the more we are connected with the city on all of our transportation planning efforts, I think the community can really have confidence that we're all working together for the long-haul purpose of making all of our investments and all of our services work better.
KUT: This week, we saw an initial look at the budget for next year, the proposal. Where does that stand and how does Remap fit into that?
Clarke: Yes, Remap really was about last year's budget. This will sustain, obviously. We feel very good fiscally. We've actually [accelerated] our reserve accounts ... and we've met all of our both statutory and board policy reserve accounts for the first time ever. We also put money into a system-expansion fund for the first time ever last year, and this year we anticipate adding $10 million-plus into that account, so we can actually start talking about expanding service. So our fiscal house is incredibly good order from a budget point of view.
Now, it's what kind of investments can we make. And we're doing things on the Red Line, as I mentioned, double-tracking, Downtown Station, West Gate Transit Center. We're trying to do a new transit center with CARTS down here on Fifth down by Shady. We're also doing something up at the Norwood WalMart area that we're trying to develop.
And we're doing a big investment in our vehicle fleet, so taking the average age of our vehicle fleet down, which means the service quality is better, more reliability. And we're getting into the electric bus business, starting with our two first vehicles in December. So we've done the right amount of savings and fiscal stewardship. And at the same time: Where do we invest in our community to move the ball forward?
KUT: You know, there's a lot of talk, reports about the Leander situation. In terms of that relationship, do you think it says something about how people who don't live in the center of the city feel about transit and what needs to happen to make sure the entire region is on board with what you're trying to do?
Clarke: Yeah, I mean I can't speak to how people would feel; I think that's very personal, and I very much respect that. While in Leander there might be some people that don't want to be in the Cap Metro system – I mean, I've got a lot of people that have e-mailed us this week saying we really want to be in the system, whether it's developers or people who bought their homes there or businesses.
So while Leander is having that healthy conversation, Round Rock doubled down and bought even more transit service under a contract from us last year. Pflugerville is doing a transit study and they're looking to try to have a partnership with us. The county, for the first time ever, has done a partnership with us in the Eastern Crescent.
One way or the other, our region is going to get more tied together as a region and we can't have 4 million people here in Central Texas and all of us not be coordinated in a regional approach and that's both transportation, economic development, etc. So in a lot of ways, every community is kind of figuring out what their role is in the region, and I'm confident that the advantages of public transportation.
There are communities like Leander all over the country that are doing everything they can to get into public transportation networks because they understand express bus or train is an economic development tool and a quality of life tool for the residents. So it's up to them to really have that conversation. We are at the table. We want to talk. We want to make sure that we're being the best partner we can be. And that's really kind of where we stand with the Leander situation.
KUT: Why do you think Cap Metro is bucking the trend of declining ridership at a lot of transit agencies across the country?
Clarke: I think it's a couple of things. One, the Remap no question realigned our network with where people needed to move. And that alone had a big factor, too. I really do think our operational team is working in a much more organized and effective and assertive sort of way than we maybe used to and therefore the quality of our service, I think, is higher than people used to get, and therefore the reliability is better, the on-time performance, if you will, the speed of the service, safety – all those other things people are now saying, "Oh, if I had a choice before I may not, but now I really want to take transit."
You know parking is part of that component, traffic's part of that component. We're the ultimate easers of traffic obviously in the region. And if the city set a policy goal of 50 percent not being single-occupancy vehicles, that only happens when more people take transit. So, you know, if you drive a car, you want other people to be on the bus, and if you're on the bus, you want us to perform really well, so your life is as reliable and fast as possible.
We're investing in technology whether it's countdown signs at our stations. We have a new app with Apple and Google Pay being launched. ... We are doing a lot of things that I think is the community is recognizing to want to use our service, and in working with our partners – whether it's CTRMA or AISD and the other school districts where we let kids ride for free. We've done 1.8 million trips for students in the last year and that shows you there's this demand around our community to have more public transportation.
Now I think what's happened, too, is we're recognized now that we're doing more. The bar is going to keep raising for us and we've got to keep stepping up every day to be better and better, to drive that sense of urgency and the expectation of the community.
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