Capital Metro

(clockwise from left) Umlauf Gallery; photo courtesy flickr.com/environmentblog; photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Cap Metro Preps Layoffs in Labor Transition; Says Most Employees Will Be Offered Jobs

Capital Metro is laying off more than 800 union employees as it prepares to outsource those jobs to two contractors.

The transit agency says the union workers will be offered jobs under the new operators, as long as they can pass driving and drug tests.

More than 50 supervisors are also being laid off. They are not part of the union so they are not guaranteed new jobs, but will be given first consideration, Cap Metro says.

Photo by KUT News, Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News, Photo courtesy texassports.com

Unsolved Murders to get Another Look?

Today Austin’s Public Safety Commission will consider a change in the way the city investigates unsolved crimes like the Yogurt Shop Murders.

The commission’s vice chair says the city needs to spend money on external reviews for some unsolved crimes because Austin Police Department detectives know too much about the cases and aren’t able to be as open-minded about possible solutions

Dr. Kim Rossmo says the Yogurt Shop Murders should be the first case considered for an external review. In 1991, the bodies of four teenage girls were discovered after a fire in a yogurt shop. Convictions in the crime were overturned.

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

You may not know University of Texas freshman Nick Engmann by name – but if you follow Austin news, you’ve probably seen a video of him.

It’s a clip the electrical engineering major says he’s eager to put behind him. One month ago, Engmann was taking part in an end of semester campus tradition where finals-weary students charge at each other with foam swords to blow off steam. Engmann bolted across Guadaulpe Street to enter the fray – and was hit by a Capital Metro bus.

The video went viral, amassing 3.6 million views on YouTube.

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

Video captured earlier today on the UT Campus shows an incident that injured one student, albeit not seriously.

The video below captures a scene from Foam Sword Friday, an end-of-semester tradition of sorts, where students relieve finals anxiety by engaging in faux battle.  As you can see, one participant received a blow from a Cap Metro bus instead.

The Daily Texan tweeted the student suffered only minor injuries.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/djwhitebread

H-E-B Recalls Meals

Central Texas-based grocery store H-E-B has announced a “voluntary and precautionary recall” for its Asian Ready-to-Eat meals. According to the grocer:  

The recall involves 19 Ready-to-Eat entrées and meals sold in 40 stores in Texas including one store in Houston. The product was available at the Grab 'N Go section in H-E-B Delis. The product(s) come in a 4 ounce, 8 ounce, 12 ounce, 24 ounce black plastic containers with a clear lid, single serve sizes and to-go containers … Any product sold prior to 5/3/12 is affected and should be returned to any H-E-B store for a full refund.

Photo courtesy Twitter user JenelleS_KVUE, http://yfrog.com/mnhspfwj

Update 1 p.m.: Capital Metro says complete rail service should be back on regular schedule by 1:15 p.m.

Update 10:30 a.m.: A 32 year-old man was killed in a Capital Metro rail collision this morning. Two children were also in the car with the unnamed man, and were taken to Dell Children’s Hospital. Capital Metro spokesperson Misty Whited tells KUT she’s learned the children are in stable condition.

127 passengers were aboard the train at the time of the collision, plus one train operator.

The collision occurred at a private drive crossing the Cap Metro rail line; out of 74 total crossings along the rail line, 13 are on private drives. Only two have crossing gates; the crossing at Oak Hill Drive (mapped below) did not have a gate, only a stop sign.

Photo courtesy Van Sutherland via Flickr

This morning, Capital Metro bus drivers and mechanics met their soon-to-be employers. Representatives from the companies that Cap Metro is contracting out services with were at the bus garages at 4 a.m. for a quick meet and greet.

Yesterday, the Capital Metro Board of Directors voted to outsource hundreds of employees. Those include regular bus drivers and mechanics along with people who provide door-to-door services for the disabled.

A new law required Cap Metro either to outsource their workers or bring them in as state employees.

Cap Metro staff has proposed separate contractors for regualr bus routes and its paratransit services, pictured above.
Photo courtesy Flickr user i-Ride Capital Metro

Today, Capital Metro staff met with the agency Board of Directors to make recommendations on new contractor bids. Monday, the board will make a final decision.

These are the last few steps towards a new labor structure for Capital Metro. The changes are required to comply with a new state law that requires transit employees to either become employees of the state or to become employees of a private contractor. The union that represents most of the employees chose the latter option so they could retain collective bargaining rights.

The board will need to choose one contractor for employees of fixed-route bus services and another for employees of paratransit services (door-to-door services for people with disabilities). The board could also choose to have one contractor employ workers of both services.

Willie and a friend gets a sneak peek at his bronze likeness.
Photo courtesy willienelson.com

Willie Nelson Statue Unveiled

A statue of famed country musician Willie Nelson will be unveiled today.

The eight-foot tall, one-ton statue will stand on the plaza located on Willie Nelson Boulevard (aka Second Street) and Lavaca Street, at the foot of the Austin City Limits Live Theater. Capital Area Statues has worked on the project over the past several years and as board president Lawrence Wright describes it, the statue will be another fixture of Austin’s culture.

“This gift to Austin will become an instant, iconic representation of our great city and its love affair with music.” 

A looming labor switchover means Capital Metro will only have about 200 direct employees.
Photo by Emily Donahue for KUT News

This summer, some 850 workers will no longer be directly employed by transit authority Capital Metro, or its non-profit contractor StarTran — instead, they’ll be contracted out to a soon-to-be named private company.

It’s a change that has to be made because of a state law passed last year, requiring transit employees to either become state employees or employees of a private contractor. The union that represents most of the workers chose the contractor option, as to maintain collective bargaining rights.

Tomorrow, staff will recommend to the Capital Metro Board of Directors which of the contractor bids it believes is best. They may recommend one contractor for fixed route services (regular bus lines), and another for paratransit services (door-to-door service for people with disabilities). Staff may also recommend a single contractor for both.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Capital Metro announced today that it has received $38 million from the Federal Transit Administration to help cover the cost of the MetroRapid program.

The funds come from the administration’s "Very Small Start" program and will cover about 80 percent of the program’s $48 million cost, said Linda Watson, the president and CEO of Capital Metro.

“That’s tax money that Texans pay coming back to Texas,” Watson said. “So it’s a great day not only for Capital Metro and our customers, but for Central Texas and taxpayers in the whole state of Texas.”

Photo by KUT News

There will soon be some changes at Capital Metro. Riders probably won’t notice but many drivers and mechanics will.

Capital Metro is required to change its labor structure after the Texas legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 650, last May that basically requires transit workers to either become state employees or become employees of a competitively-bid private contractor. 

To receive federal transit funding, Capital Metro employees initially needed to retain their right to collective bargaining, but the requirement was at odds with state law prohibiting collective bargaining and the right to strike for public employees. A third-party, StarTran, was installed to resolve the impasse – but SB 650 did away with that arrangement.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/drbeachvacation

SXSW Film and Interactive Start Tomorrow

Austin’s South by Southwest Film and Interactive Festivals kicks off tomorrow and downtown is preparing.

Nathan Bernier/KUT News

It’s been a marathon session of Austin City Council today, and it’s not over yet. Here are some highlights from this evening. (Check out earlier action here.)

Electricity Rate Hikes Delayed

Austin city council voted 6-1 against a temporary increase in electricity rates. Council members had been considering an interim rate hike while they worked on a larger overhaul of Austin Energy’s rate plan. But the public utility’s general manager, Larry Weis, told council that a temporary increase would complicate billing and take months to implement.

Photo by Erik Reyna for KUT News

Capital Metro’s Red Line will start running late into the evening on Fridays and Saturdays. Austin City Council voted 6-1 this evening on this resolution directing city staff to finalize the deal with Cap Metro. Kathie Tovo was the only council member to vote against the proposal. 

The new schedule will see commuter trains run hourly from 7 p.m. until midnight on Fridays. On Saturdays, they'll run every 35 minutes 4 p.m. until midnight. That schedule takes effect Friday, March 23.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/joegratz

Redistricting Maps Must be Drawn By Saturday for May Primaries

According to the Texas Tribune, if redistricting maps are not drawn by Saturday, March 3 then primaries will move to June.

The Tribune reports that the primaries cannot be held on May 29 if the deadline is not met this weekend. Instead, the date will yet again be pushed back, this time to June 26.

“The lawyers working on House maps have been pushing back and forth, primarily on three districts, and haven't produced an accord. And congressional maps, several lawyers have said, will have to be drawn by the three federal judges in San Antonio, because the parties can't seem to find common ground."

If the primaries are held in late May or June, the primary runoffs will be delayed to July 31 or August 28 reports the Tribune.

KUT News' Andy Uhler sheds some light on the court's long battle over the redistricting maps.

Photo by KUT News

The Austin City Council convenes again today, considering a heady, 61-item agenda. If this weekly preview is beginning to sound like a broken record, that’s because council keeps slogging through several controversial topics: Austin Energy’s embattled rate increases, contentious cab issues and the disposable bag ban. Luckily, debate over extending Capital Metro’s rail service will keep things fresh.

Electric Rate Redux: A public hearing on Austin Energy’s recently tweaked proposals raising electricity rates is scheduled for 6 p.m. The changes haven’t received much acceptance from opponents of the original proposal. Joining the ranks of council members floating changes to the rate proposals are Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo, who prior to the meeting’s 10 a.m. start will “announce a proposed alternative to Austin Energy’s recommended rate increase.”

Photo by KUT News

KUT Radio’s broadcast news reporting is also available online. Here’s a mid-week look at what we’ve been following.

Austin Energy Rates Get Another Hearing This Week:

“The rate increase would be cut into two phases — most of the increase starting this year, the rest in 2014; $105 million would be transferred from Austin Energy’s budget to the city’s general fund;  and churches and small businesses would get a discount. So would customers outside the city limits.

People using 200 kilowatt-hours of energy or less each month would get the smallest bill.

The changes were meant to address some criticism of the utility’s first proposal. But some critics say the changes don’t go far enough.”

City to Vote Soon on Weekend Night Rail:

“The City of Austin and Capital Metro are getting closer to hammering out a deal on weekend Red Line rail service.

Jeff Heimsath for KUT

Plans to expand Capital Metro’s rail service haven’t enjoyed a smooth roll-out.

The transit authority told KXAN yesterday its plans on launching weekend service on its MetroRail commuter line during this spring’s South by Southwest festival.

However, a report from Austin American-Statesman‘s Ben Wear notes there’s still no agreement between Cap Metro and the City of Austin, which is expected to fund the extra rail service. He quotes Austin City Council member and Cap Metro board chair Mike Martinez as saying, “The bottom line is, there’s no deal.”

The soonest any formal action could occur on the proposal is next week. At their Feb. 9 meeting, city council is slated to take up an item providing for the extra funding. The cost of expanding Friday rail service into the evening and running the service on Saturday is tallied at $2.2 million annually, with two optional year-long contract extensions.

Photo by Wells Dunbar, KUT News

New signs are in place at Capital Metro bus stops around town. But instead of a list of times, they feature an identification number for that specific stop, and information on how to learn more about the next bus arrival. The signs include a quick response (QR) code , which people can scan with their smartphones to open a mobile website containing upcoming arrival times for that individual spot.

It’s a technological step forward for Capital Metro, which is in the process of installing site-specific signs at each of its 2,700 bus stops around Austin.

However, the times Capital Metro displays are the set, static times the transportation agency displays in their schedule books. Real-time information on bus arrivals and departures are still some two years away, the agency says.

Daniel Reese

As if awaking from a two year hibernation, a sub-committee of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) held its first meeting this afternoon with a new leader and new members. The Transit Working Group (TWG) was restored in time to prepare for Austin’s soon-to-come vote on an urban rail system.

The working group was first established in 2007 under Austin Mayor Will Wynn. He decided the city needed an urban rail or street car system. But nothing really came out of it. Now, Mayor Lee Leffingwell is leading the TWG.

“The big difference between this group and the one of that before is our focus is going to be regional,” Leffingwell said.

Image by Transit Authority Figures

Update (June 17, 2014):  This story from 2011 is enjoying a second-life on the Austin Reddit page. After being posted there it inspired a discussion with over 160 comments. For more on a potential Austin subway, see this report from StateImpact Texas: Why Texas Doesn't Have Subways.

While there are no plans for a subway, Austin's plans for Urban Rail are proceeding rapidly. See KUT's combined reporting on Urban Rail here. And read our latest reporting:

Original story:  A piece of wall art making the rounds online depicts a subway system for Austin that would put this city’s public transit system on par with densely populated cities in the Northeast. The creation is produced and sold by Transit Authority Figures, based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The poster had many people wondering aloud why Austin couldn’t just go ahead and build a world class subway system. We called up Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development Todd Hemingson and asked him ourselves.

KUT News: Why can’t we have an amazing subway system like this in Austin?

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

A man was hit by the MetroRail train yesterday. Officials say the man was walking on the tracks near Parmer Lane and Mopac at around 5:45 pm. Capital Metro spokesman Adam Shaivitz says that this is the first train-pedestrian incident since MetroRail opened in March 2010.

"The most important thing here is the rail safety reminder. It is illegal and highly dangerous to walk on or near railroad tracks, and this was a very serious example that demonstrates these dangers," said Shaivitz.

Photo by KUT News.

Bastrop On the Road to Recovery

Bastrop County has been in recovery mode for weeks now, but county commissioners this week approved an official wildfire recovery plan. The plan outlines what the tasks for which local agencies will be responsible. The first priority is clearing all of the debris. Bastrop County will also hold several town hall meetings to talk about the recovery efforts. The  first one is is scheduled for October 10th.

People got a chance to climb aboard the possible future of Austin's mass transit system on Thursday. Kinkisharyo, a Japanese-based streetcar manufacturer, is taking its new prototype on an American tour.

The streetcar runs on a combination of power from batteries and overhead wires, storing energy when the train brakes and eliminating the need for overhead wires in parts of the route, Kinkisharyo project manager Bill Kleppinger said.

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

Tight budget times have agencies, companies, families, everybody… looking for creative ways to either spend less money or make more. Capital Metro’s starting to explore that “make more money” option.

The transit agency hired a consultant to look into the value of the naming rights to its rail and “park and ride” stops.  Cap Metro’s Audit and Finance Committee’s meeting at 12 noon today to start talking about the naming rights option, and to see much they might be able to make off the venture. 

Photo by Mose Buchele for KUT News.

Capital Metro's Red Line train service turns one year old this Tuesday. Officials are pointing to higher rider numbers in recent months as proof that the commuter rail is catching on.

"Most of last year our average daily boarding were in the 800 to 900 range. In January that bumped up to about 1000, February to 1,200, and in March with some of the special service and huge crowds for South By Southwest we've seen much higher numbers just looking at the daily estimates so far," said Adam Shaivitz a spokesperson for the Transit Agency.

Callie Hernandez for KUT News

If you see something that looks like a commuter train wreck in Williamson County tonight, it's only a test.  Capital Metro will conduct an emergency drill involving the MetroRail commuter service starting at 8:00 p.m. this evening somewhere between Leander and Lakeline stations.

No new Capital Metro bus service will start in Cedar Park next month after the Austin suburb's city council voted 3-3 last night on the proposal. The stalemate meant council would not take action to approve the approximately $80,000 that Cedar Park would have to pay Cap Metro for the one year pilot.

"One of my main concerns was that CapMetro receives funding from the federal government because of the population of City of Cedar Park," Council Member Tony Dale told KUT News in explaining why he opposed the deal.

CapMetro Cedar Park map
Image courtesy CapMetro

Austin's public transit agency Capital Metro has announced that it will begin a one-year trial service to the exurb of Cedar Park.

Cedar Park City Council still has to vote on the measure at its next meeting on December 16. Under the deal, Cedar Park and Austin Community College would pay CapMetro almost $117,000.

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