Capital Metro expects to return to full service in August
As Capital Metro's leadership celebrated the start of construction on a new high-frequency bus line Wednesday, riders across the city were still stuck with reduced service and wondering when schedules would return to normal.
The answer, CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke said, is by the start of the new school year.
"When UT comes back and AISD and the school systems come back, kind of the middle part of August, we expect to get back into full service then," Clarke said.
Clarke spoke to KUT after a group of elected officials — including Austin's mayor, CapMetro board members, the county attorney and a member of Congress — donned hard hats and silver shovels to celebrate the start of construction on the Pleasant Valley MetroRapid line.
The bus rapid-transit route, part of the $7 billion voter-approved transit expansion known as Project Connect, will run 14 miles from Goodnight Ranch in Southeast Austin to the Mueller Development in Northeast Austin. Electric buses are expected to run every 10 minutes during peak hours when service begins in late summer 2023.
Construction is starting soon on the new Pleasant Valley MetroRapid line. A roster of locally elected officials joined the @CapMetroCEO this morning to don construction hats and toss dirt on the ground with silver shoves in celebration. pic.twitter.com/FW5BOOPmAI— Nathan Bernier (@KUTnathan) February 16, 2022
In the meantime, bus riders have become frustrated with slashed frequency on routes as the transit agency reels from staffing shortages spurred by the pandemic.
In September, CapMetro started reducing frequency on at least 17 routes. COVID-related employee absences made service even worse in January.
As the omicron wave subsides, only a handful of employees are calling out each day from being ill or having to quarantine, instead of the 30 or 40 workers who were out sick daily last month.
"There's no question we are not delivering the service as much as I and our other customers would like right now," Clarke said.
Clarke was quick to add that some MetroExpress commuter routes might not be restored because of low ridership numbers.
Commuter bus service has seen the sharpest pandemic-era declines in ridership among all CapMetro's routes. MetroExpress ridership is still down 90% as more suburban commuters are able to work from home. Two of the 12 MetroExpress routes — the 981 Oak Knoll Express and 987 Leander/Lakeline Express — were suspended.
"It doesn't really make sense to run a bunch of commuter buses with no people," Clarke said.
CapMetro has taken steps to try to recruit more bus operators amid a nationwide shortage of drivers that has affected transit agencies from coast to coast.
Late last year, the agency's board of directors approved a deal with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 that offered a pay hike to frontline employees at the start of 2022. The starting wage for drivers is now $22. New recruits are eligible for bonuses of $1,500. The bonus rises to $3,500 for new hires with a commercial driver's license.
Prior to that, bus drivers had been starting at $17.50 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that added up to $36,400 annually. That starting salary was just slightly above the threshold for a "very low income" for a one-person household in Travis County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. CapMetro says most drivers earn extra by working overtime.
Since the new wages took effect six weeks ago, the agency has seen an increase in recruits. CapMetro now has more than 60 people in training, which is the most in the agency's history, Clarke said.
But the regional transit agency is still facing daily challenges to keep the buses running on time.
This week, students taking route 670 — a UT Austin shuttle operated by Capital Metro that serves the East Riverside area — had to wait an hour or more. Some buses were canceled.
"First, I'd apologize," Clarke said when asked what he'd say to a student who missed class. "It's certainly not intentional. We had a bad day yesterday."