Saturday, August 30, 2008

Riders, Riders Everywhere

A letter to the editor in today’s Austin American-Statesman stated that Capital Metro is not addressing the increased ridership growth, specifically on Route 935. Since the Statesman prefers to keep letters to about 150 words, we’ll use some extra space on the blog to take a closer look.

First, it’s important to remember that when we assign buses, we have many routes to consider. If we solely address the needs of Route 935, then we’d be neglecting other routes with the same issues. We have to look at the system and make decisions based on ridership and safety. And yes, don't forget about the "b" word (budget).

Capital Metro monitors ridership very closely to make sure we match the largest buses with the busiest routes whenever possible (there are other factors to consider; for example, some streets and intersections cannot safely accommodate larger buses).

Staff worked diligently over the summer to respond to customer and bus operator feedback about crowded buses by:

1. Reinstating some trips on routes 982 and 983 that we normally scale back in the summer
2. Sending an extra bus to supplement route 935 during the morning rush
3. Adding an extra bus to route 990 (this particular route normally operates with smaller vehicles and limited trips)
4. Purchasing an extra 45-foot express bus which went into service about a month ago

This is in addition to making tweaks to bus assignments on a regular basis.

We’re not finished. Just a few days ago, our Board of Directors approved the purchase of eight 40-foot buses which we hope to add to the fleet in the next few months. And we’re still looking at other possibilities to supplement our fleet.

Are we still facing challenges with crowded buses? You bet, especially now that we’re in our fall schedules and school is back.

Getting back to the budget, the massive increase in fuel costs also affects how we're able to respond to service growth. Diesel fuel prices have increased more than 336 percent in the past five years. Fuel is expected to be about 14 percent of our total operating budget in the upcoming fiscal year.

You can be sure that Capital Metro will continue to work hard to address the needs of our community as resources allow.
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Friday, August 29, 2008

StarTran and the Transit Union to Continue Discussions

StarTran and the transit union have agreed to continue contract negotiations and have set a date to meet, on Sept. 10.

At this time, Capital Metro does not anticipate a service disruption, as we're hopeful that StarTran and the union will work together in good faith to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

It is in the best interests of everyone, especially the Austin community, that the buses keep rolling!
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Get on the E-Bus to avoid the BAT bus!

Yesterday Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and his staff brought over the BAT (Breath Alcohol Testing) bus to Capital Metro headquarters for some show and tell.

Are you familiar with the Austin Police Department’s BAT bus? Here's a KXAN video tour of the bus.

I advise watching the video, because the only other way to see it up close and personal is if you are escorted there in handcuffs, and it won’t be Christian Bale to show you around but one of APD’s finest. The BAT bus is a mobile mini police station specifically for the processing of those arrested for DWI. Officers can handle paperwork and administer the breathalyzer test at the bus, greatly reducing the amount of processing time required at the jailhouse. Because it’s mobile, APD can target specific neighborhoods (read: Downtown) as needs arise.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, Assistant Chief David Carter and Commander Troy Gay show Capital Metro CEO Fred Gilliam the BAT bus.

Police Chief Acevedo addressed the Capital Metro Board yesterday to thank them for the successful partnership that APD and Capital Metro have enjoyed. You may recall last month we detailed the training class we held to help police officers prepare for operating the BAT bus and obtain their commercial drivers licenses. The BAT bus itself was also donated to APD by Capital Metro, and in July it went on its maiden run. On a Friday or Saturday night, around 1:30 in the morning, police cars start streaming into the parking lot where the bus is parked, according to one officer. As many as 25 people a night might have a brief layover at the BAT bus before getting whisked off to the pokey.

Of course, you can avoid the threat of getting hauled to the BAT bus altogether by leaving the keys at home and taking Capital Metro. Tonight, Capital Metro's three E-Bus routes start up for UT's Fall 2009 semester. Although anyone can ride the E-Bus, it predominately serves college students and ferries them safely to/from the downtown entertainment district and the UT Main Campus, West Campus, and East Riverside neighborhoods. E-Bus Routes operate from about 8:30 p.m. to approximately 3:00 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when school is in session (except holidays). An average of 2,000 riders a night make use of the service, unclogging downtown and making Austin streets safer.

And don't forget about the six Night Owls, which operate every night of the week except Monday nights and serve the downtown entertainment district and neighborhoods all over the city, from about midnight to 3:30 a.m. Catch a local route to downtown, and then ride a Night Owl home. Check out the Night Owl maps and schedules.
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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nostalgic Silver 'Dillo farewell

One of the benefits of working for Capital Metro is that you get free travel on all our buses. We just show our ID to the operator. Throw in the high cost of gasoline and the fact that my wife and I only own one car and I’ve become a regular rider in the 15 months since I started here. I do drive occasionally, but I find that having “bus time” to read the paper or listen to something on my iPod or just chill out is something that I look forward to. As a Cap Metro employee, riding for me is also a great way to better understand our system, facilities, and customers.

Until Friday I had three options to get to the Capital Metro building at Pleasant Valley and East 5th Street. I could take the 331 from near my house off South Lamar over to the 300 from East Oltorf and Burton, or ride the 3 downtown and catch either the 17 or the Silver ‘Dillo east to our building. During the day if I needed to run downtown it was always great to be able to catch either the 17 or the ‘Dillo.

But part of my routine changed over the weekend. As I waited for the 5:11 Silver ‘Dillo to take me downtown to meet friends after work this past Friday I realized that it was going to be the last time I rode the Silver ‘Dillo – that in fact as of this weekend there is no more Silver ‘Dillo. The ‘Dillo routes have all be reworked (more details can be found here) and while I agree with reasons behind the restructuring it meant that I had one less option for my own travel.

So my last Silver ‘Dillo on Friday evening was uneventful. That it was a rainy evening was the only thing unusual about the trip. There were probably 9 passengers on the bus when I got on, and it varied between 8 and 14 as we made our way through the eastside and then downtown. As we neared downtown I looked around and saw a pretty representative assortment of Austinites – there was a guy in a sleeveless shirt who had with him a blue furniture dolly (what was that about?); a couple of young guys both headed downtown to go out who got on separately but knew each other; a girl who had her nose in some sort of textbook, two construction workers in their work boots done for the day; and a Capital Metro driver just along for the ride heading to Congress Ave to pick up the bus he would be driving for the evening from another driver.

Friday traffic and vans unloading speakers and equipment in front of the bars along 6th slowed us down -- another Friday night was kicking off. After we crossed Congress I pulled the cord and hopped off at West 6th and Rio Grande in front of Katz’ Deli and said farewell to the Silver ‘Dillo. Then I shot a quick glance over to the two young guys who had gotten off with me and hoped that I hadn’t said it out loud.
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Monday, August 25, 2008

The South Congress Transit Center Opens for Business

This morning (and several days last week) Capital Metro staff were stationed at some key bus stops to help riders get on the right buses after the significant service changes that became effective yesterday.

One of the outreach locations was the new South Congress Transit Center on Ben White west of Congress, whose central clock tower is reminiscent of Austin's historic moon towers.

The new facility has a kiss and ride drop off area and some limited parking (including motorcycles and scooters) for customers, with priority parking for RideShare carpoolers.

Six routes serve the new facility: 1L, 1M, 9, 101, 328, and new route 202. Capital Metro plans to add more routes in the future. This morning, in addition to handing out Krispy Kreme donuts to celebrate the opening, Capital Metro staff directed riders to the correct bus bays and answered other questions.

Some of the other amenities at the South Congress Transit Center include bike racks, emergency call boxes, vending machines, and native plant landscaping.

As one of my favorite transportation planners here summed it up, "The facility looks really great." Here, here! I hope customers like it, too.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Capital Metro Services Running on Schedule

I was happy to see the bus rolling down my street this morning--Capital Metro bus and paratransit services are running as scheduled. Last night, the transit union did reject the final contract offer from StarTran, Inc.; however, contract negotiations may resume.

If a strike occurs, StarTran and Capital Metro are prepared to serve the public by operating key bus routes. The most current route information will be posted on the Capital Metro Web site.
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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Important Notice for Capital Metro Customers

Today, as the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 (ATU 1091) votes on StarTran’s final contract offer, Capital Metro customers can continue to depend on service. Should a service interruption occur, StarTran and Capital Metro are prepared to serve the public by operating key bus routes.

Capital Metro remains hopeful that the union and StarTran can come to an agreement; however, customers should be prepared for possible transit service disruption. Capital Metro cannot predict if or when a strike may occur, but the Authority will be ready to operate on a reduced level of service to provide coverage to the busiest routes and those that serve major destinations such as hospitals, schools, the central business district, and areas with a high number of riders.

In the event of a transit union strike, Capital Metro will operate a basic network of bus routes daily from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., at least every 45 minutes. No fares will be charged during a strike. UT Shuttle routes and the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) services are expected to operate as originally scheduled. UT Shuttle routes are available to the general public and may provide viable transportation options in lieu of riders’ regular routes.

Information about specific routes in operation during a strike will be maintained on the Capital Metro Web site.

Capital Metro will assign staff to park and ride facilities and other major transfer points to assist customers in the event of a strike.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

If you loved the Red 'Dillo...

We've been extolling the virtues of Capital Metro's zippy new 'Dillos, which will roll down Congress (Route #450) and 5th and 6th Streets (Route #451) beginning this Sunday, August 24.
The 'Dillos have straightforward, easy-to-remember routes and schedules. A new 'Dillo will be coming along every five minutes during the week and 11 minutes on weekends, making downtown travel easy.

But if you've been using the Orange 'Dillo to go to lunch on Manor Road, for example, or the Silver 'Dillo to get to Deep Eddy Pool, you might not be quite so keen (yet) on the new system. We've made modifications to other routes and have assembled some trip tips to provide some easy alternatives for you.

Blue Dillo: For lunchtime walk to Congress Ave. and board the 450 Congress 'Dillo, with service every five minutes from 17th Street to Riverside.

Gold 'Dillo: Take Route 3 from Lamar, which has been rerouted to serve ACC Rio Grande.

Orange 'Dillo: Route 450 Congress 'Dillo will travel to most of the places the Orange 'Dillo would take you. For service to East Campus try Route 18 MLK or 10 Red River. For Manor Road restaurants catch Route 20.

Red 'Dillo: Route 4 has been extended to Lake Austin Blvd. and Veterans Drive. Morning and afternoon trips will be made to Austin High School. From downtown, Route 3 will provide service to the West Campus of UT and to ACC Rio Grande.

Silver 'Dillo: Route 4, which runs on 7th Street, will serve West 5th and 6th Streets and the Austin High area. Riders from Pleasant Valley and E. 2nd Street can use Route 17 Cesar Chavez to reach downtown.

These tips, along with lots of other information about the major changes occurring on Aug. 24, are printed in the Service Change Guide, free on all the buses and available on our Web site.
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Major Service Change Aug 24

Capital Metro is gearing up for a major service change on August 24. In preparation, we want to make sure you are aware of the changes and understand how your routes will be impacted.

This service change includes the new ‘Dillo routes, expanded service on the 1L and 101, and the opening of the new South Congress Transit Center. We’ve also made major changes to all of our paired routes, and will say goodbye to the Capitol Transfer Center at 11th and Congress, which is closing.

Click here for more details on the upcoming changes. New route maps, system maps and schedules will be updated on our Web site next week. Also, the new Destinations schedule book will go on sale August 18 at local H-E-B stores and at our Transit Store at 323 Congress for just $1.

Thanks for Riding Capital Metro!
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Monday, August 11, 2008

On Board with Capital Metro

The Austin American Statesman published the following editorial today regarding contract negotiations between StarTran and ATU Local 1091:

Most private sector workers offered a $1,000 bonus, a 10 percent pay increase over the next three years and excellent health benefits would jump at it. It's different in the world of public employee unions. Austin's police union initially asked for nearly 20 percent over four years for its members, already the highest paid in the state. Austin's teachers' union wants a 5 percent hike each of the next two years and millions more for health coverage. Both would mean higher taxes for Austin residents who pay for those salaries and benefits.

Now Capital Metro's union leadership seems to be balking at a proposal for a $1,000 bonus and a 10 percent pay hike over three years. The 825 unionized drivers and mechanics really have to wonder why.

That's the same leadership that called a disastrous strike while Austin housed thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who needed mass transit, the same leadership that has kept workers without a contract for more than a year.

Capital Metro is offering a solid contract in a difficult economic time. Management is asking for employees to pay slightly more in heath benefits, but no more than non-union employees pay. Capital Metro's union employees will still have the best health care plan around for public employees, better than the City of Austin's plan and the state's.

One legitimate concern that should be on the table for discussion is that the proposed contract appears to allow Capital Metro to reduce the health care plan without union approval. Health care is too important to allow it to be changed during the contract period without membership approval.

Capital Metro Board Member Mike Martinez is also an Austin City Council Member intimate with both sides of union negotiations. He's a former head of the city's firefighters union now on the other side of the bargaining table representing taxpayers.

Martinez said the contract offer is a good one, and if the health care issue can be worked out, union members should OK it. The 10 percent pay increase, he noted, is higher than growth in the sales tax that funds Capital Metro. It's also more than the city is offering its employees. "It has to be acknowledged that this is a good proposal," he said.

Capital Metro's bus drivers are the highest paid in Texas and among the highest paid in the country. New drivers will start at more than $12 an hour and reach $20 an hour after six years. The top salary, with overtime, approached $90,000 last year.

Martinez is optimistic that, with some tweaking, the contract will be acceptable to union members, who vote on it Aug. 20. It should be.

In these dark economic times, there is no good reason for union members to reject Capital Metro's proposal, and thousands of dollars worth of good reasons to ratify it.
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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rumor Control: Balancing the Budget

As a public agency, Capital Metro takes its fiscal responsibilities very seriously. No matter how you feel about the many difficult decisions we have to make, we want to make sure you have the facts about our finances.

Perhaps you’ve read or heard people say that Capital Metro makes a huge profit every year. It was even suggested in a recent news story that we are “projecting a profit of more than $30 million for the 2008 fiscal year.” Let’s set the record straight.

Capital Metro’s fiscal year 2008 budget lists revenue at $203 million (rounded). Revenue sources include sales tax, passenger fares, grant funding, investment income and more.

The expense side is where people sometimes make a mistake about “profit.” Expenses or expenditures are divided into two parts: operating and capital. Operating expenses include wages & benefits, service providers for operations, materials & supplies (including fuel), utilities, taxes, insurance and more. The budgeted operating expenses for 2008 add up to $169 million (rounded). When you subtract that from the revenue total, it leaves about $34 million. This is what’s often misinterpreted as a profit. Actually, it is the net income before subtracting capital expenses.

How much do we subtract for capital expenses in the 2008 budget? $34 million. Capital expenses include vehicles, equipment, bus stop amenities/accessibility upgrades, facilities, technology, Build Central Texas (BCT) payments to suburban communities and more.

As we prepare the fiscal year 2009 budget we face many challenges including the rising cost of fuel and the public’s demand for expanded service. The proposed budget will be posted at the end of the month for public review and feedback. The final proposed budget will be adopted in September 2008.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Adopt-a-Stop Program Grows

Capital Metro’s Adopt-a-Stop program is growing, literally.

Children from the Primavera Montessori School have been hard at work to beautify a bus stop in front of their school. The students were involved in designing the layout of a flower bed, picking out plants and planting and maintaining them. Their teacher says her students are proud of their effort of creating a beautiful space for bus riders to enjoy.

Just recently, Keep Austin Beautiful awarded a grant to the University of Texas Landscape Architecture program to adopt three bus stops. The project will include a competition where students will submit design proposals that may include shading the bus stop through vegetation and shelter structures, seating, accommodation of trash/recycling facilities as well as low-maintenance planting designs. The winning student teams will be able to construct their designs.

Click here for more information about the Adopt-a-Stop program. If you’re interested in adopting a stop near you, please contact Alissa Schram at

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Friday, August 1, 2008

SUV Driver Seeks Commute Solutions

Today the Austin American Statesman printed a letter to the editor from an SUV driver who decided to take the bus for her 13-mile trip to work. But she was frustrated about the transfers and the significant time added to her commute.

Certainly the bus schedules aren’t going to work for everyone. And you should indeed consider the time vs. money trade off when you’re deciding on the best way to get around. But it’s important to remember that the bus is not the only way to dump the pump. Our RideShare program provides alternatives to help reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles on the road. In addition to managing Capital Metro’s popular vanpools and hybrid carpools, RideShare can help match you with others looking to form carpools.

Talk to your neighbors and co-workers too. If the bus doesn’t work for your daily commute, perhaps there’s someone you live near or work with who is in the same situation. Sounds like a perfect match for a carpool.

Many employers are taking a closer look at ways to ease their employees’ pain at the pump. Telecommuting, compressed work weeks or flexible work hours may be an option. Our RideShare staff can assist with setting up employer-sponsored transportation solutions.

Just like the bus schedules, these ideas may or may not work for you. But it’s good to know that there are options out there.

Getting back to the point of having to transfer too many times, in future posts we'll update you on Capital Metro's Comprehensive Operational Analysis which will directly address the issue of bus routing and alignments throughout our system.

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