Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What a weekend!

Have you recovered from this past weekend yet? Gladly, I can say that I have and I enjoyed my time spent at ACL Fest. I'm also happy to report that our shuttle service went off without a hitch and ridership was up!

The ACL Fest Shuttles operated Friday through Sunday with a total of ridership of 101,252. That means 1,300 more people rode the shuttles this year compared to last year. Capital Metro's Director of Transportation says that operation of the shuttles was the smoothest she's ever seen and it could not have been accomplished without the incredible help from Capital Metro staff and family members that volunteered for the event.

While many were heading to Zilker Park on Saturday, thousands of UT Fans were headed to the football game. We transported 7,208 riders on the Huddle Shuttle, more than 1,000 additional riders compared to the previous game.

As an agency, we showed tremendous team work and appreciate all of the efforts put forth by our staff and our service providers at StarTran, First Transit and Veolia. This past weekend was a success and we're pleased to have provided such great service for our community.
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Friday, September 26, 2008

Untangling the Regulatory Web

The Railway Age story I posted yesterday also included a sidebar focusing on how tricky it can be to apply a mode definition (light rail or commuter rail) to a system like Capital MetroRail, as well as the complex process for determining regulatory authority.

I'll bold the paragraph that first mentions Capital Metro. But I encourage you to read the whole thing:

Untangling the Regulatory Web
By Joe North, NJ Transit General Manager - Light Rail Operations
Railway Age – September 2008

Diesel light rail transit (DLRT) vehicles that do not comply with current FRA regulations have significantly lowered capital and operating costs for certain types of medium capacity rail transit projects. DLRT works best when it can be used on existing tracks where the volume of passenger and freight traffic can be adequately operated within the constraints of temporally-separated freight and passenger windows. However, there are two areas of regulatory complexity that could negatively impact future DLRT projects.

First, transit agencies, especially properties building their first rail transit system, may not understand the FRA/FTA joint Policy on Shared-use Operations as it relates to the FRA’s regulatory authority. Some transit agencies mistakenly believe that shared-use regulatory authority is vested completely in FTA under 49 CFR 659, the State Safety Oversight Rule for Rail Fixed Guideway Systems. The joint policy is clear as it related to FRA’s regulatory authority. Shared-use transit operations on shared track on the general railway system are regulated first and foremost by FRA regulations, then by whatever waivers the FRA may grant, in conjunction with the appropriate State Safety Oversight rules under 49 CFR 659.

Second, FRA has statutory authority to make a jurisdictional determination as to your “particular type” of passenger operation (see 49 CFR 209, Appendix A). This means that FRA will use its definitions of Commuter Railroad and Urban Rapid Transit Operations to determine the extent of regulatory authority over your shared-use project. A typical shared-use project utilizing non-compliant passenger equipment is not likely to fit either mode definition. FRA recognizes this definitional problem and uses a case-by-case approach to identify specific commuter rail and urban rapid transit characteristics that they are “likely to consider” in determining the extent of their regulatory authority.

I refer to this methodology as determining the “mode” of your system because past decisions show that it can result in one of two responses. FRA may determine that your project is a light rail system operating a non-compliant vehicle under FRA regulations with a shared-use waiver, or it may determine that your project is a commuter railroad. The latter response can be problematic for the agency that has already purchased a non-compliant vehicle without understanding the potential consequences of jurisdictional determination.

FRA’s criteria for exercising jurisdictional determination considers factors such as the characteristics of the service area (urban, suburban, metropolitan), trip length, trip purpose, and service frequencies. Using these factors, the RiverLINE and Sprinter shared-use systems were determined to be characteristic of urban rapid transit and currently operate non-compliant vehicles under a combination of FRA regulations, shared-use waivers, and state safety oversight programs. Triangle Transit’s suspended project between Raleigh and Durham and Capital Metro’s almost completed project in Austin were determined to be commuter rail using the same factors. An extenuating circumstance for Austin was Texas DOT’s initial position that it would not provide State Safety Oversight under 49 CFR 659. All four systems share similar service and operational characteristics, but two were granted waivers to operate as light rail and two were determined to be commuter railroads. Neither the relevancy of the factors used to determine jurisdiction, nor how they have been applied, are easy to understand.

The transit agency’s choice of vehicle can be a sensitive subject in and of itself on any rail project. On shared-use projects, the selection of a non-compliant DLRT vehicle is usually a critical factor for the agency trying to advance medium-capacity project capable of in-street operations. However, FRA regulations state that the choice of vehicle is not a factor in determining jurisdictional authority. Conflict is inevitable when one party views an element of a project as critical, and the other says it has no bearing. That conflict can be heightened when, as in the case of Austin, the non-compliant vehicle is on site before FRA has made its jurisdictional determination. Rail transit projects that may be viable on an operating and cost basis as light rail may not be as viable as commuter rail. Simply put, the additional capital and operating cost of commuter rail may be overkill for the typical medium-capacity DLRT vehicle.

Consideration should be given to shared-use policy changes that allow the agency to self-select a mode through a choice of compliant or non-compliant vehicles, in conjunction with FRA requirements for temporal separation and other operational safety requirements for shared-use systems selecting non-compliant vehicles. Self-selection of mode by vehicle type is likely to be a controversial topic with federal regulators and with transit agencies that are philosophically opposed to any FRA involvement in rail transit. However, self-selection has a simple and attractive logic. If the mission is to move medium-sized passenger loads on shared track where freight and passenger business needs can be addressed within the constraints of a temporally separated environment, choose a non-compliant vehicle and operate as a light rail system under FRA’s shared-use regulations. If the mission is to move high volumes of passengers where freight and business needs cannot be adequately accommodated in a temporally-separated operating environment, chose a compliant vehicle and operate simultaneous passenger and freight service under FRA regulations for commuter and freight railroads.

In the meantime, the best strategy for any transit agency interested in developing a shared-use project is to follow FRA’s policy advice and meet with FRA as soon as possible. Ideally, this should be done during the project definition phase and no later than the beginning of preliminary engineering. Transit agencies should recognize the FRA’s broad regulatory authority over shared-use rail transit projects and focus more on obtaining a jurisdictional determination that is compatible with their project mission. The critical shared-use issue for transit agencies to be concerned with is not the FRA’s regulatory authority over shared-use operations. It is the FRA’s jurisdictional determination process and how it relates to defining your project as light rail or commuter rail.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Light Rail / Commuter Rail, Round 2

Interesting story in September's Railway Age magazine:

DLRT seeks its niche
The “new” rail mode still may need to define itself more clearly if FRA is going to grant enough regulatory room to let it grow.
By Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

Less than a decade ago, North American public transit planners had two choices for relatively light-density populations: light rail, powered by overhead catenary, or bus service, fueled, with rare exceptions, by diesel.

That changed dramatically in 2001, as Ottawa, Ont., launched the first diesel-propelled light rail transit (DLRT), the O-Train, using Bombardier Talent cars. In March 2004, NJ Transit’s RiverLINE debuted as the first U.S. DLRT operation, with Bombardier cars connecting Trenton and Camden. Across the continent in California, Siemens-manufactured SPRINTER equipment began revenue operations March 9, under San Diego County’s North County Transit District. In Texas, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Austin) service is expected to begin operations by year-end, with Stadler Rail cars similar to NJT’s.

The common denominator for all four North American DLRT systems is their shared use of rail right-of-way with freight rail operations. Ottawa’s O-Train sees freight service at night provided by Ottawa Central Railway. Conrail Shared Assets is the freight operator traversing the RiverLINE in New Jersey. In San Diego County, BNSF operates three nights per week over the SPRINTER route. In Austin, CMTA owns the right-of-way, contracting with Trans-Global Solutions to serve freight customers and interchange with Union Pacific and BNSF at McNeil, Tex.

Dividing use of such rail routes by time of day (“temporal separation”) has enabled relatively rapid passenger rail service implementation, an attractive alternative to plotting out brand new route rights-of-way, or cobbling together portions of old and/or abandoned rail lines.

But, at least in the U.S., that advantage has been tempered—some might suggest “hampered”—by safety concerns voiced by the Federal Railroad Administration. Citing crashworthiness standards, FRA strongly believes in the need to separate “light” rail vehicles from much heavier freight rail traffic, either through physical separation or—more often for DLRT—enforcing “temporal separation,” different windows of time available for passenger and freight operation.

“People are mistakenly focused on ‘electric’ vs. ‘non-electric,’” says Al Fazio, general manager-Services, Bombardier Transportation North America, who oversees NJT’s River LINE under a DBOM (design-build-operate-maintain) contract. “But DLRT is almost a commuter railcar, an ‘almost compliant’ operation, and as such has a much greater ability to get an FRA waiver” for issues involving temporal separation with freight rail operators using the same line.

To its credit, FRA has remained open to the waiver process, says NJT General Manager-Light Rail Operations Joe North. He notes that NJT applied for its first waiver in July 2000, even before the 34-mile RiverLINE opened for business.

Strong ridership thwarts the critics
Obstacles to DLRT implementation aren’t limited to FRA oversight. The mode’s efficiency and applicability has been slighted by many advocating “true” (electric) light rail, while its cost and flexibility has been called into question by those claiming “Bus Rapid Transit” is “just like rail, but cheaper.” Others, be they self-proclaimed Not-In-My-Back-Yard protesters, environmentalists, or local chambers of commerce, have demanded evidence that the mode will draw riders.

The evidence so far shows DLRT indeed can draw customers. The RiverLINE averaged 8,950 weekday riders in the agency’s fourth fiscal quarter (April-June), up from an average of 7,577 in the comparable 2007 quarter, North says.

Younger sister SPRINTER has lived up to its name since opening March 9; its passenger count for the two-week period ending Aug. 1 averaged in “the high 7,000s for weekdays,” according to NCTD spokeswoman Sarah Benson.

Walt Stringer, NCTD’s manager of light rail operations, adds, “We expect ridership to take another jump in September as several colleges along the corridor return to fall sessions. Sprinter service recently expanded on weekends, and we have a surprisingly diverse daily ridership base.”

Such diversity is fostered by DLRT’s role as a feeder and distributor service.
SPRINTER connects with numerous transit services at several points, including BREEZE buses at all 15 rail stations. Oceanside’s Transit Center is the line’s busiest station, and riders transfer to and from Coaster, Metrolink, and Amtrak trains, Benson says.

Even the RiverLINE’s most vocal detractors acknowledged that the DLRT service would generate “commuter” ridership to Center City Philadelphia via the transfer provided in Camden, N.J., with PATCO service operated by the bi-state Delaware River Port Authority.

But officials in New Jersey’s Burlington County insisted in the planning stages that many residents were interested in rail travel north, toward Trenton, the state capital—and to points beyond, including New York City. Few believed the county (and parent NJT was officially among the skeptics), but more than 20% of the RiverLINE’s ridership transfers at NJT’s Northeast Corridor Trenton station to and from the NEC itself.

Texas tandem next in line
Before this year ends, Austin, Tex., is expected to join the DLRT party, as Capital Metro readies its 32-mile, nine-station route for debut in late December, “although we may delay the opening to accommodate the construction schedule for two stations that we decided to relocate within the last year,” says Andrea Lofye, Capital Metro’s acting executive vice president and chief operations officer. Capital Metro will put its fleet of six Stadler GTW-2 cars into service, the largest non-FRA-compliant cars in the U.S. (but which do meet European Crashworthiness standard EN 15227). Each car has a capacity of 200 riders, including 92 standees.

Like the RiverLINE and SPRINTER, Austin is anticipating a mix of riders. “Less than one third of our alightings will be downtown; the majority of our service will be station-to-station, as opposed to traditional commuter service,” Lofye says. “Our initial, conservative projection was approximately 2,000 riders a day, based on our fixed-route bus ridership in the corridor.”

Still to be resolved is Austin’s request to the FRA for a temporal separation waiver, similar to that requested by NJT (RA, July, p. 17). “We are working very hard to finalize the remaining details in our operating waiver,” Lofye says. “We share the same goal—we want MetroRail to operate safely at all times.”

But two industry sources, including one Austin-based observer, say Capital Metro initially argued that FTA, not FRA, had jurisdiction over the Austin system; right or wrong, the move irked FRA, one source says. Bombardier’s Fazio says the dispute could dampen other efforts to establish DLRT, including a second Texas line in Denton County, north of Dallas (RA, April, p. 18). The Denton County Transit Authority envisions a 21-mile DLRT route linking Denton with Carrollton, at minimum providing transfer capabilities to the Dallas-based DART light rail system, already serving Carrollton. Fazio notes Denton County is even eyeing interoperability over portions of the electrified DART system. That, more than potential freight conflicts, makes it mandatory for Denton County to contact FRA without delay. “It’s a great idea, but it could trigger issues of car compatibility with DART, or even FRA oversight of DART,” Fazio says.

Depending on such resolution, other municipalities may seek exploit DLRT’s advantages, such as relatively low startup cost and quick deployment. Or they may once more limit themselves to choosing between LRT or BRT, fearful of surmounting uncertain regulatory hurdles and leaving lower-density areas devoid of rail even as demand for rail service intensifies.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fun at the Museum

If you're looking for something to do with your kids this weekend, check out the new exhibit at the Austin Children's Museum opening this Saturday.

The new exhibit, All Systems Go, will give children insight into the world of transportation. Children will be able to operate a Kid-sized MetroRail train, repair a life-sized bus with foam tires, communicate throughout the exhibit in the Control Center and learn the basic science of transportation in the Energy Lab.

The museum will offer a fun-filled celebration on opening day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The activities include:
  • Capital Metro Bus Viewing – Climb inside a real hybrid Capital Metro bus (parked outside the Museum) and meet a driver who keeps Central Texans moving.
  • Pop Fly – How high can you send your ball? Experiment with everyday objects to turn them into the ultimate launching device.
  • Opposites Attract – Stick with these activities and see what fun magnets can be.
  • Storytime – Every hour enjoy a story and sing-a-longs.
  • Tax Free Shopping –The museum store will offer tax-free shopping in celebration of the exhibit's opening day.
Don't sweat about getting through traffic this weekend. Capital Metro has several routes that will get you to the museum, including the 1L/1M, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 17 20 and Congress 'Dillo.

But if you can't go this weekend, no worries. There's plenty of time to see the exhibit. It will run through May 30, 2009.
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What's in a Name?

A column in Monday’s Austin American-Statesman generated some chatter about what type of passenger rail system Capital Metro will soon be operating. Is it light rail? Is it commuter rail? Is it something else? Will it really matter to a customer riding the train?

To avoid the “less filling – tastes great” dilemma, I usually stick with the brand “Capital MetroRail” or “Red Line” since that’s how it appears on the map. But if the differences between light rail and commuter rail are keeping you up at night, let’s take a closer look.

The reality is MetroRail crosses the traditional lines between light rail and commuter rail. It really is an innovative version of both. It’s quite possible that the Red Line will serve as a template for future rail systems in other cities.

Here are the industry definitions of commuter rail and light rail (courtesy of the American Public Transportation Association); then we'll review some of the Red Line’s characteristics.

Commuter rail (also called metropolitan rail, regional rail, or suburban rail) is an electric or diesel propelled railway for urban passenger train service consisting of local short distance travel operating between a central city and adjacent suburbs. Service must be operated on a regular basis by or under contract with a transit operator for the purpose of transporting passengers within urbanized areas, or between urbanized areas and outlying areas. Such rail service, using either locomotive hauled or self propelled railroad passenger cars, is generally characterized by multi-trip tickets, specific station to station fares, railroad employment practices and usually only one or two stations in the central business district. Intercity rail service is excluded, except for that portion of such service that is operated by or under contract with a public transit agency for predominantly commuter services, which means that for any given trip segment (i.e., distance between any two stations), more than 50% of the average daily ridership travels on the train at least three times a week.

Light rail
is lightweight passenger rail cars operating singly (or in short, usually two-car, trains) on fixed rails in right-of-way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way. Light rail vehicles are typically driven electrically with power being drawn from an overhead electric line via a trolley or a pantograph.

If you’ve been following our project, you can see that MetroRail is the best of both worlds, although it seems to fit more into light rail than anything else. Here are some of the key characteristics:

-Eight of nine stations within City of Austin
-All stations within census-designated urbanized area
-Bi-directional service
-Street-running operation in central business district of Austin
-Station to station movement is a major function of the system
-100% of ridership within urbanized area
-77% of projected morning ridership within City of Austin
-Less than one-third of alightings at downtown Austin station
-Substantial existing and major new development near mid-route stations
-Startup service will be during peak hours only
-Proposed expansion includes addition of midday, evening and weekend service, and increased frequency
-Additional stations anticipated

The Statesman column also covered the issue of federal oversight of the Red Line. Our system was originally designed around operating procedures and equipment that were similar to the River Line in New Jersey and the Oceanside Line in California. Those lines have oversight from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) which is common for light rail. Commuter rail systems typically have Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversight. The regulations for each agency are different since passenger rail lines under FRA typically use larger, heavier, locomotive-hauled vehicles. MetroRail uses a light-rail type vehicle, but FRA retained oversight since we have characteristics of both.

Whatever you prefer to call the Red Line, we’re committed to delivering passenger rail service with the highest levels of quality, safety and customer service.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Avoid Traffic with Capital Metro

Thousands of people will be in Austin this weekend for two major events: the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the University of Texas football game. Whether you're a music lover or a devoted UT fan, you should plan your trip ahead of time to avoid the heavy traffic.

ACL Festival-goers are encouraged to ride our FREE shuttles from Republic Square to Zilker Park. The shuttles begin at 10 a.m each day and the last shuttle picks up after the festival around 11 p.m. We also advise people to catch a local bus route to Republic Square. Click here for more details on the shuttles and a map of the routes near the shuttle pick up location.

UT fans should take advantage of Capital Metro's Huddle Shuttle. The shuttle picks up at two locations, Barton Creek Mall or 51st Street and drops you off near the stadium at Robert Dedman and 23rd Street. The shuttles will begin at Noon on Saturday. Kick off is at 2:30 p.m. Click here for more information.

And, if you're one of the many people who are not going to either event, you should avoid driving around Austin altogether. Take a bus to your favorite museum, boutique or movie theater. Have a safe and happy weekend!

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Alphabet Soup

I have long been meaning to post on our new Automatic Vehicle Location project but given the size and complexity of it, I have been struggling to figure out where to begin. Of course what you don't start you can't finish, so here goes....
What is It?
Most commonly called the Capital Metro ITS project, the AVL project has been somewhat misnamed (more about that in a minute). The Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) project is designed to put GPS (Global Positioning System) devices on all of our fleet so that operations and the public will better know where our vehicles are at any given moment. While a simple concept, the effort required to achieve this is very large and the impact is potentially huge. Over the next few posts I want to explore what the new system will do for everyone and why it is worth the effort.
Why The Funny Name?
When the Automatic Vehicle Location project was first planned and conceived, it was one of the first major introductions of "high-tech" stuff to be rolled out to the public for Capital Metro (not counting Automatic Passenger Counters, and Electronic Fare Boxes). Therefore the term Intelligent Transit Systems was used to describe the project. In general Intelligent Transit Systems are any use of technology that face the public in the area of transportation. So things like smart message signs on the freeway, traffic light pre-emption technology for rapid bus, electronic ticket vending machines at train platforms, video cameras at traffic lights, etc. are all examples of Intelligent Transit Systems. Now that Capital Metro is exploring usage of many new technologies to better the public transit system, it no longer makes sense to call this project the ITS (or Intelligent Transit System) project. So I will attempt to always refer to it as the Automatic Vehicle Location project (AVL for short) to avoid confusion.
What's in It For Me?
That's really the question most people want to know the answer to. I hope to go into detail on this over the next 2 -3 posts broken down by the Mode in which we are rolling it out. The project starts with the technology being placed in the MetroAccess (Paratransit) vehicles first where the greatest cost savings and value to the customer can be realized. Once that fleet is done we plan on rolling it out to the rail vehicles, then the Fixed Route system, and finally the rapid bus system when it comes on line.
Next post will be the details in each of these modes.
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Friday, September 19, 2008

More PARK(ing) Woes

Yesterday Adam posted an Austin Business Journal article that reported Austin as one of the most expensive cities in the nation in which to park. A comment he received:
What the article doesn't address is that high parking prices in garages and lots lead to more and more people circling the block endlessly looking for the coveted metered spot... All the circling obviously contributes to congestion and pollution...

Today there are even fewer of those "coveted metered spots" available downtown. Today is National PARK(ing) Day, and Austin groups, like Save Our Springs Alliance, right, have turned metered parking spots throughout downtown into "mini parks" (if you can block out the whizzing noise of fast-moving and thick traffic).

The 451 'Dillo stops outside of Whole Foods, and there you can visit three of the renegade "parks" (I checked--all three groups had paid the meter).

Here's Whole Foods' Oktoberfest-themed park, complete with a jam box playing Polka tunes. Across the street, the Girl Scouts Council of Central Texas had set up camp--literally--in their parking spot, and visitors could make S'mores over a Coleman camp stove. (But eat up before you jump back on the 'Dillo.)
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Parking Problems

Perhaps this is an indication that we need more public transportation options in Austin:

Austin most expensive Texas city for parking
Austin Business Journal
By A.J. Mistretta

Having trouble finding inexpensive parking in and around downtown Austin? You’re not alone. A new national study shows Austin is among the top 20 most expensive cities in North America for daily parking, and by far the most expensive in Texas.

The Parking in America report from the National Parking Association ranks Austin the 15th most-expensive city on the continent for daily parking, with a rate of $19.50. The only other Texas city to rank among the top 50 in daily parking rates is Houston, with a rate of $17.75. The Capital City also ranks high in short-term parking with a rate of $8 for the first hour. That’s the 12th highest in the country, tied with San Diego, Miami and Calgary, Alberta.

First-hour rates in other Texas cities are: Houston, $6.50; Fort Worth, $5.75; Dallas, $5.25; El Paso, $5; San Antonio, $4.50.

There is some good news for regular parkers. Austin’s monthly rate for an unreserved space is $116, making it the 48th most expensive city on that front. Houston has the most expensive monthly rate in Texas at $169, followed by Dallas at $136.

The most expensive city in the country for monthly parking? New York gets that honor with a monthly rate of $479. The Big Apple is followed by Boston at $437 a month and Honolulu at $389.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Free Rides for Evacuees

Capital Metro is providing free rides to Hurricane Ike evacuees staying at local shelters. Passengers can ride free by showing their shelter-issued wristbands when boarding the bus. We also are providing free schedule books and maps at shelter locations. All Capital Metro services are running on a regular Saturday schedule today. In coordination with the EOC, we will continue to provide special buses as needed. Evacuees needing information should call (512) 974-1110. Read more

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting Ready for Ike

As Hurricane Ike nears the Texas coast, members of the Capital Metro Emergency Team are conferring with other municipal, state and federal groups to help people stay safe.

This morning at 6 a.m., a Capital Metro radio dispatcher reported to the Emergency Operations Center for the Austin area to plan for the arrival of Hurricane Ike. When potential community emergencies arise, the Office of Emergency Management sets in motion a convergence of community leaders, first responders, hospital and social services staff, city staff, and transportation providers to the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center. CTECC is a high-tech facility designed to provide coordination between the dispatch units of 911, police, fire, EMS, Travis County sheriff and constable, Capital Metro, and TxDOT. The Capital Metro radio dispatchers work from this location.

Capital Metro’s involvement in the preparations for Hurricane Ike are twofold: we’ll provide transportation services to evacuees arriving from areas along the Texas coast, transporting people to/from shelters, hospitals and the airport; and, we must also prepare for the safe operation of our regular bus service, given that Austin may receive tropical storm-force wind and rain.

Our liaison to the emergency team sends out regular reports from the Emergency Operations Center to Capital Metro, alerting us to upcoming transportation needs. Earlier today he reported that more than 100 buses full of evacuees from the Galveston area would arrive in Austin this evening. Our buses will be “on call” to help transport them as needed to area shelters and hospitals.

Capital Metro helped transport Gustav evacuees with medical conditions. Photo by Austin American-Statesman Photographer Kelly West.

During the evacuation effort for Hurricane Gustav, Capital Metro transported evacuees with special medical needs from the airport to the Delco Center.

If severe weather comes to the Austin area as a result of Hurricane Ike, it is possible some of Capital Metro’s services will be suspended or delayed. Safety of our passengers, bus operators and our buses is our top priority. Current information will be posted on the Capital Metro Web site as it is available.
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More Money for Mass Transit

Increased ridership and crowded buses due to high gas prices are popular topics on this and other blogs. At Capital Metro, we’re facing the same challenges as transit providers across the country. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal took a closer look at this issue and the possibility of additional federal funding:

Congress Weighs Boosting Funds for Mass Transit
Wall Street Journal

Momentum is building in Congress to increase funding for public transportation as transit agencies struggle to accommodate increased demand from Americans seeking to escape high gas prices.

The Senate banking committee will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine how the government can strengthen mass-transit options as a way to reduce dependence on imported oil. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders debating a new energy bill are considering a range of incentives and new funding for transit agencies.

On Monday, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said a measure that would provide as much as $2 billion in grants and other funding for public transportation appears likely to be included in energy legislation that could be voted on next week. The House has already approved a bill that would provide an additional $1.7 billion to transit agencies over two years. If Congress fails to pass a new energy package this month before adjourning for its election-season recess, a transit-funding boost could still be included in an end-of-session budget resolution.

The legislative push comes as high gas prices are spurring Americans to drive less and use public transportation more. Data being released Tuesday by the American Public Transportation Association show the number of riders on mass-transit systems is growing at an accelerating clip. After rising 2.5% in 2007 from 2006, public-transportation use increased 3.4% in the first quarter of 2008 from the same period a year earlier, and 5.2% in the April-to-June period.

The increased demand is straining many transit agencies, which are already coping with higher prices for fuel, steel and other commodities.

"We are stretched to our limits," said Fred Hansen, general manager of TriMet, a regional mass-transit system in the greater Portland, Ore., area that operates bus and light-rail service. "We need help."

Ridership has risen modestly over the years, Mr. Hansen said, but recently there has been a significant spike. These days, the number of passengers on his trains and buses is around 12% higher than it was a year ago, he said.

Mr. Hansen has taken a number of steps to accommodate some of the new riders, even though he lacks the extra buses and rail cars he needs to greatly expand service. Among them: Keeping older buses in circulation longer, and asking area employers to alter starting times to reduce crowding during peak periods.

TriMet raised fares earlier this month. An "all zone, one-way" fare has risen 25 cents to $2.30. TriMet isn't alone. According to a survey of 115 transit agencies being released Tuesday by APTA, more than 60% of mass-transit systems are considering fare increases and 35% are considering service cuts. Both findings reflect the cost pressures from energy prices that are making it hard for transit officials to maintain service levels at a time when demand is surging.

Mr. Hansen said his agency can stay afloat with its current funding structure, which primarily depends on locally generated revenue. But a greater federal role is needed to enable major service expansions, he said.

Andy Darrell, vice president at New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, plans to deliver a similar message to the Senate banking committee Tuesday.

"What we're seeing around the country is that transit is underfunded and is having a really hard time meeting that demand," Mr. Darrell said. "Our government should be ready to meet that demand, to embrace it."

Read more

Monday, September 8, 2008

Capital Metro FY2009 Budget

Capital Metro's proposed budget for FY 2009 (Oct. 1 - Sept. 30) is now available to the public online.

The Capital Metro Board will conduct a public hearing regarding the proposed budget on Sept. 22, and will consider approval of the budget on Sept. 29.
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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Capital MetroRail: Keeping You Informed

In a letter to the editor in today’s Austin American-Statesman, a Cedar Park resident asked "how these important parts of the (Capital MetroRail) plan were allowed to slide by Cap Metro." He was referring to a recent Statesman article about two of our rail stations that won’t be complete until early 2009.

Actually, we’ve worked hard to keep you informed about the progress and challenges of our project. Every month, our president/CEO writes a letter to the community that we publish in our All Systems Go electronic newsletter. The letter includes a station-by-station MetroRail project update. You can view this month’s newsletter and subscribe here: enewsbuilder.net/capmet/. Read more

Friday, September 5, 2008

Weirdest Commute Contest

Today was the kickoff event for Commute Solutions Month, which aims to raise awareness about the benefits of carpooling and mass transit. What fun! Part of the festivities was the Weirdest Commute contest. I had heard about the guy who rode a motorized bar stool last year, and he was back!

The designer/owner was Mike, and he won second place and a Kona bicycle.

First prize went to Jeff. Check this out, a bat bike! Notice his roller skates, too...

For first place, Jeff won a pair of three day passes to the Austin City Limits Festival.

During Commute Solutions Month, you can win some great prizes, too, by participating in the Commuter Challenge.
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Beefing Up the Huddle Shuttle

Last Saturday was the opening game for the UT football season and the return of the Huddle Shuttle. If you were one of the many Huddle Shuttle passengers, you may have encountered long lines and a longer trip than normal. We acknowledge this caused some frustration. And, as the Assistant Director of Transportation, I assure you we are taking steps to provide better service for the next game.

Increased seating capacity at the stadium prompted more traffic and higher ridership than we were expecting. We also tried some different routes to avoid traffic and get to the stadium quicker.

Here are some of the ways we plan to beef up the service:
* Schedule more buses to arrive at the loading locations earlier
* Increase the amount of buses for the shuttles by 30% (an additional cost of more than $4,000 per game)
* Add more signage to assist passengers returning to the shuttles after the game

Even though we are working out some of the kinks, we’re really pleased with the new drop-off location closer to the stadium. If you want to avoid waiting in line for a ticket, you can buy a season pass for the remaining home games at www.capmetro.org/riding/buy.asp

We want nothing less than quality service for all customers and we hope you’ll stick with us for the remainder of the season. Hook 'em horns!
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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Commute Solutions Month Kickoff

September is Commute Solutions Month. Tomorrow is the official kickoff, and the Commute Solutions Coalition of Central Texas (Capital Metro is a partner) will be celebrating at Republic Square, 4th & Guadalupe, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Festivities include music from Austin Home Grown, food, information booths on commuting options, the UT cheerleaders, Austin Energy's Cody the Clean Air Car, and more.

A highlight of the event will be the Weirdest Commute Contest. Commuters with great imaginations and a tremendous sense of fun are encouraged to participate. I'm sorry I missed the motorized bar stool last year. That's my kind of ride. Judging will begin at noon and the winner will receive a pair of 3 day passes to ACL!

Learn more about Commute Solutions Month and take the Commuter Challenge!

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Detour Drama

If you tried to get around downtown over the Labor Day weekend, you know firsthand how difficult it was to navigate. Several special events closed city streets and created transportation headaches for everyone, whether you were in a car or a bus.

To those who were relying upon Capital Metro, we apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced. Street closures are a big, big deal to us because they create detours for our bus routes and cause some bus stops to temporarily close—in essence they interfere with our business and make it hard for our customers to get around!

Don’t get me wrong. I love all the delightfully Austintatious events in this city, and a number of my friends and coworkers compete in the many foot and bike races in town. But speaking with my Capital Metro Employee Hat firmly in place, street closures are a real pain.

In order to effectively let our customers know about detours that will be in place for an upcoming event, we print and post signage for affected bus stops (and on the buses that run those routes) about a week and a half in advance, and then post the detour information to our Web site during the week before the event. We actually have a staff committee that meets every week to review and plan for special events detours. We also meet regularly with City of Austin staff (the city approves and implements the street closures for special events) so that we can develop bus route detours effectively.

Unfortunately the plans don’t always go smoothly, and the city closes additional blocks, or the streets are closed earlier than we anticipated, and our buses are forced to detour the detour, on the spot. When this occurs, our signage at bus stops and on our Web site is no longer accurate. During major events, Capital Metro’s field supervisors patrol the routes, looking for people who need help catching a detoured bus. With so many routes on detour this weekend, it was hard.

We will continue to work with the city to improve the coordination between them and us for street closures and detours. We have been monitoring closely the work of the city-sponsored Downtown Street Event Closure Task Force and are providing input to that group. Hopefully it’ll be a smoother ride for all of us in the future.
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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

ACC Rio Grande: Get There

A story in today’s Austin American-Statesman highlighted parking problems at ACC’s Rio Grande campus located at 12th & Rio Grande. If you read the story, you might get the impression that Capital Metro’s recent ‘Dillo changes are part of the problem. In reality, there is excellent bus service to this location. Nineteen different routes stop within one to three blocks of the campus.

As we’ve discussed at length here on the blog, Capital Metro launched a revamped ‘Dillo system when fall service changes took effect August 24. At the same time, we changed route 3 to serve ACC Rio Grande. This is a significant improvement over the Red and Gold ‘Dillo routes that used to stop there.

With the old schedule, the Red and Gold ‘Dillos operated from approximately 6:15 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday. Each route came by anywhere from every 13 to 25 minutes depending on the time of day. Now route 3 serves this area every 20 to 23 minutes during weekday mornings and afternoons, and every 40 minutes at night. It runs from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and 6:15 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Capital Metro works closely with ACC to provide transportation options for students, faculty and staff to its campuses. The Rio Grande location is well served by public transportation. Here's a list of all the routes that stop nearby: 1L, 1M, 3, 5, 9, 19, 29, 100, 101, 103, 171, 935, 982, 983, 984, 986, 987 and two UT Shuttle Routes: ER, LA.

With the improvements we’ve made to route 3 and the existing routes that serve this area, we hope that students, faculty and staff will consider these options.

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