Friday, January 30, 2009

Better Ways to Reach Out

I will be the first to admit that public transit is less than intuitive. Timetables and routes and zones and fare structures are less than intuitive. And the harder it is to use something (like public transit or your cell phone's latest features) the less likely people are to use it. In our business of public transit we are aware of the many barriers to using our system on a daily basis (despite what it may seem like from the outside). Working in the technology group there are however only so many of those barriers that we can address directly (much as I would like to I cannot make the buses come more often). But what we can do is try to make the effort to get information about the system as easy as possible. The theory being that as we knock down barriers to using public transit, more people will want to use it. In that vein, I came across a fascinating article about a little town right here in our neighborhood that has gone off and done something useful in a very ingenious way. While the connection to public transit may not be obvious, let me explain...

Out friends to the south in San Antonio did something smart about 10 years back by putting a unique number on every bus stop in their town. With that number, when someone calls into their phone system or when they visit their website they are able to access information specific to their bus stop simply by referencing the unique number at their stop. This makes it way easier to ask for the next bus to arrive at stop #5413 than to have to describe the bus stop (the one just north of 5th and Congress on the um I think it is the west side of the street... hold on a minute and let me ask someone which side of the street we are on...). This type of short hand is very useful for lowing the barrier to bus and train information. 

Realizing the advantage of this type of shorthand to reference points of interest within the Capital Metro world we have begun the long process of putting unique bus stop numbers at each of our stops as we roll out new signs (the problem with getting this done quickly is that we have to modify 3100+ bus stops and transit centers with a precise piece of information that can't be in error). As we start to get this numeric shorthand in place you will see us roll out the new ability to get stop specific information from our web and IVR systems in this way.

What is exciting about the Manor experiment is that they have taken this concept of a simple reference link to a much deeper source of information and they have proven it can be done for a small amount of money and they have shown that a lot more information can be compressed into a relatively small space. The new form of short hand (in their case a QR code) can be used to convey much more information than a simple 4 or 5 digit number. Of course the hurdle now becomes getting people familiar with a new way of accessing information, but as camera phones become more popular this problem may be solved by other people. (To understand what the city of Manor did and to understand this new way of compressing more information please read the associated article here.)

And for those of you that would like to try this out, I have included a QR code jump below to e-mail me your thoughts. (If you need help deciphering this strange beast, read the article above. If that doesn't work then post a comment on this blog and I will show you how to take advantage of these hieroglyphics.) As always, I would love to hear what you think on this topic and where you think shortcuts like these could best be used in our system.
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cold Weather Buses

Brrr. It's getting cold outside. A winter storm warning will be in effect this evening. Right now Capital Metro has no plans to alter its bus schedules or MetroAccess services because of the weather. People depend on us rain or shine (or snow or ice), and it's a rare event when we reduce services because of the weather.

Whenever freezing temperatures threaten, we actually increase one service, what we call our "cold weather buses." It's one part of a citywide effort to help Austin's homeless stay warm on a cold night. Working with the Office of Emergency Management, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and several other local organizations, Capital Metro provides special transportation from ARCH to area shelters for the night, and then returns people in the morning.

Capital Metro's cold weather buses have already been called into service for this evening. Stay warm!
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A Community of Commuters

This weekend the Dallas Morning News printed a fun article about a social network of women commuters on DART. Their membership is up to 50 women, and in addition to visiting during their daily commutes, they meet for a business networking lunch once a month.

I know here at home, Express route riders often get to know one another and form a small community of sorts. That's a trend I think will spread to MetroRail, too, once it's going. I'm pretty sure we could come up with a snazzier club name than DART's "Blue Line Ladies Lunch Bunch." The MetroRailers? The Red Line Red Hots? Red Line Rogues? The 5 o'clock Sidecars?

Check out the full article from the Dallas Morning News, behind the cut.
Dallas Morning News - January 25, 2009
Women extend DART commute into a network

Judy Appelman and Darlene Bennett have learned to make connections while making connections.

They've turned the daily trek from Garland to downtown into a business network for female DART warriors. Membership in the dues-free legion, the Blue Line Ladies Lunch Bunch, currently stands at nearly 50 women ages 32 to 65.

In addition to communing while commuting, the group meets each month at a lunch spot downtown to socialize with purpose. Someone needs to sell her house. Another needs to find one. Several, including Appelman, are looking for jobs.

More than half of the members are legal assistants and paralegals.

"The only way we're going to survive in this world of new economic realities is by networking with each other," says Appelman, whose hours as director of marketing for an architecture firm were recently pared to part time. "There are 48 people who now know I'm looking for a job."

Sometimes commuters form social groups, but as far as DART knows, this is the first time a business network has coalesced.

"This group has taken on a whole different dynamic," says DART spokesman Morgan Lyons. "This is really cool."

It started last April when Bennett, an executive assistant for an oil and gas chief executive, asked Appelman how she could get to know other women on the train. Bennett, who moved here from California to take care of a seriously ill sister, was "starving for friendship," she says.

Appelman and Bennett set a lunch date for the next week. Becki Woodward, who works in the purchase and sales department of Southwest Securities, overheard their plans and invited herself along. Over Mexican cuisine at Iron Cactus, the idea for a monthly group lunch of Blue DARTers blossomed.

"We started by gathering e-mails on the train," Appelman says. "It was truly that simple. We're not selective at all."

Women only

Guys can't join, Bennett says in hushed tones, as if that were illegal.

"If somebody loses a job, maybe somebody else knows of a job," Woodward says. "I wish the whole world were like this. We're all helpmates."

Last Thursday, nearly two dozen train trekkers gathered at Enchilada's on Elm Street, where the conversation centered on how to expand the club's just-launched Web site. More detailed contact information on everyone would be helpful. Perhaps they should start a reading club. A list of goings-on downtown and where to park cheapest at night would come in handy.

Most get an hour for lunch – but not necessarily the same hour. Forewarned, Enchilada's manager Toni Lopez was happy to accommodate the come-and-go crowd.

They came in small batches beginning at 11:30 a.m. (coinciding with train arrivals at Akard a block away), ordered as they sat down and left when they had to. The last woman caught the Blue Line's 1:23 p.m. northbound.

The group is thinking about doing an after-work happy hour at Mockingbird Station because some can't get away at lunchtime.

There are other benefits. "If someone has car trouble when she gets back to the station, she knows who she's ridden in with that afternoon and can call for help," Appelman says. A half-dozen or so with children at Texas A&M University formed an Aggie Mom subgroup.

"Instead of reading, people feel free to strike up conversations," Bennett says. "I've met some of the nicest ladies on the train and have been blessed in getting to know them."

A rainbow

It's become an endeavor of the heart for Bennett and Appelman, who would like to help start Red Line and Green Line groups.

The folks at DART think that would be just great.

"It shows how transit can create community, a sense of ownership that you can't get while riding alone in your car," Lyons says.
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Friday, January 23, 2009

This is (not) an Emergency

“This is MetroRail #104. I just had a collision with a car at the Metro Drive crossing, and people are injured.” That’s more or less what one of our train engineers will say when he or she contacts rail dispatchers on Thursday morning around 10 o’clock. Fortunately, this is just a test. Capital Metro will stage a rail emergency drill at the crossing by the entrance to the Leander station.

It’ll be a great opportunity for Capital Metro and the first responders to practice coordinated emergency procedures in a “live” situation. We’ll try to make this as realistic as possible. Here’s the scenario: a car speeds through a railroad crossing and is struck by a train. The engineer notifies dispatch, then the dispatcher calls 9-1-1. There will be mock victims with a varying level of injuries and perhaps a few other surprises that we won’t mention ahead of time since you don’t get that kind of advanced warning in a real emergency.

Following the rescue efforts, there will be a debriefing to critique the operation. You can spend years preparing for emergencies—and believe me, we have— but you never know for sure what will happen if and when you ever have to put those plans into action.

Capital Metro meets regularly with the various police, fire and other emergency responders in the area to focus on rail safety and emergency preparedness. Thursday’s drill is just one part of the overall safety and emergency plan.

I wouldn’t want to post something about rail safety without also encouraging you to review these safety tips. I’m sure you’ve heard these things before. But despite the fact that it’s dangerous and illegal to walk on railroad tracks or drive around railroad gates, people still do it.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Capital MetroRail Schedule--First Pass

Hooray! Today I am pleased to share with you the tentative schedule for Capital MetroRail. Note the heavy emphasis on “tentative”—our planning team expects changes to the schedule based on the real-time “practice runs” that begin Feb. 12 along the entire 32-mile line.

This draft schedule allows for seven SB trips and three NB trips in the morning, and then seven NB trips and three SB trips in the afternoon--each weekday. The frequency will be every 30 minutes. See the timetables behind the cut.

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Capital MetroRail Update

The Capital MetroRail system will begin service on March 30, 2009. Here's the latest rail update from Capital Metro President/CEO Fred Gilliam.

Happy New Year. Capital Metro looks forward to beginning a prosperous new year with the opening of Capital MetroRail service. From the 2004 creation of All Systems Go to the 2006 Rail Design Open Houses and now to the preparation of launching Capital MetroRail, we have come a long way in preparing to open the first passenger rail system in central Texas. Of course, we could not have gotten this far without successful community collaboration and support.

We expect to begin service on our 32-mile passenger rail line between downtown Austin and Leander on March 30, 2009. We are working diligently to deliver on our promise to build and operate a safe, reliable and high quality rail system for central Texas.

Below you will find updates on Capital MetroRail.

Station Construction

The ticket vending machines, security cameras and station signage installation has begun for the Downtown, Plaza Saltillo, Highland, Crestview, Lakeline and Leander Stations.

The MLK, Jr. platform is complete; however, the Bus Plaza is still under construction and expected to be complete in February. The Kramer Station west platform should be completed in February and the east platform will be completed in March. Howard Station is progressing as the station platform is nearly complete and the Park & Ride will be finished before the start of service in March.

Signal System and Track Work

The installation of the Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) signal system is complete and testing is now underway. The CTC system will allow dispatchers to see where every train is on the line at all times and manage all signals and switches.

There will be three new sections of track siding that are necessary for the trains to pass each other. The Leander siding is complete and the Kramer and Manor track sidings will be finished in February.

Freight Switch and MetroRail Testing

On February 7, Capital Metro plans to switch freight rail operations overnight between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. Between two to four trains will be traveling during this time.

For safety and noise reduction near residential areas, Capital Metro has installed quad gates at many railroad crossings between Leander and downtown Austin. These safety upgrades allow local municipalities to request quiet zones from the Federal Railroad Administration to permit trains to pass crossings without blowing their horns. This investment is part of Capital Metro’s commitment to safety and quality of life near the tracks.

Once freight has shifted to night, Capital Metro will begin an intensive 45-day testing period in which MetroRail trains will run during weekdays along the entire 32-mile line between Leander and downtown Austin. These “practice runs” will allow us to test the new signal system, finalize the rail schedule and train the MetroRail engineers. This testing is critically important to a successful opening as it allows us to identify and resolve any issues before we have passengers on board.

Open Houses and Grand Opening

We are planning some events in the coming months leading up to the opening in March. In February, Capital Metro will host five open houses at some of the stations to educate future customers on how to ride the MetroRail system. The grand opening celebration is currently being planned for the weekend prior to March 30. See the stories in the ASG Newsletter for more details about these events.

Thank you for your interest in Capital MetroRail. I always appreciate your feedback.

Fred Gilliam
Capital Metro

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Friday, January 16, 2009

i-Ride Winners Roaming Around Town

The i-Ride campaign has come and gone but the winners will live on a little while longer. Seven buses are now roaming around Austin with the faces our i-Ride winners. The new bus wraps display the winners along with their reason for riding the bus. These wraps will be on the buses until March.

For those of you unfamiliar with the campaign, Capital Metro launched i-Ride last year with the intent to use current riders’ stories to encourage others to try transit. We called for customers to share their reasons for riding through stories, videos, songs, artwork, poems, etc. We received over 300 entries with many cool, amusing and heart-warming stories.

So if you happen to see any of these people riding you
r bus, say hello and maybe they will tell you more about why they ride Capital Metro. Read more

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stimulus draft released: $10 billion for transit

The Huffington Post reports that a draft economic stimulus bill totaling $825 billion has been floating around the halls in Washington, which includes $30 billion for highway construction and $10 billion for transit.

Here's an excerpt:

To build a 21st century economy, we must engage contractors across the nation to create jobs - rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing public buildings, and putting people to work cleaning our air, water, and land.
Highway Infrastructure: $30 billion for highway and bridge construction projects. It is estimated that states have over 5,100 projects totaling over $64 billion that could be awarded within 180 days. These projects create jobs in the short term while saving commuters time and money in the long term. In 2006, the Department of Transportation estimated $8.5 billion was needed to maintain current systems and $61.4 billion was needed to improve highways and bridges.

Transit: Public transportation saves Americans time and money, saving as much as 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and reducing carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons each year.

· New Construction: $1 billion for Capital Investment Grants for new commuter rail or other light rail systems to increase public use of mass transit and to speed projects already in construction. The Federal Transit Administration has $2.4 billion in pre-approved projects.

· Upgrades and Repair: $2 billion to modernize existing transit systems, including renovations to stations, security systems, computers, equipment, structures, signals, and communications. Funds will be distributed through the existing formula. The repair backlog is nearly $50 billion.

· Transit Capital Assistance: $6 billion to purchase buses and equipment needed to increase public transportation and improve intermodal and transit facilities. The Department of Transportation estimates a $3.2 billion maintenance backlog and $9.2 billion in needed improvements. The American Public Transportation Association identified 787 ready-to-go transit projects totaling $15.5 billion. Funds will be distributed through the existing formulas.

Amtrak and Intercity Passenger Rail Construction Grants: $1.1 billion to improve the speed and capacity of intercity passenger rail service. The Department of Transportation's Inspector General estimates the North East Corridor alone has a backlog of over $10 billion.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hello, Legislature!

Cheers to the first day of the State's 81st legislative session that began today, because Capital Metro's got a lot on our plate! We're simply trying to keep up with ways to provide the modern-day necessity of transit in an urban area. What's on our wish list, you ask? A lot. OK, it's not that much but it's a fair amount so I'll just write about some of our more interesting initiatives.

Read on for more information and background about each issue, but for ease of reading, here's a short list of some of our priorities:
- Civilian fare enforcement abilities on MetroRail.
- Enhanced security abilities throughout our service area.
- The ability for buses to drive on highway shoulders during massive congestion.
- New community funding sources for transit.

And while not part of the legislative program that our Board asked us to advance, I'll touch upon one more issue that could come up in the session: the referendum required of our agency in order to build, or even operate, passenger rail.

Our Red Line between Leander and Austin opens this March. Seems pretty standard, or at least not unusual, for a transit agency to operate passenger rail—even in Texas—but we still need some changes to state law so that we can more effectively operate a regional rail system. Like Dallas and Houston for example, we won't have barriers or turnstiles to board MetroRail so we’re looking for the ability, also like that of Dallas and Houston, to hire civilian employees who can enforce fares by requesting proof of payment and issuing tickets if necessary. We also need to make sure that the peace officers with whom we contract to serve as some of our security (currently APD) are able to use their law enforcement abilities if there is a crime occurring on Cap Metro property outside of their jurisdiction so this too is on our agenda.

We're also working on a couple of efforts from last session and I'm especially optimistic about one of them this time: the ability for our buses to drive on highway shoulders when roadways become congested, of course only where safe and if approved by TxDOT. We’re very fortunate to work with Senator Jeff Wentworth and his hardworking staff again. They were able to get this passed in the Senate last time but unfortunately we just ran out of time in the House. (New House Speaker Joe Straus led on that side of the Legislature.) This practice is used all over America and in effect creates extra highway capacity, but only for buses, for very little money–an easy way for public transportation to achieve a travel-time advantage. Per TxDOT, the estimated cost per mile is only $2,000 for sections that are already structurally sound. (Compare that to their estimate of $8 million per mile for a new lane on an existing highway.) Other good news is that this past December, the House Transportation Committee already recommended this legislation.

There are two other big issues that I also want to mention. One item is part of our agency's legislative agenda and the other isn't, but was recommended as part of a recent CAMPO study of our agency.

The first item deals with, frankly, money. Capital Metro doesn't have enough funds to create a truly regional transit system and, further, we are limited in our ability to do this. As a result of how communities are allowed to join Capital Metro under State law, our current service area does not reflect the residency and work patterns of Central Texas. If you are geeky enough to read this Capital Metro blog, you probably know that communities like Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Pflugerville are not in our service area. To join Capital Metro, an entity must dedicate a penny of their community's sales tax to our agency’s funding. This is what Austin, Leander, Manor, Lago Vista, Precinct 2 of Travis County, and 5 more communities do. People all over Travis and Williamson Counties want and need public transit. Remember when gas was $4 a gallon and our ridership went through the roof? To me, one Statesman story said it all. If I recall correctly, something like four of the five people in the photos on our Express buses did not live in our service area. And in 2030, more than half of our metro area population will live outside of the Capital Metro service area. Clearly, Capital Metro’s service area needs to be larger.

But the problem is that these communities, which so desperately need transit, have committed all of the local sales tax the State allows them to their community's other priorities like economic development, property tax relief, or roadways. So we have to think of other ways that people can pay for transit other than sales tax.

One of the ideas that is being kicked around in this region, and all over other major metro areas in the state, has emanated from North Central Texas. For the past two sessions, prompted by a desire to expand their regional rail system, the North Central Texas area has asked the Legislature for permission to let communities‘bust' the local sales tax cap but only for transit. The Legislature wasn't quite comfortable with this and suggested they come back with other creative suggestions that could be applied statewide. While there are still a number of details to be worked out, they are now proposing that local communities be allowed to levy a limited number of taxes and fees, from a Legislature-approved list of options, for local transportation projects. These monies could only be raised if approved by the voters. Capital Metro’s also supportive of this idea but we’re trying to figure out the best way to address issues such as governance and equity—some very tough issues to tackle but definitely worth tackling.

Lastly, I want to mention the State's requirement that our agency secure voter approval in order to build or operate passenger rail, even if we do so within existing funds, like we did for the Red Line. Removal of the requirement isn't part of our Capital Metro's legislative program but the study that CAMPO just wrapped up of our agency recommended that this be removed. No other transit agency in the state has this requirement and, to our knowledge, no other agency in the country does either. While passenger rail is a fairly typical function of many urban mass transit agencies, most agencies still have to go to referendum to have the actual funding approved. That's totally understandable and realistically, this would be the same for our area. I don't know of any way that more passenger rail could be built in Central Texas without going to the voters for funding approval. Even though Capital Metro has been this region's public transportation provider for over 20 years, this requirement can unfortunately cause other entities to be hesitant to work with us if they already have to go to referendum once for funding.

Capital Metro's got a lot to chew off, and there's still a little bit more, but I won't continue droning on. No one can guess what will happen at the Legislature but I'm optimistic that they'll see fit to grant us these abilities so that we can continue improving upon the service that we provide, and that Central Texans need. Traffic is a mess and there is so much support for public transportation right now. It's an opportune time for the State to make these changes. My little slogan is that we simply need 21st century tools to do a 21st century job. Here's hoping for a *happy* happy hour in 140 days.
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Monday, January 12, 2009

TOD Progress at Leander Station

Capital Metro has been working with a number of public and private entities to develop the land surrounding the Leander Station, which will be the “end of the line” for the first phase of the MetroRail Red Line when it opens in March. But don’t think “sprawling suburban shopping center” development. Think “walkable community,” a “live, work, and play” development, a transit oriented development (TOD).

TOD is a smart choice because it’s denser, more efficient, and gentler on the environment than traditional developments. It creates a sense of place, a community where people can reduce their dependency on cars. It promotes healthier neighborhoods, too, where people walk and bicycle and get to know their neighbors.

In this kind of economy, it can also be a boon to communities, as national studies have concluded that for every $1 investment in a transit project, the community will yield about $6 in local economic activity.

Here’s some major mileposts in the Leander Station TOD:

* In 2005, the Leander City Council approved the Leander SMART Code, which is the blueprint for TOD development for more than 2,000 acres in northeast Leander.

* Capital Metro’s Leander Park & Ride opened in 2007, giving commuters ample time to “get friendly” with the station site, and with public transportation in general. Ridership on the Express bus routes that serve Leander have experienced sustained growth.

October 2008 photo of the Leander Station.

* Capital Metro has a working agreement with the development group that owns the 80 acres immediately adjacent to the Leander Station. Their land actually surrounds the station on three sides and is planned for a mixed-use TOD. Capital Metro and the developer are working on joint plans for eventual development of the Leander Park & Ride, in concert with the 80-acre TOD. A common land planner will ensure that both projects move forward with a unified approach.

* Road infrastructure surrounding the Leander Station and TOD site are well underway. Delays due to the discovery of an historic ranch house slowed the process of approvals and funding for CR 274, but the concerns have been resolved, and design has begun. CR 273 is under design, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization recently issued a $4 million grant for its construction. CR 269 to continue west from 183A to CR 2243 at its intersection with US 183 (at the H-E-B) is now under design.

* A pedestrian/bicycle connection will be under construction soon, from the northwest corner of CR 2243 across US 183 by crosswalk to a sidewalk extending from the northeast corner of the intersection north to the southern end of the MetroRail boarding platform. The connection will be complete before the rail service begins.
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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Last chance to buy a 'Dillo

You might remember in November we advertised some retired 'Dillos for sale in an online auction. All told, we had 12 'Dillo trolleys to sell, and the last two are currently up for auction on GovDeals.

You may be asking, what can you do with an old 'Dillo?

For inspiration, ask Karisa Prestera, who turned an old 'Dillo into the retail outlet of her business, Taste No Evil Muffins. Karisa transformed the 'Dillo into the whimsical store seen above and sells her muffins there six days a week.

Karisa advertises the former-'Dillo-headquarters on her Facebook page as part of what makes her business uniquely Austin. Here is the "before" photo:
(Check out the Taste No Evil Muffin Company on Facebook for a series of photos documenting the retired 'Dillo's transformation.)

This particular 'Dillo is an older model than the ones currently for sale online, possibly in service even prior to Capital Metro's formation in 1985. The Taste No Evil Muffins trolley isn't operational, but has a permanent home outside the eclectic Maria's Taco Xpress on South Lamar. (Ride routes #3, 29, 331, or 338 to get to the muffin trolley.)

I mentioned to Karisa that she could upgrade her 'Dillo to one that actually runs, and she'd love to if only she had $30,000 to spend (more or less the going rate for the other 'Dillos we've sold). Instead, she is saving her dough to install convection ovens in the trolley--maybe as early as this spring--so she can move 100% of her operations into the muffin trolley. That would make Taste No Evil Muffins the first complete bakery bus. (Well maybe not the very first, but at least the very first bakery in a former 'Dillo!)

You can bid on the two remaining 'Dillos through Jan. 14.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! All of Capital Metro joins me in wishing you a happy and prosperous 2009.

Like a lot of people, I tend to become introspective at the end of each year, analyzing all I did and didn't accomplish during the previous year. It'd be interesting to get a feel for Capital Metro's 2008--like a top ten list of big events that shaped transportation in Austin. Off the top of my head I can name a few. Perhaps you can help me flesh it out.

In no particular order:

* We opened a brand new (and award-winning) facility, the South Congress Transit Center.

* Four dollar gasoline sent ridership through the roof.


* We increased Capital Metro's base fare for the first time in our history.

* We completed the lion's share of work to bring Capital MetroRail to fruition and set a firm start-up date.

* Major changes were proposed to the MetroAccess program.

What else would you add to the list? What is your hope for Capital Metro in 2009?

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