Friday, March 27, 2009

Rail tweets

We've been playing with twitter over here. It's sort of an experiment, but we're tweeting about MetroRail--check us out.

Everyone's on twitter, it seems. Frankly I never really got the memo; or, perhaps more appropriate, I missed the train.

One of our executives had earlier suggested twitter as a potential tool for frequent MetroRail updates. And after playing with it, it is kind of interesting. Perhaps it could evolve into a mechanism for service announcements once the Red Line is operating full service. That's what Washington DC's Metro just did. Maybe I could become a reluctant twitter fan with practice.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Facts on Finances

With plenty of confusion out there about Capital Metro finances, staff gave the Board an update at yesterday's meeting. The Board also received a favorable annual financial audit from an independent auditor, as one of the required elements of the agency's FY2008 Certified Annual Financial Report. Learn a bit more about both the audit and the budget presentation here.

In Fact Daily posted the following story about our finances this morning:

McCracken, Cowman defend Cap Metro decisions
By Kimberly Reeves
In Fact Daily

Board members Council Member Brewster McCracken and Leander Mayor John Cowman went out of their way to defend the financial decisions of the regional transit agency yesterday, saying Capital Metro was being prudent and responsive to unanticipated problems of dropping revenue and rising expenditures.

Much of the talk was a response to a recent article by transportation reporter Ben Wear in the Austin American Statesman, which accused the agency of going on a capital spending spree on rail lines and park-and-ride lots that depleted the transit agency’s reserves. At yesterday’s meeting, agency officials vigorously refuted implications the agency had been less than prudent with its expenditures, saying it had met all its obligations and payments.

While Wear wrote the agency owed various local jurisdictions up to $110 million, officials insisted the transit agency is current with its fiscal obligations. Capital spending was, as Wear wrote, upwards of $300 million over five years, but sales tax revenue for that same time period was $783 million, the agency’s financial staff noted in a pre-board meeting briefing.

Agency officials were so firmly committed to their numbers – and that recent dips in reserves were do to unexpected bumps in the economy that the agency had and would continue to deal with – that officials said the agency was open to a state audit and had requested a review by the State Auditor’s Office.

During yesterday afternoon’s board meeting, McCracken offered his own soliloquy about the solvency of the transit agency, saying capital project expenditures now were funded separately from the recent growth in operating costs the agency had faced. The agency was not caught flat-footed, McCracken said. Instead, agency staff had constantly hammered at the need for operating budget restraint.

In 13 months, Capital Metro saw unprecedented fuel costs growth, from $11 million to $27 million, McCracken said. Among transit agencies, Cap Metro had seen some of the lowest fare box recovery and the lowest fare prices in the state. The decision to stop Build Greater Austin – given the growing operating expenses -- was a tough but wise decision. And the board had finally taken a hard, but critical, vote on fare increases in an effort to address the rising operational costs.

Yesterday, Capital Metro announced a voluntary buyout program for agency employees as a potential cost-savings measure. Talking to a television crew outside the meeting, Cowman said he continued to be a proud member of the board of Capital Metro, a board that continued to be fiscally prudent.

“We have to make some tough decisions,” Cowman said. “We’re all facing shortfalls, all over the United States. We look for solutions. We accomplish those solutions. We’re a solution-based company.”

As sales tax and ridership goes down, the transit agency would make adjustments, McCracken said. That’s the only way to respond to tough economic times. And although the local union presented the board with a petition at its last meeting to remove CEO Fred Gilliam, after yesterday’s board meeting Cowman expressed continued confidence in Cap Metro’s top leader, saying that Gilliam had done – and continued to do – an excellent job for the agency.

In his comments, McCracken implied recent changes in the agency’s financial team were necessary for the agency to move forward. The improvement of the financial team, under the current leadership, had improved dramatically. The agency also had worked to create a separate capital budget so that operating expenses and the agency’s capital budget could be kept in perspective.

“That’s what happens when operating expenses increase faster than revenues,” McCracken said. “We started to lose our capital reserves. We had to cancel bus purchase orders. With the creation of a capital budget, we’re able to prevent the total erosion of our capital expenses before operating expenses eats it all up.”

Capital Metro also had been through a thorough peer review process from CAMPO with favorable results, McCracken said. That was like having a tough physical, twice over, to try to diagnose any problems with the agency. McCracken said he was confident the agency would implement many of the changes recommended by CAMPO in the coming months. Still, people are critical about Cap Metro right now.

“We get criticized – and people get mad at us – for spending money on a rail system after they told us to build it. Can you imagine what it would be like if they had told us to build it and we hadn’t spent the money?” McCracken asked his colleagues. “It’s hard to do something like a new rail system… Are we going to have to make some significant and important financial reforms into the future? Definitely.”

Cowman, who says rail service has strong support in the north, also bristled a bit at newspaper accounts over the weekend that said the start of MetroRail service was postponed indefinitely. Indefinitely implies no particular start date, Cowman said. There will be a start date for MetroRail, and it will be soon, Cowman said.

Work on the rail lines would be complete next week, Cowman said. While MetroRail faced a delay due to operator problems – the reason for the recent postponement – that problem would be resolved. It’s a positive thing that Capital Metro has caught a problem in advance and addressed it, not a negative thing, Cowman said.
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Friday, March 20, 2009

Canceling the March 28 celebration

We received some more disappointing news today, and in the interests of safety, Capital Metro has decided to cancel the community celebration next Saturday, March 28.

Here's the statement from President/CEO Fred Gilliam today:

“Capital Metro received notification today from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) of additional alleged violations against rail contractor Veolia Transportation. This is an addition to the previous violations we learned about last Friday.

At this time, I am not satisfied with the progress Veolia has made with safety and training. Capital Metro is absolutely committed to safety. Following extensive discussions with Veolia, the FRA, TxDOT as well as Capital MetroRail staff, I have just notified our Board of Directors that I am taking the following steps:

The MetroRail celebration event planned for Saturday, March 28 is cancelled.

Capital Metro has called for Veolia to replace its safety director.

Capital Metro is bringing in rail experts from Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to assist with startup operations and safety implementation. They have experience with thirteen previous rail launches.

Capital MetroRail staff will continue testing enhancements to the signal system.

By May 15, Capital Metro will report back to the community with the status of the project and an action plan.

Capital Metro is deeply disappointed over this delay, but under no circumstances will we jeopardize safety by rushing this process.”
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

<15 feet = $200!!

Last month, the Austin Police Department held a press conference to draw attention to the dumb (and illegal) things drivers do near railroad tracks, like drive around the gates, park on the tracks, etc. At the press conference, APD promised they would be cracking down on motorists who park on the tracks, first by giving warnings and then by writing traffic tickets.

Police officers are making good on that promise. Beginning this month, they've been handing out warnings to drivers who park too close, or on, the tracks. It's kind of a no-brainer not to park on the tracks, but you might not know that it's actually illegal to be within 15 feet of the rail. If you're closer than that, the crossing arm may be coming down right on your car if a train approaches.

APD's warning includes some lifesaving tips:

When you're in a car:
Be careful turning across train tracks — it's where more accidents happen.
Never race a train to a crossing — you will never have a second chance if you lose and even it you tie, you lose.
Expect a train on any track at any time — if a train goes by at a multiple track crossing, watch out for a second train on the other tracks, approaching in either direction.
Don't anticipate lights or creep out at rail intersections — and never, ever drive around the crossing gates.

When Capital Metro's Red Line begins full service, the police will start ticketing. That's the other important bit of info on the warning: if you do it again you might be shelling out $200!
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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Red Line Debut Delayed

Yesterday, Capital Metro received notification from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) of allegations issued against our rail contractor Veolia Transportation. The allegations are in reference to incidents in February where two Veolia rail supervisors operating MetroRail trains entered a section of track without prior authorization during system testing.

Veolia is investigating this matter thoroughly and working with the FRA and TxDOT to address this issue.

Based on this incident and additional issues identified during rail testing over the past several weeks, Capital Metro will allow more time for Veolia to complete the training of engineers and dispatchers and additional testing of the rail line. Capital Metro is working with Veolia to establish a revised timeline for the start of service initially planned for Monday, March 30.

The ribbon-cutting communitywide celebration of MetroRail on Saturday, March 28, will move forward as planned. Learn more about the event on our Web site.

Veolia Transportation issued a statement about the FRA allegations. Read the statement here.
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Friday, March 13, 2009

June 2009 Service Change: 'Dillos

Another proposal in the June 2009 Service Change is to eliminate weekend service on the ‘Dillos, both #450 Congress Ave. and #451 6th Street. Unfortunately no one is riding the ‘Dillos on weekends. Well, that’s not exactly true. On any given ‘Dillo trip made on weekends, there’s on average between two and four people on it.

You may recall that last year the ‘Dillo system got a major overhaul: In Aug. 2008 we streamlined the routes and schedules so that they could operate as they were originally intended: as downtown circulators. During the week, the ‘Dillos work great transporting downtown workers and residents to meetings, lunch, and shopping errands. On weekends, the vision was that the ‘Dillos would attract tourists, weekend shoppers, and downtown residents. And it does, just not enough of them to justify the service. Of all of Capital Metro’s routes that operate on weekends, the ‘Dillos have the fewest riders—2-4 riders per trip, as I mentioned. By contrast, #1L/1M, our busiest route, carries about 80 people per trip on weekends. The poor economy may play a role in the low ridership, since today there’s perhaps fewer tourists and weekend shoppers milling around downtown.

Public input is always sought before any service change proposal is adopted, and the public hearing about the June 2009 Service Change is today at 12:30 p.m., at Capital Metro’s headquarters, 2910 E. 5th Street.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

June 2009 Service Change: Express Routes

We've begun shopping around Capital Metro's June 2009 service change proposal. One of the items in the proposal is changes to and the possible elimination of some express route trips in the Northwest corridor, on routes 984, 986 and 987.

After the Capital MetroRail Red Line begins full service, Capital Metro will evaluate ridership on both the Red Line and routes 984, 986 and 987 for some weeks to determine if any trips on these express routes could be trimmed. In particular, routes 984 and 986 parallel the Red Line. Those trips with similar departures as the Red Line could potentially be eliminated or consolidated with 987. However, we really won't know until after the Red Line has been in full operation a little while and we see where the ridership trends are.

Going multi-modal is a big deal, and while our planners have a lot of tools and expertise at their disposal to predict ridership patterns and need for service, it’s not a perfect science. It made pragmatic sense to go ahead and propose potential changes to 984, 986, and 987 now, so that we have the ability to make any needed changes after the Red Line begins to best allocate our resources and coordinate bus and rail services.

As with every service change (three times per year), it’s a public process, and we invite your participation. Capital Metro staff is hosting two community meetings this week, and the Capital Metro Board welcomes your input at a public hearing.

Public Meetings:

Thursday, March 12
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Capital Metro Customer Service Center, 323 Congress Ave.

Thursday, March 12
5:30 – 7:00 p.m.
Capital Metro Customer Service Center, 323 Congress Ave.

Public Hearing:

Friday, March 13
12:30 p.m.
Capital Metro Headquarters, 2910 East 5th St.
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Monday, March 9, 2009

Rail Safety Poster Winners

Tonight, at the AISD board meeting, 12 Central Texas students will be honored for the artwork they submitted in the Capital Metro Rail Safety Poster Competition.

Becca Coplen, an eighth grader at Canyon Vista Middle School, is the grand prize winner for the middle school category.

Earlier this year, Capital Metro and its volunteer coalition GROW (Grassroots Rail Outreach Working Group) invited students to submit artwork in a rail safety poster competition. Three winning designs (one each representing elementary, middle and high school campuses) will be printed and hung in every school campus and public library located within two miles of the Capital MetroRail tracks.

Kayleigh Treanor, a senior at Austin High School, won the grand prize in the high school category.

Six first-place and six second-place designs were chosen. First-place winners will each receive a laptop computer donated by Dell. Second-place winners will each receive a pair of running shoes donated by RunTex.

Cindy Carrosco, a fifth grader at Blackshear Elementary School, won the grand prize in the elementary school category.

The poster contest is part of an ongoing rail safety effort that began more than two years ago and has blanketed the community with messages about rail safety. When the Capital MetroRail Red Line begins service on March 30, train traffic along the tracks will increase significantly, and MetroRail trains are faster and quieter than freight locomotives.

1st Place Winners

Kayleigh Treanor, Austin High School, Grade 12
Becca Coplen, Canyon Vista Middle School, Grade 8
Cameron Henderson, Kealing Middle School, Grade 6
Cindy Carrosco, Blackshear Elementary School, Grade 5
David Hernandez, Blackshear Elementary School, Grade 3
Jaylin Mason, Blackshear Elementary School, Grade 1

2nd Place Winners

Rene Salazar, San Juan Diego Catholic High School, Grade 11
Kristin May, Running Brushy Middle School, Grade 8
Gustavo Lang, Running Brushy Middle School, Grade 6
Gerardo Torres, Blackshear Elementary School, Grade 5
Jonathan Garcia, Blackshear Elementary School, Grade 3
Stella Behal, Maplewood Elementary School, Grade 2

Honorary Participant
Cristal Garcia Marchan, Metz Elementary School, Grade 5

The students will be recognized today, March 9, at 6:15 p.m. (before the AISD Board Meeting) in the Board Auditorium at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W 6th. St., Room B-100.

During the Citizen’s Communication portion of the Board Meeting (roughly 7:15), Capital Metro will acknowledge the contest winners and their schools.
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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Welcome to March Madness

For the many Austinites who have been around for a while we all know March is a busy time for the city. Thousands of people will be coming and going this month so you might want to avoid the traffic and parking headaches by taking the bus when you can.

Let the fun begin:

UIL State Basketball Tournaments – March 5-7 and March 12-14 at the Erwin Center. Catch routes 10, 20, 37, 137 and the UT shuttles.

Texas Independence Day Parade – March 7 along Congress Avenue. Catch most local routes that go downtown to see the parade.

South by Southwest Interactive, Music and Film Festival – March 13-22. Taking place all over town. You can catch almost any of our routes to see a show. We’re also extending the ‘Dillos until 11 p.m.

Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo – March 13-28 at the Travis County Expo Center. Take route 37 or 137.

Spring Break – March 16-20. At least some people are leaving town this month.

St. Patrick’s Day – March 17 on 6th and in the Warehouse District. Don’t drink and drive. Ride the Night Owls.

MetroRail Grand Opening – March 28. Parties at all nine stations and free rides throughout the day. More details to come soon.

And, if you have the energy….

Capital 10K – March 29, between Congress and Mopac. There are a handful of routes that will get you to the starting line.

Did I miss anything? If so, let me know because I think my schedule is already full!!
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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Where is My Ride?

Sorry for the long delay in reporting from the technology fronts. We have been extremely busy getting ready for the rail startup in just a few weeks (working on all of the technology at the stations and behind the scenes that you can't see) and in pushing the Automatic Vehicle Location project forward to fruition (as I started to talk about here).

One of the exciting things we are working on is enhancing the trip planner and website to provide better information about where the vehicle you care about is and when it will arrive. The latter problem while not trivial is actually the easier of the two to report on. In fact we have recently enhanced our website to give predicted arrival times for the next 3 buses at any given stop (link). Please take a look at it and let us know what you think. Currently this information is based on scheduled arrival time, but as we turn on the Automatic Vehicle Location system we will start replacing scheduled time with estimated time (based on the present location of the vehicle and its latest speed).

The trickier bit is if we should, and how we should display the real-time location of our vehicles once the AVL system is installed. The advantage to displaying the latest location of all of our fixed route vehicles is that individual riders can figure out which vehicle will best meet their needs and it greatly improves the transparency of the system. The down side to displaying this information is that people will count on the data being precise and as everyone should be aware of by now, technology is not always as accurate as we would like (think airplane arrival times or medical billing :-)). What we don't want to happen is to put information out there that a specific bus is 3 blocks away when it is really 1 block away. People will act on the information in front of them and may miss a bus they wanted. This is not what we want to accomplish with AVL.

I think the key is to display the information in a way that quickly indicates how precise and how reliable it really is. All AVL systems have to pick a frequency of vehicle location updates. For bandwidth and communication cost reasons it is impossible to query the bus and train vehicle every second to know where it is. Practically there is little value in querying a bus every second for its location when it is moving at 5 miles per hour. Conversely it is bad to query a train at 5 minute intervals when it is moving at 60 miles per hour (the stated location will be up to 5 miles away from the true location of the train). For this reason our system will attempt to balance the frequency with the velocity of the vehicles and find a happy medium. But as with all things used by many people, it will not be possible to please everyone with the compromise we reach.

Given this challenge of frequency and real-time accuracy we are left with the issue of how to display the information in a meaningful and non-misleading manner. I pose this challenge to the Austin community as I have yet to find any transit agencies with AVL systems that seem to have solved this conundrum perfectly. For your consideration, here are some of the agencies we have found with AVL that are attempting to visually display the most recent location of their bus fleets. You be the judge and let us know what you think works best.
King County Washington Note: Shows last time the vehicle was querried
Chicago Transit Authority Note: Nice display of Google base map and option to pick routes
Next Bus Note: This is a private company that integrates the approach for many agencies

There may be others, and we would love to hear about them, but we would really like to hear your thoughts on this matter.
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Media MetroRail Ride

This week the FRA was gracious enough to let us take members of the local news media for a MetroRail ride. We'd love to be able to offer rides to the general public. But we're not at that point yet. So we brought the media along to show you what it's like to ride MetroRail. Click through the jump for a few photos and KEYE-TV's story.

The engineer's view

Perfect timing - the MetroRail train crosses the overpass as a UP freight train passes below

Board Member and Leander Mayor John Cowman announces the arrival at Leander Station

Board Chair and Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez chats with Mayor Cowman and President/CEO Fred Gilliam at Leander Station

Maria Garza explains the ticket vending machine to Univision

Board Member Mike Manor enjoys the ride

A family that happened to be at the Leander Station when we pulled up had the opportunity to take a quick peek at the train. The next day Capital Metro received this email:

Thank you so much. My family loves the pictures. I really appreciate you letting my children in to experience the train yesterday, we all felt so welcome. [My son] has not stopped telling everyone that he honked the Leander train. He will remember that always...
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