Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No buses on shoulders for you

So my last blog post related to the legislative session prematurely said, “Overall, we achieved much of what was in our legislative agenda: bus-only shoulders,” blah, blah, blah among other things. Yippee! Well, so foolish I am. I spoke too soon for I forgot about that last, not-so-little step called consideration by the governor. And unfortunately, one of our bills was vetoed. Yep, V-E-T-O. No buses on shoulders for you!

If you recall, Senate Bill 434, carried by two of our own: Senator Jeff Wentworth and Representative Valinda Bolton, would have created a pilot program under which Capital Metro (and only three other Texas transit agencies) would have been allowed to operate buses on pre-approved sections of highway shoulders in order to bypass traffic congestion.

The bill was very cautious in setting up the program. It would have been established by TxDOT and in conjunction with DPS and the involved transit agencies. The bill required TxDOT to consider safety, travel time reliability, driver and passenger perceptions, level of service and maintenance, and capital improvements.

Additionally, other specific parameters were also spelled out. Buses would only be allowed to travel on sections of highway shoulders that TxDOT approved in advance and the sections would be clearly marked for bus-only use.
Speed limits were set based on the experience of several other communities in America, which have already implemented bus-only shoulders safely and effectively for over a decade. Buses would only be allowed to use the designated sections of highway shoulders when overall traffic slowed to 35 miles per hour or less, and the bus could only travel at 15 miles per hour greater than the prevailing traffic, with the maximum bus speed still limited to 35 mph. The bus operator would not be required to use the bus-only shoulder if he/she did not feel it was safe.

Despite a number of independent safety studies attesting to the positive experience in the rest of the country (the State of Minnesota has over 300 miles of bus-only shoulders), Governor Perry was not willing to sign the bill. In his veto statement, he cited a concern that use of the highway shoulders by transit buses “would leave no emergency lane, creating a danger to motorists, emergency personnel and passengers aboard transit buses,” though we assured him that we would work with the City of Austin to ensure that the use of highway shoulders by our buses would not impede emergency vehicle passage. (Many thanks to the City, specifically Karla Villalon and Rob Spillar, for having included this in their legislative agenda and for having written a last-minute letter to the governor asking for his support.)

Though we are very disappointed with the veto—it’s the second time we’ve tried to get this passed—we’ll work with the governor’s office over the next few years to see if we can get it through next session. Perhaps then, the third time will actually be the charm for Capital Metro.

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While the legislative order of things escaped me regarding the bus-only shoulder legislation, the other items I had written about previously actually panned out as I described. Senate Bill 1263, the bill carried by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Eddie Rodriguez that prescribed a number of changes for Capital Metro, was signed by the governor. That bill, which goes into effect September 1, makes changes to our board composition and our abilities to set our own fares and operate passenger rail, and provides us with some new tools that we’ll need to operate passenger rail. Governor Perry was also willing to sign the bill that lets Capital Metro (and all Texas transit agencies) use the State’s travel discounts when our employees or board members travel for Capital Metro-related duties. (Thank you Senator Duell and Representative Todd Smith!)

If you want more details on the Watson and Rodriguez bill, or any other legislation that I might have written about before, read my previous gobbledygook online at http://capmetroblog.blogspot.com/search/label/legislative%20agenda. (Check out the gobbledygook hotlink! A fun story, which goodness knows we all need more of.)
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Customers Picture Themselves on Capital Metro

Last week Capital Metro celebrated National Dump the Pump Day with a couple of fun events to encourage ridership and engage our customers.

Thursday morning (June 18th) Capital Metro staff arrived at both the North Lamar and South Congress Transit Centers by 6am for a Dump the Pump bag exchange, which encouraged people to bring us 5 plastic bags that we would exchange for a reusable cloth one. This morning I dropped off the more than 500 plastic bags we received at Ecology Action for recycling.

Then all throughout Dump the Pump Day we encouraged our customers to “Picture Yourself on Capital Metro” by sending us a photograph of themselves riding on Capital Metro. We received dozens of great pictures of people on the bus ranging from thoughtfully composed to hasty self-portraits.

A complete set of the winning shots -- chosen at random from the entries received -- can be found here. Our Grand Prize winner (a shot of 2-year-old boy named Jake with crackers covering his eyes) received a $200 gift certificate to the EcoShoppe. Runners-up received an i-Ride jacket made from recycled materials. Congratulations to all and thanks to everyone who submitted a photo.
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Capital MetroRail Update

Capital Metro has just released its June progress report on MetroRail.


While there's no date to announce, progress moves along, and there are just a few more milestones to reach before the Red Line can open.
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Capital Metro's Award-Winning Wellness Program

KTBC Fox 7 News profiled Capital Metro's employee wellness program on Wednesday morning. It's been phenomenally successful: for every $1 that Capital Metro has invested in the program, the agency has enjoyed $2.43 in savings due to decreased health care costs and absenteeism rates.



The Centers for Disease Control recently published a case study on the positive effects of our program. Read more

DUMP THE PUMP!

Today's National Dump the Pump Day, and we're sponsoring a photo contest. Send us a photo of yourself riding Capital Metro today, and we'll put your name in a drawing to win one of 20 Capital Metro eco-friendly windbreakers, and one grand prize--a $200 gift certificate to EcoShoppe. Full rules/details here.

I thought I'd share some of the cool photos we've received today. Note: these aren't winners of the contest (yet)--we'll do a random drawing of all the photos tomorrow. Send yours in!



See some more behind the cut.



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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

National Dump the Pump Day is tomorrow

"If you're serious about being green, you should be riding Capital Metro." That was our message today at the North Lamar Transit Center, where we set up a display to demonstrate just how significant the benefits are to the environment when you take public transportation instead of driving. It's the single greatest action you can take to reduce your carbon footprint.

You'd have to use 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper for the next 45-48 years (450,000 - 480,000 sheets of paper!) to make the same positive effect on the environment as riding the bus for a single year.

Bus operator and MetroBlogger Leo Guerrero poses with a Capital Metro hybrid bus and the mountain of paper.

Tomorrow would be a perfect day to make the switch to public transit--it's National Dump the Pump Day, and you can score some environmentally-friendly goodies, too.

BAG EXCHANGE
Come to either the North Lamar Transit Center or the South Congress Transit Center tomorrow morning with at least five plastic grocery bags for recycling, and we'll give you a reusable grocery bag and a 20% off coupon from EcoShoppe. We'll be there at 6:30 a.m. until the bags run out.

PHOTO CONTEST

Take a picture of yourself riding Capital Metro and email the photo to dumpthepump@capmetro.org for a chance to win one of 20 i-Ride eco-friendly windbreakers, or the grand-prize, a $200 gift certificate to EcoShoppe. Read the full details and the small print here.

TWEET
Tweet about your Dump the Pump Day experiences! Use the hashtags #DumpThePump and #CapMetro to be part of both the local and the national movements to ride public transportation to save the planet. Have fun with it!

We have to give some props to IKON Office Solutions and Longhorn Office Products who helped us acquire 480,000 sheets of recycled paper for our demo today, as well as EcoShoppe for partnering with us on the promotion.
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's Smarter to Travel in Groups--Take the Bus

Very clever transit advertising from de Lijn in Belgium.

Here's another from the same campaign, enjoy!

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Let's Hear it for Rail Safety!

For the last two years, Capital Metro has been working on getting a rail safety message out to the community. We use a program called Operation Lifesaver, as well as some cool innovative ways of spreading our message. Capital Metro has presented a rail safety message to over 33,000 (LOTS!) students over the last year. We've shared the message at innumerable events and fairs, and we've even done a couple of contests (you may have seen the earlier blog about our poster competition).

Another of those innovative rail safety strategies is our coordination with the Girl Scouts of Central Texas. They created the first-ever Rail Safety Patch Program (now becoming a national model).



Girl Scouts Troop 2059 decided to earn the patch, so last week I went up to Leander to assist them in completing the final requirements. I gave them our Operation Lifesaver presentation, we watched a rail safety video, and then they showed me the rail safety cheer they wrote. It was TOO CUTE!

Using the acronym ACORN (the message we've been preaching all over Central Texas), they came up with this:
video

A is for Always look both ways
C is for Cross only at crosswalks
O is for Obey all signals
R is for Railroad tracks are for trains only
N is for Never try to outrun a train

I was SO impressed with their creativity and energy! I know they are going to be great rail safety advocates in their neighborhoods, and am so happy that our message is filtering through the area.

Thanks Troop 2059!
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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rails with Trails

National Bike Month 2009 has officially ended, but for some Austinites it’s a way of life year-round. For others like myself, National Bike Month was a good incentive to try commuting by bicycle for the first time. On National Bike to Work Day, I ventured beyond my own neighborhood and rode my bike to work. It was a good experience, made more so by the fact that I learned I can use the hike and bike trail for about 90 percent of the commute. It’s ridiculous I haven’t been biking to work more often.

One under-publicized aspect of the All Systems Go! long-range transit plan is Rails with Trails, which is a plan to incorporate pedestrian and bicycle paths wherever feasible along the MetroRail right-of-way from Leander to Austin. The pathways would increase accessibility and connectivity to the MetroRail stations and provide cyclists and walkers an expanded network of safe trails. In essence, it provides another viable transportation choice for the community.

Capital Metro completed a feasibility study in 2007 with help from a broad group of stakeholders: members of the cycling community, the city, county, and others. The 32-mile Red Line was divided into 11 segments for the purposes of completing Rails with Trails. The study outlined a plan to create 31 miles of paved trails, 1.7 miles of improved sidewalks, and eight miles of additional on-street bike routes. The feasibility study is available on the Rails with Trails Web page.

Capital Metro is receiving $1.9 million in federal stimulus funding to continue development of segment #3, which extends from Highland Station north along Airport Boulevard to Morrow Street. The proposed trail will provide connectivity to both Highland Station and Crestview Station and will likely include 1.3 miles of trail and 1.6 miles of on-street bikeway. Design work on this segment will begin very soon and we hope to begin construction shortly thereafter.

Segment #1, from the Downtown Station north to Wilshire Blvd. (approx. five miles), is mostly completed, and includes the new Lance Armstrong Bikeway and Boggy Creek Trail. Some work has also been done in segment #11, which extends from Crystal Falls Road north to the Leander Station.

The City of Austin has included Rails with Trails in the revised draft city bicycle plan that will be considered by City Council soon. The bicycle plan includes other objectives to improve the link between cycling and transit--check it out here.

Our friends at the City of Austin are also working on a similar trail project along Cap Metro’s rail right-of-way from downtown Austin to downtown Manor.
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rapid Bus Demo


You may have seen this bus rolling around Austin recently and thought to yourself "what is that?". It's a 2008 Nova LFX demo bus and it's just one of several different models that Capital Metro is considering for MetroRapid. Our transit planners and operators have been testing it out on the streets of Austin the past few days. So far, many are impressed by the way it looks, rides and drives.

The 62-ft articulated bus has 56 seats but it can be manufactured to have up to 62 seats. This particular bus has three wide doors. It's very roomy and quite comfortable. You might think the size limits its turing ability, but that's not the case. The bus can manuever around the same as a 40-ft bus.

This type of bus would be assigned to only the MetroRapid routes. The first two routes will be along North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar. Click here for more info on MetroRapid.


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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

MetroAccess Driver Takes Silver

Capital MetroAccess Van Operator Jeff Mercer brought home a 2nd place trophy from the National Paratransit Roadeo in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 31. Competing against 61 other drivers from throughout the nation, Jeff missed first place by a mere 18 points (out of 1,000 total).

Jeff was a definite underdog in the competition, as this was his first time competing in the national competition.

Also competing from Capital Metro, and the current Texas State Bus Roadeo Champion, was MetroAccess Van Operator Ted Ward, who placed 21st nationally.

Way to go, Capital Metro!
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Bye Bye Legislature, at least for now

June 2, 2009: the legislature is adjourned, at least for now. I am not sure if I am relieved or wish they would stick around longer. It boggles my mind how critical statewide policy is supposed to be made in less than five months. But, it is what it is, right?

So, what happened to Capital Metro? Overall, we achieved much of what was in our legislative agenda: bus-only shoulders, civilian fare enforcement, contracted peace officer authority, and use of the State’s travel discount. Unfortunately though, due to the State's budget constraints, we weren’t able to negotiate an agreement with them so that State employees could benefit from annual transit passes. Also very unfortunately, the Legislature was not willing to grant local entities more funding mechanisms for local transportation projects (the local-option funding measure doggedly and valiantly led by Senator John Carona). I find this to be incredibly disappointing but sadly, I am not surprised.

There were also a lot of other changes that were carried forward in legislation by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Eddie Rodriguez. (This is probably what most of you are most interested in.) Those affect our board composition; our ability to operate passenger rail and set our own fares; and internal audit, review and reporting requirements of our agency.

If you're interested in what passed that most directly affects Capital Metro, here's a summary.

SENATE BILL 1263 (Senator Watson, Rep. Rodriguez) -- This is the big bill.

Board composition
: Changes the composition of the Capital Metro board, most significantly by increasing the total number of members from seven to eight by adding another CAMPO appointee. Watson’s original proposal had called for more significant changes but negotiations in the past few days resulted in the Legislature essentially maintaining the current board composition with some minor tweaks.

The new board composition is as follows:
  • 3 members appointed by CAMPO -- 1 must be an elected official, 1 must have at least 10 years of experience as a financial or accounting professional, and 1 must have at least 10 years of experience in an executive-level position.
  • 2 members appointed by the City of Austin -- 1 must be an elected official
  • 1 member appointed by Travis County
  • 1 member appointed by Williamson County
  • 1 member, who must be an elected official, appointed by all the small city mayors in Capital Metro's service area (which excludes City of Austin).

This is not much different than today in that the City of Austin currently appoints two reps, Travis County appoints a rep, various Williamson County officials appoint a rep, and the small city mayors in Travis County appoint a rep. The big change is the CAMPO component. Today they appoint two reps and there are no specific requirements of those individuals. The change gives them an additional rep and requires specific types of experience or elected official status for those reps.

Rail referendum requirements: Allows Capital Metro to forgo the highly unique referendum currently required of our agency in order for us to operate passenger rail (and which is required even if we are not needing to ask the voters for any additional funds to build the system, as was the case for our Red Line that was built within existing means) if
  • We are entering into a contract to build, operate or maintain a fixed rail transit system for another entity, or
  • Voters already approved funds for the project at an election called by our agency or another entity.

Fare approval abilities: Allows Capital Metro to set our own fares (like most any other transit agency in the country), except that CAMPO can veto the base fare if they do so within 60 days of the board it (which is unlike most any other transit agency in the country).

Internal auditor: Requires the Capital Metro board to hire an internal auditor who would report directly to the board. (Today our internal auditor reports both to the board and to our staff president.)

Sunset review: Requires Capital Metro to undergo a sunset review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, but without the possibility of being abolished. This would happen once now and/or next year depending on when it starts and how long it lasts, and again in 2016/2017.

Annual reporting requirements: Requires Capital Metro to provide annual reports to other entities to which we have any financial obligations.

Other operational abilities: Specifies that nonpayment of a fare is not a crime of moral turpitude (this is important for aspiring attorneys and other professionals I hear), allows Capital Metro to hire civilian fare enforcement officers, and ensures that peace officers with whom we contract for security can enforce violations against the Capital Metro system while on duty for Capital Metro (because we contract with APD and they may be on the train in Leander as part of their security duties).

SB 899 (Senator Duell, Rep. Smith) allows all Texas transit agencies to use the State’s travel discounts when employees or officers of the agency are traveling for work. (Saves us and thus you money!)

SB 434 (Senator Wentworth, Rep. Bolton) allows Capital Metro, at least in Travis County, (and San Antonio VIA, Denton County Transportation Authority, and Sun Metro in El Paso) to operate buses on highway shoulders during times of heavy traffic congestion in areas pre-approved by TxDOT. Basically, if traffic slows to 35 mph, our buses can use the highway shoulders as a travel lane but there are limits on just how fast they can go compared to the rest of traffic so that buses don't go unsafely whizzing by the other motorists who will be stuck in traffic because they didn't take the bus. (I'm sure I'll be one of those people one day just for being so snide.) There will be signs noting it's only for public bus use.

That's about it. I have a bunch of bills to dig through and see if anything else passed that might have helped or hurt us. Fun, fun, fun. If you're needing some good bedtime reading, let me know. I got a stack of it.
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