Cap Metro Cancels Shuttle Services

Transit agency bows to new federal rule on shuttles

Cap Metro Cancels Shuttle Services
Illustration by Doug Potter

Amidst a historic upsurge in public enthusiasm for taking transit, Capital Metro is ... ending its shuttle service to special events. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Austinites trying to reach crowded events like the recent July Fourth fireworks celebration at Auditorium Shores have lost the benefit of Capital Metro shuttles. The decision slashes shuttles to more than a dozen popular community events; in future months, those will include the Austin City Limits Festival, Halloween on Sixth Street, UT football games, and the Trail of Lights. Unless private charter companies seamlessly step in to replace all of the free shuttle services with new pay-to-ride shuttle service – a dubious prospect – everyone on Austin roads will suffer from increased traffic congestion during big events.

What's going on? Cap Metro says it is retreating in fear of federal guidelines enacted in 2005, in response to special-interest lobbying by the private-charter bus industry. Basically, the private sector didn't want any charter-service competition from transit agencies, and the current administration capitulated. This spring, the feds clarified a precise definition of charter service, stimulating the recent Cap Metro withdrawal. "Under the new policy by the Federal Transit Admini­stra­tion that took effect April 30, public agencies cannot operate charter bus service if private charter companies are interested and available to provide the service," stated a July 17 media release from Capital Metro.

According to Cap Metro VP Doug Allen, "The definition of charters in the regulations states, 'the service is not part of the transit provider's regularly scheduled service, or is offered for a limited period of time.'" That describes local special-event shuttles. "The intent of the law is to ensure that public transportation authorities subsidized by federal and local taxes do not unfairly compete with private companies to provide a service that is not purely for the benefit of the general public," said Allen.

But if a free shuttle taking children and families to the Fourth of July fireworks or holiday Trail of Lights at Zilker Park is not "purely for the benefit of the general public," then what in the name of bus service is?

Fred Gilliam, Capital Metro president/CEO, had been challenging staff for more than a year to find ways to work around the limitations, according to those present at meetings. But he ultimately gave in and suspended the service last week. Because the shuttles have been provided free of charge (except for the UT football game service), they've been a money-loser for Capital Metro, which has recently moved to reduce or eliminate other financial drains, such as special service for the disabled. "ACL is the only event that we have been able to recover fully allocated costs from the event organizer, which allowed us to break even," said Allen. However, shuttles do increase ridership numbers, which in turn drive the agency's funding; in 2007, more than 260,000 riders used special-event shuttles. Many are folks who don't regularly ride buses, so the shuttles have special marketing and outreach value as a "free sample," exposing new riders to transit.

According to Cap Metro's Todd Hemingson, staffs at transit agencies around the country have been holding conference calls together on the issue; no one wants to lose federal funds or get sued for noncompliance. "We're hearing stories from all over the U.S. about community services being trimmed because of this," said Hemingson. While aggressive interpretations of the federal guidelines are being discussed, he says he knows of no transit agency that has yet to set a precedent by successfully skirting them. "Everyone is waiting for some other city to be the guinea pig."

Cap Metro board member Mike Martinez is prepared to let our transit authority issue the first loud, assertive squeak of protest. Martinez has expressed enthusiastic interest in the vacant board chair position; he is favored by many to get the leadership nod. "The world is a different place than when these federal guidelines were adopted in 2005," he noted, referencing the rising price of gas and an overall shift away from America's gas-guzzling ways. Martinez believes it's imperative to expand transit services, not contract them. He also believes exacting specifications for the special-event shuttles could be legally written in such a way that the transit authority is the only viable provider: "There just isn't an entity out there that can provide the same service Capital Metro does."

As board chair, said Martinez, he would warmly encourage the transit authority to reverse itself and continue providing shuttles. "I'll ask for legal advice, then ask my colleagues to take a risk on this. If we get sued, we'll handle that."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Capital Metro, shuttle service, Fred Gilliam, Mike Martinez

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