The Austin Chronicle

Cap Metro to Suburbanites: Get Off the Bus

By Lee Nichols, August 27, 2010, News

Will Capital Metro cancel some of its express bus routes from Leander and Northwest Austin to boost ridership on its less convenient (for some) MetroRail Red Line? That's long been the accusation of critics of the Red Line, and they may have gotten some ammo at Monday's meeting of the Cap Metro board's operations committee, when Cap Metro planners Todd Hemingson and James Gamez detailed proposals to eliminate two of three very similar express routes from that area while increasing service on the third. The pair didn't bring up MetroRail ridership, but instead said the move was to eliminate "duplicative" service.

Routes 984 (originating at Lakeline Station) and 986 (from Leander) would be abolished under the plan, while the 987 (also from Leander, with a stop at Lakeline) would increase from 15 to 22 trips a day. The routes are indeed rather duplicative: Aside from their starting points, the 984 and 986 are almost identical to each other. The two have a key difference from the 987, though, in that the latter comes down MoPac and makes a stop at Seton Medical Center on 38th Street before hitting the west side of the UT campus. The other two routes travel down I-35 and hit the east side of campus and can be anywhere between five minutes to 27 minutes faster.

The planners said they intend to meet with some express passengers and "explain the options" for possibly taking MetroRail instead, but Gamez acknowledged that some riders "say they prefer the bus and the direct one-seat trip to UT." (Red Line riders wishing to get to UT must transfer from the train at the Martin Luther King station to a shuttle bus.)

Eliminating lines and putting the riders on a less convenient bus – or trying to move them to the train – fits the longtime narrative of former Urban Transportation Commission member Mike Dahmus, a persistent critic of the Red Line on his blog. "Some of those people currently riding those far superior express buses will switch; some will go back to driving," Dahmus wrote on Tuesday. "The key here is that when you build a GOOD rail line, most people switch from redundant bus lines willingly – because the train is better than the bus. Only awful trains require you to force-march passengers away from what they choose to ride; and this only works for captive riders, and only for a while. ... Capital Metro is about to learn the difference between 'captive rider' and 'choice commuter' (and the rest of us are going to learn how many of each comprised the ridership of these express bus routes)."

But Gamez told the committee that while there would be a net decrease in overall trips by about 15%, "we expect to retain all our riders." He said the 984 and 986 routes serve about 45 customers each.

In other Cap Metro news from Monday:

Board member and Leander Mayor John Cowman told the Statesman he will resign from the board, effective Aug. 30, to focus more on the politics of his city. Cowman recently made headlines for getting into a physical confrontation with another Leander council member.

Disabled activists turned out in force for Monday's meeting of the entire board to urge against cuts to the agency's paratransit service, MetroAccess. The board passed a resolution directing staff to continue exploring options to make the service more cost-effective.

*[Editor's note: The photo caption above has been edited. In the original, print version of this story, the caption made it appear that forcing bus riders onto MetroRail's Red Line is official agency policy rather than an allegation of the agency's critics.]

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