Beginning Wednesday, April 1, Capital Metro implemented free fares for all customers throughout the month of April. The free service – eliminating the need for customers to interact with operators – is the latest in CapMetro's ongoing efforts to minimize spread of the novel coronavirus. Additionally, Capital Metro has temporarily suspended its MetroExpress service, which has seen ridership drop 90% since most commuters are now working from home. Route 990, which serves Manor and Elgin, is still operating; riders on other MetroExpress routes are encouraged to use MetroBus, Rail, and Rapid as an alternative. Since March 18, those services have been operating on reduced schedules – typically their Sunday-level service.
In a March 25 Facebook Live broadcast, CapMetro Deputy Chief of Staff Sam Sargent discussed the agency's response to the COVID-19 crisis. This includes opening 50 part-time positions for cleaners on March 22 to help clean its vehicles and facilities throughout the day. The agency also posted 100 operator positions. According to Sargent, operators, as well as contractors and CapMetro's administrative staff, are covered under a newly implemented supplemental sick leave policy, which adds three weeks of paid leave for team members who might be affected by COVID-19.
Ridership has declined by about two-thirds for the system as a whole, but as "critical infrastructure" that's exempt from the city and county's "stay home, work safe" orders, CapMetro notes that they're still providing up to 40,000 essential trips a day. Its elease announcing the April fare hiatus stressed: "The fare-free period is not meant to encourage additional ridership. We ask our customers to use transit for essential trips only during the Stay Home-Work Safe shelter-in-place period."
In light of COVID-19, transit agencies across the nation are grappling with devastating losses, and CapMetro, being principally funded through sales tax revenue, has also felt the impact of business shutdowns. The federal CARES Act relief package includes $25 billion in federal aid for public transit agencies. Sargent said the agency did not yet know how that $25 billion would break down for greater Austin's local share.
Sargent added, "We need to ensure that this federal aid package keeps our system running, keeps the high frequency network running, and makes sure that we've got all of our operators in place."
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