Tag Archives: Capital Metro

A New Transportation Vision for Austin

By Bill Oakey, May 4, 2017

Close your eyes and picture yourself driving to work on a crowded Austin roadway. Think about all of the cars that you see around you and every one that goes by.  Then ask yourself one simple question. How many people do you see in each one of those cars?  The answer is just as simple…

ONE!

So, the key to solving Austin’s traffic dilemma is to finally find a way to get more people into fewer vehicles on the daily commute to and from their workplace.  Capital Metro is our only current mass transit provider. Unfortunately, their model is a very outdated and severely limited centralized bus system. Their new 2025 plan is all about continuing this model, and even making mass transit more limited for the people who don’t live near a centralized corridor.

This old-fashioned model works well in a small compact city, with nearly all neighborhoods located close to the center of the city. But Austin has long since outgrown that model with untold numbers of residents living well beyond the narrow boundaries served by Capital Metro. To make matters worse, their consultant-inspired 2025 plan actually eliminates many popular routes used by people who live less than a couple of miles from downtown. One of the bus routes slated for elimination is the #21/22 Exposition bus that serves Tarrytown. The entire neighborhood is in an uproar. We are at the mercy of the Capital Metro board, who probably never even ride their own buses.

So, What Is a Better Solution for Commuter Transit?

My proposal would probably require a big push from both the City of Austin and Travis County to get Capital Metro to implement a new decentralized model that would serve neighborhoods without any current bus routes. The plan calls for a variety of vehicle types to be dispatched to neighborhoods throughout the City and County every weekday. Here are the elements of the proposal:

  1.  Capital Metro should solicit input from medium to large-scale Austin employers to determine which of their workers would like to use the service, and what their addresses are. Then, routes would be determined throughout the greater Austin area, based on where people live and where they work.
  2. Vehicles of different sizes, ranging from cars to vans to buses, would be dispatched to take the commuters to and from work every day.
  3. A team of planners could work out the details on how to set up this new system. Employers could help with some of the cost of the service. And the rates for the passengers could be determined as well.
  4. Capital Metro could still operate a Central City bus system. But pouring every dollar of their available money into expanding that model would only help a small percentage of the people who need mass transit.

Some may ask, what about the light rail option? Realistically, it is probably too late for Austin to build a major rail system. The first $1 billion leg that failed in the 2014 bond election would have doubled our general obligation debt. Taxpayers are not likely to support the $12 billion to $15 or $20 billion cost of a citywide rail system. We missed our chance, unfortunately. It might have been possible if we had started it before 2000.

The sort of comprehensive approach that I suggest would make a major dent in the number of cars on the roads every day during morning evening rush periods. To play devil’s advocate, someone might ask how Capital Metro could employ drivers who only have two pickups per day on these routes. The answer to that question is simple. We live in an age of transportation networking. The large pool of TNC drivers could participate in this new system. They would have to be allowed to drive for this new service, in addition to their work with the TNC’s.

Of course, a system such as this would be a sea change for Capital Metro. It would totally disrupt their current plans and their projected annual budgets. But I strongly believe that we need an innovative approach to solving our transportation problems. We can’t build roads fast enough to accommodate all of the people. And the prevailing push for more and more toll roads is becoming ridiculously expensive, even to think about, much less for anybody to pay for. We have a broken system that needs public support for real improvement. If it turns out that Capital Metro cannot be convinced to embrace the type of change that is needed, then perhaps they should be dissolved, and a new transportation entity should be created to take their place. An early 1900’s model simply will not serve the needs of a growing 21st century city like Austin.

 

Will Capital Metro Ever Improve Their Bus Service?

By Bill Oakey – July 12, 2016

Almost on a daily basis, I get pieces of mail intended for car drivers – special offers on auto insurance, credit union offers for low-cost car loans, even actual ignition keys. I’m supposed to take the ignition key to a car dealership to enter a contest. If I put the key in and the car starts up, it’s mine to keep and I can drive it off the lot. Now, that would make an interesting video advertisement for sure – me crashing a brand new car!

So, here’s the bottom line folks. Not everybody can drive a car, because of a wide variety of disabilities. Some people cannot afford their own car. And others have aged beyond the point where it is safe for them to drive. Some prefer to take the bus to work even if they do own a car. For all of those reasons, we need a good bus system that serves our entire community. But Capital Metro has actually gone backwards instead of forward in the direction of an adequate system.

A Mobility Adventure With An Affordability Twist

A couple of months ago, I stopped into a local business to take care of an errand. I had taken the bus to the doctor for a physical exam. That meant I was pretty darned hungry for a late breakfast, since you have to fast before such an exam. I asked the person behind the counter where the nearest breakfast restaurant was. They suggested Dan’s Hamburgers. “It’s right close by, just north of here on this side of Lamar,” I was told.

So, I walked about two blocks east to 4800 North Lamar. I turned left and headed up the sidewalk. I got to end of the first block and assumed that Dan’s Hamburgers was probably in the next block, or perhaps the one after that. But I was in for a rude surprise. It turned about to be a very long hike. I asked several people how close it was, and they just kept telling me to keep going.

By this time I had already figured out what the problem was. The guy who told me that Dan’s Hamburgers was “right close by” must have assumed that I would get into a car and quickly zip over there. The long, eight-block hike would have taken less than five minutes in a car. During the entire walk, two happy thoughts kept running through my mind. One, I believed that the breakfast would be well worth waiting for. And two, it was comforting to know that the #1 North Lamar bus runs every 11-12 minutes. At least I would have a short wait as soon as I finished breakfast.

OK, Breakfast Is Done. Now I’m Sitting At the Nearest Bus Stop

As it turns out, I had not ridden the North Lamar bus in the last couple of years. After several minutes went by, reality began to set in. Even before I looked up the schedule, I remembered something bad. North Lamar and Burnet Road are the two busiest routes in the Capital Metro system. In 2014, they thought they had created a wonderful solution by putting in those gigantic, double-sized buses – MetroRapid they are called. They have accordions on them to help navigate turns.

Those giant buses are exactly twice as expensive to ride as the regular ones. And they are “express buses,” which means that they will get you across town faster because they make much fewer stops. But here’s the bad news for the huge number of regular bus riders. When the giant buses went into service, Capital Metro more than doubled the waiting time for the regular buses. And besides that, there may not be a “giant bus stop” anywhere near where you happen to be when you need a bus.

That convenient, every-11-to-12-minute service up and down North Lamar to Guadalupe, past  U.T. into downtown that we enjoyed for 25 or 30 years no longer exists. It has been stretched into 26 minutes. So, if you throw in Murphy’s law, the last bus at my stop probably came about 14 seconds before I walked out of Dan’s Hamburgers. I was in for quite a long wait. Imagine trying to endure that in July, with blistering 100-degree heat and stifling humidity.

The Man With the Bright Red Book In His Lap

I didn’t have to wait long for some human companionship. A quiet, neatly dressed guy pulling a small overnight suitcase on rollers plopped down on the seat next to me. At first, I didn’t say anything to him. I couldn’t help but notice the bright red book in his lap. I could read the title quite clearly. Then I looked at my watch. The vast majority of those 26 minutes were still out there to be counted. So, I figured I might as well take a chance and start a conversation.

“Is that a Holy Bible?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“Why, yes, it certainly is!” the guy responded, as his face lit up with eager anticipation.

There was something about him that made me think he was not going to pound me into submission if I did not succumb to everything he had to offer. He appeared to be a calm and gentle soul, and Indeed he was. He briefly explained that he had learned all of life’s bitter lessons. He would never use drugs or alcohol again. And above all, he was certainly never going back to prison. When the bus finally came, I was grateful for the time-passing conversation.

Will Austin’s “Year of Mobility” Include Expansion and Improvements to Capital Metro’s Bus Service?

Ever since the defeat of the wildly expensive “urban rail” bonds in 2014, I have been waiting for an announcement about improved bus service. Jeff Travillion, the winner of the Democratic primary for Travis County Commissioner, campaigned on that issue. Many neighborhoods in both northeast and southeast Travis County have no bus service at all, not even with 26 minute wait times. And just for the record, there are other busy routes inside the city that have longer waits than 26 minutes. The regular, non-accordion #3 Burnet/Manchaca bus runs in 30-35 minute intervals on weekdays.

How Does Capital Metro’s Official “2020 Plan” Line Up With What They Actually Did to the Bus Service?

In the case of the busy #1 North Lamar Route, the official “Capital Metro 2020 Plan,” published in January 2010, contained a promise that they clearly failed to keep. In Chapter 5, “Service Recommendations,” Page 5-14, you will find these statements:

“Frequency on Route 1 should be improved to account for the deletion of service on Route 1L. Route 1 should be classified as a future ‘Frequent Service’ Route. Route 101 will be converted to a MetroRapid Bus Rapid Transit line. The alignment of the MetroRapid line is identical to the alignment of Route 101, although the number of stops will be reduced.”

The situation only got worse after the official plan was published. Instead of improving the service on Route !, they did the exact opposite. Over the next two years, the passengers complained. On January 31, 2014, KUT reported on it in a news story entitled, “Is Capital Metro’s New MetroRapid Service Leaving Bus Riders Behind?” When questioned about the longer wait times and the frustrated passengers, Roberto Gonzalez, Capital Metro’s Manager of Service Planning made another hollow promise: “As for adding back additional Route 1 service, if there’s something that we need to address more permanently, then that’s what we’ll end up doing,” he says. “But it is very early.”

Well, here we are another two years out and the service is still pretty pitiful. I have to wonder how many other major cities would tolerate 25-35 minute wait times on the two busiest bus routes in their systems.

A New “Connections 2025 Plan” Is Currently In Development – And Guess What the Community Survey Reveals…

You can read about the new plan here. The “Community Survey Summary” offers many insights into what people like and dislike most about Capital Metro. Not surprisingly, the results of one survey question jumped out at me.

Question 15, Page 17: “I Would Ride Capital Metro more often if…”

The highest ranking response, at 50% was, “If the buses ran more frequently.” You can You can see the graph here.

Let’s Add Bus Improvements to the Conversation About Transportation Bonds In November

I will be meeting with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and City Council Member Ann Kitchen to encourage them to support just such a plan. Both of them serve on the Capital Metro Board. I will also bring it up with the Mayor’s staff. With the road bonds set to appear on the November ballot, only the car-driving folks and bicycle riders will have the opportunity for mobility improvements. Large numbers of people on the lower end of Austin’s devastating economic divide remain trapped in a mobility and affordability quagmire.

So, let’s ask our civic leaders to address the needs of citizens who rely on Capital Metro buses to get to and from their destinations. Not only would those improvements help existing bus riders, but they could very well encourage others to start using the bus system and take some cars off the roads. And while we’re at it, let’s push for a network of park and ride facilities too. Instead of relying on another study headed by an outside consultant, we need a real action plan that budgets these improvements and puts them into place. Our leaders need to deliver the results just as predictably as the roadway and bicycle improvements that we will vote on in November.

Then And Now – The Multiplying Wait Times for Regular Capital Metro Buses

  1. 2008 Capital Metro Schedule Book – Look at Route #1L/1M, North Lamar/South Congress, beginning on Page 23. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays are 11 to 12 minutes apart. Look at Route #3, Burnet/Manchaca, beginning on Page 33. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays are 20 to 23 minutes apart.
  2. 2016 Capital Metro Schedule Book – Look at Route #1, Metric/South Congress, which includes North Lamar, beginning on Page 33. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays have increased to 26 minutes apart. Look at Route #3, Burnet/Manchaca, beginning on Page 41. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays have increased to 30 to 35 minutes apart.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

Walking Songs

  1. “I’m Walking” – Ricky Nelson’s first record, 1957. A bigger hit for Fats Domino
  2. “Walk Right In” – The Rooftop Singers, 1963
  3. “Walk Right Back” – The Everly Brothers, 1961
  4. “I Walk the Line” – Johnny Cash, 1956
  5. “These Boots Are Made for Walking” – Nancy Sinatra, 1966
  6. Walk Like a Man” – The Four Seasons, 1963
  7. “Walking In the Sunshine” – Roger Miller, 1967

Songs About Waiting

  1. “Tired of Waiting for You” – The Kinks, 1965
  2. “I’m Waiting Forever” – Willie Nelson, 1996
  3. “Waiting In the Weeds” – The Eagles, 2007
  4. “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” – Jack Johnson, 2005
  5. “Right Here Waiting” – Richard Marx, 1989
  6. “Forever” – The Little Dippers (Pseudonym for the Anita Kerr Singers), 1960

Songs for the Man With the Bright Red Book

  1. “The Wild Side of Life” – Hank Thompson, 1951
  2. “Walk On the Wild Side” – Brook Benton, 1962
  3. “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” – Cal Smith, 1972
  4. “Prisoner’s Song” – Adam Wade, 1962
  5. “In the Jailhouse Now” – Jimmy Wakely, 1957
  6. “I Saw the Light” – Willie Nelson & Leon Russell, 1979
  7. “Down to the River to Pray” – Alison Krauss, 2000
  8. “Me And Jesus” – Tom T. Hall, 1972
  9. “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” – Johnny Russell, 1973
  10. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” – Patsy Cline, 1960
  11. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – The Lettermen, 1965

KEYE-TV News Story On Taxpayer Wage Subsidies – Can We Close Pandora’s Box?

By Bill Oakey – April 21, 2016

Huge thanks to KEYE’s investigative reporter, Walt Maciborski, for prying open this disturbing chapter in Austin’s taxpayer battle against special-interest fee waivers. The story was aired on the 10:00 PM edition of the KEYE news on Wednesday evening. You can watch the video here. The text of the story appears below. But first, one small bit of conjecture. How did this little gem of an issue slide by all of the members of Capital Metro’s Board of Directors? The original contract had called for a construction workers’ wage of $11.39 per hour. But a resolution passed at the Travis County Democratic Convention sparked them to reconsider the living wage portion of the contract. The wage went up to $13.03, to be paid for in part by you and me. While some of us were probably in bed asleep, the new contract was hammered out with lots of special-interest spin. That’s just an educated guess. It sets a bad precedent. But boxes can be opened and boxes can be closed. Pandora’s is no exception.

Close Pandora's_box

Activist says taxpayers paying $500K to get East Austin mixed-use project done

The Plaza Saltillo development project in East Austin is finally on track to be a reality. But are taxpayers picking up part of the bill?

Capital Metro and Endeavor Real Estate Group hammered out a last-minute deal for a 10 acre mixed use housing complex at 5th and Comal streets.

A key part of the deal was to get the workers a living wage of at least $13.03 an hour, a jump from the original plan to pay workers $11.39 an hour.

“The problem is that this new agreement specifies that 50 percent of this difference between $11 and $13 is going to be subsidized by the taxpayers,” AustinAffordabilty.com blogger Bill Oakey said.

That difference is about $500,000.

Oakey says this is a great project for the city and East Austin but he thinks it’s a bad deal for taxpayers.

“And I call that a wage waiver which is a lot like a fee waiver that is commonly given to developers,” Oakey said.

We called Capital Metro to go on camera so we could ask them to explain the costs of this new deal and if this is a fee waiver for the developer. They refused to go on camera. But they gave us a statement.

They say, “Capital Metro’s 50 percent cost share for the living wage increase to $13.03 will be funded only from rent increases on the additional height in the office building over 99 years.”

Capital Metro also says this is new revenue it “will receive from office space (which) is new, un-projected revenue. In the end, it is revenue that Capital Metro didn’t have before, to be applied to transportation costs.”

“Right now we’re headed for trouble,” Oakey said.

He isn’t buying it. He says it’s still money that’s coming from the taxpayer pool to make this project happen and he fears it could get worse.

“To me it’s the precedent that is the most alarming,” Oakey said. “It’s opening Pandora’s Box. And I’m afraid that other taxing entities like the city and the county might follow this dangerous precedent. I’m asking our local officials to please close Pandora’s Box and do not continue this wage waiver subsidy with taxpayer money.”

Musical accompaniment (plus a comedy recording) for this blog posting:

  1. “Bus Driver’s School” – Bob Newhart, from the album, “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back,” 1960
  2. “Bus Stop,” – The Hollies, 1966
  3. “Magic Bus” – The Who (rare long version), 1968

Taxpayers Stuck For Construction Workers’ Wage Increase

By Bill Oakey – March 24, 2016

This seems to be week for “Holy Cow! Did I Read That Right?” news stories. Here’s one I woke up to this morning. Are you ready for this?

Capital Metro Gives Developer a “Wage Waiver,” (A New Breed of Fee Waiver)

Capital Metro and the Endeavor Real Estate Group negotiated a deal for the construction of the 10-acre Plaza Saltillo development downtown. When the dust settled after Tuesday night’s board meeting, the developer walked away winning their original offer of $11.39 per hour minimum wage for the workers. And yet the workers won also, because they will be getting paid $13.03 per hour. That’s because Capital Metro agreed to “share” part of the difference with money that would otherwise belong to the taxpayers. The shared portion will be 50% of the wage increase  The net taxpayer loss is estimated to be $500,000.

Capital Metro will be leasing the 10-acre tract of land to the developer for 99 years. The “shared” portion of the workers’ wage increase will come in the form of a subsidy in reduced lease payments.  The lease subsidy benefits the developer the same way that a fee waiver would. So, I suggest that we label this groundbreaking event the dawn of the “wage waiver.” History will remember that the era began on Tuesday March 22, 2016.

The Tuesday night board meeting played out with the typical drama of an Austin showdown between a developer, government officials and citizen activists. Members of the Workers Defense Fund were justifiably upset because the agreement lacks sufficient worker safety provisions and many workers will be denied worker’s compensation insurance. According to an article in the Austin Monitor, the Workers Defense Fund may oppose the zoning change for the development when it goes to the City Council.

And what will the developer have an opportunity to ask for at the zoning hearing?

Fee waivers, of course!

So, Where Does All of This Leave the Taxpayers?

The worst thing about this first “wage waiver” is the dangerous precedent. $500,000 is “only a little bit of money” out of a big contract. But what about the next contract and the one after that? Every developer that goes into a construction and lease deal will want the same thing. Think about the massive complex of buildings being planned for the land owned by Central Health. What we witnessed this week was the opening of Pandora’s Box.

Pandoras-box

From Project Connect to Air Max Shoes

By Bill Oakey – December 1, 2014

This morning, I thought I would check in on the Project Connect website to see what they’re up to. I clicked on the usual http://www.projectconnect.com/ and got a big surprise. I was redirected to anyjordan.com, a website that sells Nike basketball shoes inspired by Michael Jordan.

Further down in my “Project Connect Austin” Google search, I tried a Capital Metro link. That eventually led me to a new address, hidden from view beneath the listed name, projectconnect.com. The site name now appears in your browser address bar as http://www.connectcentraltexas.com

This address is so new that it has no direct link from Google. It appears that our transit officials failed to properly register the domain name for ProjectConnect.com. Or else, there is another possibility. Could it be that Project Connect is undergoing a facelift? Will the new year ring in a new name in an attempt to rehabilitate the failed pro-urban-rail organization?

Perhaps we will all wake up shortly after New Year’s Day to find that the old Project Connect has transformed itself into Connect Central Texas. After that, they may decide to rename Capital Metro. Maybe we could even help them choose a name. How about Mobility Austin? Or maybe something more cryptic and flexible, like Code ATX? Actually, that would probably be a better choice for the new name for Project Connect. With Code ATX, it would be much easier to revamp the bureaucracy every time one of their visioning processes gets rejected by the voters.

One final note. It is beyond hope and far too late for Lee Leffingwell to rehabilitate himself. He needn’t bother to change his name. In fact, if the cops were to catch him speeding on his way out of town, they should just move over and let him get on down the road.

Where’s The City Council Public Hearing On Urban Rail?

By Bill Oakey – June 17, 2014

On Thursday June 26, the Austin City Council is set to make one of the biggest decisions in modern Austin history.  They will vote on a resolution to approve the “Project Connect” urban rail plan, including the Riverside to Highland Mall route and the proposed funding.  The actual wording of the November bond proposition will come in a separate vote in August.

But there is one crucial omission in this process – a public hearing.

The City Council and the Capital Metro Board met this morning in a joint session to discuss the final urban rail plan.  This meeting will be broadcast on the City’s cable channel at 2:00 PM today, and a video of the meeting will be posted soon to the City of Austin’s website.

Many voters may not be aware of what exactly constitutes “Project Connect.”  It is a group of representatives from local governing bodies and their staffs that has been working on an all-encompassing mass transportation plan for the Austin area.  It includes rapid buses, commuter rail, and regional rail, in addition to the proposed urban rail project.  If you happen to belong to a community organization that hosted a Project Connect open house, or if you knew who they were and went to their website or Facebook page, then you might have a better idea of what is at stake in this major transportation initiative.

Unfortunately though, the urban rail project has not been communicated well enough yet for the average person on the street to understand what the proposal entails.  Just yesterday at the grocery store, a person mentioned that he had heard about the plan but did not know much about it.  “Does it go to the airport?” he asked me.  Nope.

There are two interesting things that I just learned about the plan within the past few days.  One is that Project Connect only decided towards the end of the planning process to include a tunnel at the north end of route near Hancock Center.  Somebody realized that there are other railroad tracks in that neighborhood, and that a new rail system would have to get over, under or around them somehow.  The other is that Project Connect’s plan includes constructing two permanent, dedicated bus lanes along the rapid bus route on Guadalupe / Lamar.  So, if anyone was looking at this fall’s bond election as “We have to start somewhere,” while assuming that more urban rail would soon be coming to a neighborhood near you, then keep these facts in mind.

Now, we are only days away from a City Council resolution that will set in stone the route and the funding plans for one of the biggest projects that Austin voters have encountered in at least 14 years.  (Since the last urban rail vote in 2000).  But the Council is planning to consider that resolution without a public hearing.

If you think a public hearing would be helpful, please use this link to contact all of the City Council members and ask for one to be scheduled at or before their June 26th meeting.