Linda Watson Q&A

Great profile of our new boss in Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman:

WATSON CLIMBS ABOARD

New chief taking the helm at area’s transit agency hopes to schedule an image U-turn



S
tatesman transportation writer Ben Wear: Let’s start with commuter rail. Why do you think ridership has been so low so far?

Watson: First of all, you have bus and rail competing against each other. Second, people don’t understand what it is or how to use it. I’ve had so many people in just the few days I’ve been here ask me, ‘What brings you to Austin?’ And when I tell what I’m going to do, their reaction is somewhere between being impressed and being horrified. ‘You’re going to do what?’ And the second thing they say is, ‘Are you going to run that monorail? Or, that light rail?’ (Light rail, unlike the MetroRail commuter line, generally runs on city streets and has more stops.) People don’t know what it is. So part of it is an educational process. Finally, I think that if light rail had been built first, it would have been a phenomenal success. Commuter rail service is basically just catering to work trips. And you really need both to be successful. It’s kind of like building a freeway with no feeder roads into it.

The agency has made noises about canceling or cutting back express bus service that competes with commuter rail at Leander and Lakeline. Those riders don’t like that because they see the express buses as more convenient. Where do you come down on the question of cutting back express buses?

That’s probably one of those where you have to look at the community values and then make a decision based on that. I would prefer to work with the board on that. There’s a lot of issues to work through.

You have this unique Capital Metro structure with, in theory, two organizations side-by-side (Capital Metro administrative workers and an agency-created entity called StarTran that employs union workers). That creates an odd situation where management and the board have to profess to be uninvolved with the pay and work conditions of two-thirds of the workforce. How important is it to somehow change that?

That’s probably the No. 1 issue that needs to be addressed. You can’t run an organization when you have the largest group of employees unhappy. And it seems to me that’s where we are right now. There’s a division in the organization, and you have to fix that to be effective. It’s got to start with trust and communication. I think that’s broken down, and we’ve got to work very hard to repair that. The service we provide to our customers is dependent on having employees who feel good about where they work, who like coming to work. And that can’t happen if there’s mistrust or unhappiness in the organization.

You know the history of enmity between the union and Capital Metro management. But union leaders, based on what they’’ve heard about your Orlando tenure, seem optimistic. Should they be?

They should be. I had a very good relationship with the union in Orlando. We’ve worked very well together. We met frequently and developed good communication and a trust, so we were able to work through issues. I would not expect that to be any different here.

The key labor question is whether to use outside contractors for all of the agency’s bus service; currently about half of the routes are handled by workers managed by private contractors, and the other half, those managed by StarTran, are essentially agency employees. A recent Texas Sunset Advisory Commission review of Capital Metro recommended doing that with all routes, which in effect would eliminate StarTran. What is your position on further or wholesale outsourcing of bus operations?

My recommendation would be to have a retreat with the board and with union representatives, and bring in experts from all over the county if necessary. Learn all the issues, the good, the bad. We need to know all the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing so that when we make decisions on this, we know a lot about what the consequences are.

One of the agency’s proposed strategies to control costs on paratransit service — door-to door service for people with qualifying disabilities — is to offer rides only to people living within three-quarters of a mile of a regular bus route, the minimum required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Do you support doing this?

What we did in Orlando, something that I want to look at here, was small neighborhood circulators, buses that provide curb-to-curb service. What we were doing was eliminating regular bus service in many neighborhoods. Then somebody can call as early as two hours in advance and schedule a trip, and the vans would go pick them up and take them anywhere within that zone or to the bus routes (on major streets). Not only was this service much cheaper to operate, but our paratransit ridership went down fairly significantly because more people were taking this service.

Another lingering controversy is over the taxi voucher program used by some clients rather than Capital Metro paratransit vehicles and drivers. Do you support continuing this program?

Sometimes (cabs) can really save you money and do a better job. But that is not always the case. I would want to do an evaluation of that service and see if it’s effective, see if it’s really doing what it needs to be doing. We might want to do more of it. I don’t know at this point.

What is your take on the agency’’s arrangement for University of Texas shuttles in which UT covers about 50 percent of the cost?

I’m glad the board ended up doing the two year contract (earlier this summer). That gives us time to look at it and see what else is happening around the country, see if there are other strategies. But I don’t want to get ahead of the board on that because they really looked into that issue.

Do you foresee bringing in anyone from your Orlando team? And do you expect to add anyone to the senior leadership of the agency in the coming months?

I don’t have a plan to bring anybody with me from Orlando. And I want to evaluate the staff we have in place before making any decisions about whether we have the right structure, the right people to move forward.

One persistent criticism of your predecessor, Fred Gilliam, was that he was a poor communicator and that that hurt the agency’s stature. What do have in mind to make Capital Metro more of a player in local policymaking?

I enjoy getting out in the community, meeting people, getting to know all the different issues, and working with people to fix things. I’ve found that whether they’re individuals, or groups, or agencies, if you can partner on getting things done and leveraging resources, you can be incredibly successful. And that would be my goal here.

Among the agency’s most persistent critics are fiscal conservatives here who believe the agency’s priorities and spending are out of whack. Do you see any value in reaching out to people like Jim Skaggs and Gerald Daugherty?

Oh, absolutely. They may be right about some things. When I walked into Orlando, I said we’re going to run it like a business and make good decisions on expenditures. It’s not our money, it’s taxpayers’ money, and we’re going to spend it as efficiently as we can. So I want to hear what they have to say, what their issues and concerns are. I want to hear from everybody.

It’s a cliché to refer to Capital Metro as ‘embattled,’ but that’s been true for much of its history. Is that endemic to transit agencies, or do you foresee a way of finally turning around the agency’s image?

If I thought it wasn’t possible to turn the agency around, I wouldn’t be there. I saw it happen in Orlando. It’s my goal to do whatever it takes to remove “embattled” as an adjective in front of Capital Metro. I believe it can be done.

15 thoughts on “Linda Watson Q&A

  1. Paul K McGregor

    I am sure Linda will do a good job getting things back on track for Capital Metro. I’ve been in the transit business a long time and have worked a couple of times with female CEOs, including Karen Rae when she was at Capital Metro, and I seem to notice a different leadership style than men. They tend to be more open and engaging and for Capital Metro, that is a good thing that they need right now.

  2. Expect a “we always knew that light rail was the critical piece” rewriting of history now from Cap Metro apparatchiks, despite six years of attacking yours truly for daring to say so.

    Problem is that you can’t build the one truly great light rail line in this city any more now that the Red Line has been implemented – the city’s urban rail plan is half as good and more expensive; and is going to suffer blowback from the Red Line debacle anyways.

  3. ky

    Changing, eliminating Star Tran is the first priority. While the “retreat” sounds nice it is really a waste of time. The bottom line is that Metro has marching orders from the Sunset Commission to bid out ALL of the Star Tran work competitively like the law says they should have been for the past 20 years. Retreat in corporate lingo means trying to have everyone agree and “buy-in” which is preposterous, since implementing the plans that the State of Texas will FORCE Cap Metro to do anyway will in fact make a lot of people that work there rather unhappy. Frankly what is best for Austin, and the taxpayers is NOT necessarily what is best, nicest, most comfortable for Capmetro / Star Tran, but whenever the topic is discussed Metro people always talk about themselves first. Typical

    1. Paul K McGregor

      “bid out ALL of the Star Tran work competitively like the law says they should have been for the past 20 years.”

      I just read the sunset commission report and i didn’t see anywhere in the report that says what you are claiming it says. There is no law requiring them to contract out services.

      Whether the service is operated by a non-profit company or a for-profit company is not the primary issue. The issue is to make the service currently operated by StarTran more cost efficient and provide more accountability. If they do decide to go to procurement of a new contractor, there is nothing stopping StraTran executives from submitting their own proposal.

      It seems like no one has a problem with making the change, it is just what change to make. Developing and evaluating the options and presenting them to the Board is what the purpose of the retreat or meetings are.

      You do not want to do something quickly and then have to deal with unintended consequences. Case in point, a transit agency in San Diego County, California got a new manager and his first decision was to privatize all bus service. So what ended up happening was that during the transitional period between the time they awarded the contract and the time they were to take over, they were starting to have difficulties keeping the service on the road because they were not able to retain enough operators to operate the exisitng service. So that certainly had an impact on the riders something you want to avoid in Austin.

      1. ky

        Paul.

        State transportation code, as well as Federal Law requires competitive bidding. I would think most people would understand that exists for a lot of very good reasons.

        The only way they have gotten past it this far, is the State looking the other way, and FTA gave them a waiver.

        It is very simple that the intent and the achievement of competitive bidding gets the service out of the hands of expensive agencies with enormous overhead and costly union contracts. The quality of service in private contractors has to be maintained according to specific performance and cost criteria in a REAL CONTRACT, such as does NOT exist with Star Tran.

        BTW, the Sunset report part on Star Tran and contracting out work has already been adopted as a formal recommendation to be forcibly implemented, so it is really not much under the control of Metro anymore.

  4. chrysrobyn

    I sure agree that education is the most important first step. I just hope Watson is able to evaluate the Red Line in terms of its viability. Hopefully she can buck the trend and pull in community members who don’t yet ride transit for frank discussions on what the real problems are.

    Maybe keeping it open is the best thing to do, given all the sunk costs (M1EK hasn’t sold me on it being the worst debacle ever), but it sure isn’t effective now. What are the real goals? Is the goal to “have a train system”? Is the goal to “meet commuters needs”? Is the goal to “get Leander cars off 183”?

    Educating people and telling them it’s a great system isn’t going to win over people who think it has critical faults that pile up into a failure.

  5. Jason

    I am excited that Watson has arrived in Austin, and has many ideas for improving the service that Capital Metro provides to our community. I hope that under her leadership Capital Metro will become a more efficient, customer centered agency that works to improve transit service in Austin.

    As a side note, I strongly disagree with M1EK that the Red Line was a debacle. The Red Line has a great route for people in Northwest and East Austin, and will become more successful overtime as developments occur near the rail stations. Ridership will also increase as frequency on the Red Line increases, and when more of the local bus routes are scheduled for timed transfers with the rail (which currently prevents me from riding do to poorly timed transfers with the 7 and 10 at Highland Station).

    1. Jason, the thing has half the projected ridership; and the projected ridership is puny compared to a light rail line running down the 2000 route. If you’re not aware, the 2000 route served the same exact alignment in NW Austin and then ran on the #1 bus route after that. The part of the Red Line route serving East Austin would have been a follow-on.

      Successful rail lines look like the ones in Houston and Phoenix – blowing the doors off ridership projections with 5 digits in them. Ours is at 3 digits (projections in low 4 digits); and no, the peak hours only service has little to do with it – the majority of riders in successful light rail cities are commuters. If the Red Line trains were nearly or actually full in their peak hour runs, we might have a case; but the best timed trains are half-full at best; and the rest are nearly empty.

      And, by the way, there are nearly zero current car drivers who will be willing to switch to the Red Line when it requires a bus transfer to get anywhere useful. You will also never have timed transfers on this route other than the dedicated shuttles, because timed transfers require either 2 good rail lines, or a bus line that’s willing to plan on arriving early most of the time (since a lot of the time the bus will be delayed, but impossible to predict how much) and making the rest of its passengers sit there and wait for the train to show up.

    2. chrysrobyn

      Jason —
      I live in Wells Branch, which is very connected from I-35 and MoPac, with a nice connection to Metric (Thermal) to boot. The Red Line stops at Howard & MoPac. How much closer could it get? And I still think the Red Line doesn’t suit my neighborhood. It costs over twice what it should, the connections are terrible, and the hours are no good.

      Can you sway my opinion? Whom does the Red Line actually serve? Where do these people in Northwest or East Austin live, and where do they work? Are you talking about people who live near Lakeline and Highland? (Wasn’t Highland already very well served by existing busses?) Do they work close to the station downtown, or do they have an easy time with the transfers?

      As it stands, I think everybody acknowledges that ridership is low enough to call a “debacle”. Having faith better timing of connections later doesn’t change that. I had faith that I could get to work in less than 30 minutes on less than $30/month and that didn’t pan out for me.

  6. Ralph l.

    Quite simple several reasons. Lived in South Florida 15 years ago same issues

    1. No feeder bus lines or shuttle to train. You get downtown or a metro rail station then what no buses or buses at right schedule.

    2. No Friday Night Train Service bus connector lines also

    3. No Saturday day or Saturday Night Train Service bus connector lines also

    4. No Midday Train Service bus connector lines also

    5. No stop in Cedar Park one should be near 1890 Ranch

    6. Prices High Compare with South Florida Price

    7. Schedule should be extended from downtown to 9 PM

    8. Routes should be expanded also east RR and also to airport with same schedule suggestions and bus feeder lines.

  7. Ralph l.

    one additional suggestion better connection to the Domain how can I go to the Domain by train if the station has a long walking distance to the domain. Shuttle bus service and the above schedule modifications in my previous comments are needed.

  8. Ralph, actually, they’ve done what Tri-Rail did exactly – shuttles included in both systems (meeting the train and “whisking you to your final destination”). Problem is that most people who drive today find that kind of commute with a bus transfer unacceptably lame.

  9. Robert Miller

    I’ve read that CAP Metro is cutting the CARTS system in Williamson, basically abandoning many elderly and disabled pesons who rely on this service for basic transport to doctor’s appointments, to get groceries, etc. I’m curious why Ms. Watson and CAP Metro Board have this love affair with light rail, continuing to plow money into a service that takes no one anywhere, raising fares and cutting service for routes that are actually used by people living in the greater Austin community. Isn’t their mission statement to provide transportation to the public?

  10. Paul McGregor

    Not sure what is meant by this comment. CARTS is not governed by Capital Metro so any decision on any changes that are made by CARTS is made by their governing board not Capital Metro.

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