Sharing the rail

The following article by Brooke Pimentel appeared in Southwest Cycling News (Vol. XXI, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2011, page 1), a publication of the Austin Cycling Association. It is reprinted here with permission from the writer and the publication.

Sharing the rail

By Brooke Pimentel

Brooke Pimentel ready to board at the Crestview Station. (photo by Cory Werner)

I remember when we found out bicycles were going to be allowed on MetroRail. My boyfriend and I anticipated the upcoming rail system with curiosity, but this news pushed curiosity into true excitement. Kudos, MetroRail, for embracing bicyclists from the beginning.

Before MetroRail began running, we often walked along the railroad tracks near our house. It was one of our long routes for walking the dogs late at night when there were no trains and our only company was the skunks. (Tip: There are a lot of skunks in the fields near Crestview Station. And skunk smell does not go away easily, my friends.) During our walks we talked about all the fun things we could do, bringing our bikes along on MetroRail and exploring parts of the city too far away for bicycle exploring before MetroRail. Anticipation was high.

Meanwhile, I changed jobs, and so my commute also changed — from two miles one way to six miles one way. Going from biking 16 or so miles each week to biking 48 miles was daunting. I’m a baker/pastry chef; working in a kitchen is manual labor, which adds more physical exertion to my day. But I love riding my bike to work, not to mention that trying to find parking downtown is akin to torture for me. I realized that MetroRail was a perfect solution; I’d take MetroRail one way and still be able to ride my bike one way without exhausting myself senseless. I was stoked.  Continue reading “Sharing the rail”

Shorten your (single occupancy) commute; catch a bus at Tech Ridge Park & Ride

Northeast Travis County residents will have improved access to Tech Ridge Park & Ride when newly constructed segments of Heatherwilde and Wells Branch open this week. Both Travis County roadways will include sidewalks and bike lanes.

Tech Ridge Park & Ride serves as the northern terminus for routes serving the busy North Lamar/South Congress corridor (#1L/1M and #101), East Austin (#135), and UT/Downtown (#935). It also facilitates many transfers as the endpoint for Routes #243 Wells Branch and #392 Braker.

Tech Ridge P&R route map
Community Impact article

No buses on shoulders for you

So my last blog post related to the legislative session prematurely said, “Overall, we achieved much of what was in our legislative agenda: bus-only shoulders,” blah, blah, blah among other things. Yippee! Well, so foolish I am. I spoke too soon for I forgot about that last, not-so-little step called consideration by the governor. And unfortunately, one of our bills was vetoed. Yep, V-E-T-O. No buses on shoulders for you!

If you recall, Senate Bill 434, carried by two of our own: Senator Jeff Wentworth and Representative Valinda Bolton, would have created a pilot program under which Capital Metro (and only three other Texas transit agencies) would have been allowed to operate buses on pre-approved sections of highway shoulders in order to bypass traffic congestion.

The bill was very cautious in setting up the program. It would have been established by TxDOT and in conjunction with DPS and the involved transit agencies. The bill required TxDOT to consider safety, travel time reliability, driver and passenger perceptions, level of service and maintenance, and capital improvements.

Additionally, other specific parameters were also spelled out. Buses would only be allowed to travel on sections of highway shoulders that TxDOT approved in advance and the sections would be clearly marked for bus-only use. Speed limits were set based on the experience of several other communities in America, which have already implemented bus-only shoulders safely and effectively for over a decade. Buses would only be allowed to use the designated sections of highway shoulders when overall traffic slowed to 35 miles per hour or less, and the bus could only travel at 15 miles per hour greater than the prevailing traffic, with the maximum bus speed still limited to 35 mph. The bus operator would not be required to use the bus-only shoulder if he/she did not feel it was safe.

Despite a number of independent safety studies attesting to the positive experience in the rest of the country (the State of Minnesota has over 300 miles of bus-only shoulders), Governor Perry was not willing to sign the bill. In his veto statement, he cited a concern that use of the highway shoulders by transit buses “would leave no emergency lane, creating a danger to motorists, emergency personnel and passengers aboard transit buses,” though we assured him that we would work with the City of Austin to ensure that the use of highway shoulders by our buses would not impede emergency vehicle passage. (Many thanks to the City, specifically Karla Villalon and Rob Spillar, for having included this in their legislative agenda and for having written a last-minute letter to the governor asking for his support.)

Though we are very disappointed with the veto—it’s the second time we’ve tried to get this passed—we’ll work with the governor’s office over the next few years to see if we can get it through next session. Perhaps then, the third time will actually be the charm for Capital Metro.


While the legislative order of things escaped me regarding the bus-only shoulder legislation, the other items I had written about previously actually panned out as I described. Senate Bill 1263, the bill carried by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Eddie Rodriguez that prescribed a number of changes for Capital Metro, was signed by the governor. That bill, which goes into effect September 1, makes changes to our board composition and our abilities to set our own fares and operate passenger rail, and provides us with some new tools that we’ll need to operate passenger rail. Governor Perry was also willing to sign the bill that lets Capital Metro (and all Texas transit agencies) use the State’s travel discounts when our employees or board members travel for Capital Metro-related duties. (Thank you Senator Duell and Representative Todd Smith!)

If you want more details on the Watson and Rodriguez bill, or any other legislation that I might have written about before, read my previous gobbledygook online at (Check out the gobbledygook hotlink! A fun story, which goodness knows we all need more of.)

Rapid Bus Demo

You may have seen this bus rolling around Austin recently and thought to yourself “what is that?”. It’s a 2008 Nova LFX demo bus and it’s just one of several different models that Capital Metro is considering for MetroRapid. Our transit planners and operators have been testing it out on the streets of Austin the past few days. So far, many are impressed by the way it looks, rides and drives.

The 62-ft articulated bus has 56 seats but it can be manufactured to have up to 62 seats. This particular bus has three wide doors. It’s very roomy and quite comfortable. You might think the size limits its turing ability, but that’s not the case. The bus can manuever around the same as a 40-ft bus.

This type of bus would be assigned to only the MetroRapid routes. The first two routes will be along North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar. Click here for more info on MetroRapid.

Bye Bye Legislature, at least for now

June 2, 2009: the legislature is adjourned, at least for now. I am not sure if I am relieved or wish they would stick around longer. It boggles my mind how critical statewide policy is supposed to be made in less than five months. But, it is what it is, right?

So, what happened to Capital Metro? Overall, we achieved much of what was in our legislative agenda: bus-only shoulders, civilian fare enforcement, contracted peace officer authority, and use of the State’s travel discount. Unfortunately though, due to the State’s budget constraints, we weren’t able to negotiate an agreement with them so that State employees could benefit from annual transit passes. Also very unfortunately, the Legislature was not willing to grant local entities more funding mechanisms for local transportation projects (the local-option funding measure doggedly and valiantly led by Senator John Carona). I find this to be incredibly disappointing but sadly, I am not surprised.

There were also a lot of other changes that were carried forward in legislation by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Eddie Rodriguez. (This is probably what most of you are most interested in.) Those affect our board composition; our ability to operate passenger rail and set our own fares; and internal audit, review and reporting requirements of our agency.

If you’re interested in what passed that most directly affects Capital Metro, here’s a summary.

SENATE BILL 1263 (Senator Watson, Rep. Rodriguez) — This is the big bill.

Board composition
: Changes the composition of the Capital Metro board, most significantly by increasing the total number of members from seven to eight by adding another CAMPO appointee. Watson’s original proposal had called for more significant changes but negotiations in the past few days resulted in the Legislature essentially maintaining the current board composition with some minor tweaks.

The new board composition is as follows:

  • 3 members appointed by CAMPO — 1 must be an elected official, 1 must have at least 10 years of experience as a financial or accounting professional, and 1 must have at least 10 years of experience in an executive-level position.
  • 2 members appointed by the City of Austin — 1 must be an elected official
  • 1 member appointed by Travis County
  • 1 member appointed by Williamson County
  • 1 member, who must be an elected official, appointed by all the small city mayors in Capital Metro’s service area (which excludes City of Austin).

This is not much different than today in that the City of Austin currently appoints two reps, Travis County appoints a rep, various Williamson County officials appoint a rep, and the small city mayors in Travis County appoint a rep. The big change is the CAMPO component. Today they appoint two reps and there are no specific requirements of those individuals. The change gives them an additional rep and requires specific types of experience or elected official status for those reps.

Rail referendum requirements: Allows Capital Metro to forgo the highly unique referendum currently required of our agency in order for us to operate passenger rail (and which is required even if we are not needing to ask the voters for any additional funds to build the system, as was the case for our Red Line that was built within existing means) if

  • We are entering into a contract to build, operate or maintain a fixed rail transit system for another entity, or
  • Voters already approved funds for the project at an election called by our agency or another entity.

Fare approval abilities: Allows Capital Metro to set our own fares (like most any other transit agency in the country), except that CAMPO can veto the base fare if they do so within 60 days of the board it (which is unlike most any other transit agency in the country).

Internal auditor: Requires the Capital Metro board to hire an internal auditor who would report directly to the board. (Today our internal auditor reports both to the board and to our staff president.)

Sunset review: Requires Capital Metro to undergo a sunset review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, but without the possibility of being abolished. This would happen once now and/or next year depending on when it starts and how long it lasts, and again in 2016/2017.

Annual reporting requirements: Requires Capital Metro to provide annual reports to other entities to which we have any financial obligations.

Other operational abilities: Specifies that nonpayment of a fare is not a crime of moral turpitude (this is important for aspiring attorneys and other professionals I hear), allows Capital Metro to hire civilian fare enforcement officers, and ensures that peace officers with whom we contract for security can enforce violations against the Capital Metro system while on duty for Capital Metro (because we contract with APD and they may be on the train in Leander as part of their security duties).

SB 899 (Senator Duell, Rep. Smith) allows all Texas transit agencies to use the State’s travel discounts when employees or officers of the agency are traveling for work. (Saves us and thus you money!)

SB 434 (Senator Wentworth, Rep. Bolton) allows Capital Metro, at least in Travis County, (and San Antonio VIA, Denton County Transportation Authority, and Sun Metro in El Paso) to operate buses on highway shoulders during times of heavy traffic congestion in areas pre-approved by TxDOT. Basically, if traffic slows to 35 mph, our buses can use the highway shoulders as a travel lane but there are limits on just how fast they can go compared to the rest of traffic so that buses don’t go unsafely whizzing by the other motorists who will be stuck in traffic because they didn’t take the bus. (I’m sure I’ll be one of those people one day just for being so snide.) There will be signs noting it’s only for public bus use.

That’s about it. I have a bunch of bills to dig through and see if anything else passed that might have helped or hurt us. Fun, fun, fun. If you’re needing some good bedtime reading, let me know. I got a stack of it.

A Tale of Two Cities?

Back in the early ’90’s I worked as a bus driver in the city of Los Angeles. There were differences and similarities with how the buses in L.A. and buses here in Austin went about doing the same thing, that is, picking up and dropping off passengers.

One of the differences was in how we operated buses in downtown. In L.A. we didn’t pick-up passengers at every corner. We pick-upped at every other corner. But there were bus stops at every corner.

Here’s how it worked. Let’s say, for fun, that you are the bus driver. And your route goes along 1st Street. Your stops would be on Los Angeles, Spring and Hill Streets, but you would skip Main, Broadway and Olive Streets. There are always other buses along your route and the stops you skipped would belong to those. But you, as the operator, would not stay in line behind the bus in front of your bus like we do so here in Austin. After you picked-up passengers, you change lanes and move in front of the other bus, which in turn, will move in front of your bus after boarding people. I always thought of it as playing leapfrog. It worked well.

I have to add that a city block in L.A. is longer than here in Austin. I can walk from 2nd to 3rd Streets while holding my breath. I’ll use Austin for an example. If you, as the bus operator, picked-up folks at 11th Street, your next stop would be at Cesar Chavez Street. That is about how far apart the bus stops are in downtown L.A.

I’ll end this tale of two cities with a quote from someone I love. “A-du-a-du-a-ta-a-ta-that’s all folks.”

Hidden treasures, as discovered from a bike

I love riding my bike to work. I love it because if nothing good happens at work on a day that I ride, at least riding my bike was one good thing—two if you count the ride there and the ride home. But I also love it because it gives me an opportunity to appreciate so many surprising little things that I might not even have ever noticed had I been driving.

On my way home, I love to poke around and turn left or turn right, wherever I want to go. Even in a car, I’m not one to take the most expedient route but on a bike, the scenic route lures me even more.

So I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite things I see when I ride. Maybe you can figure out where they are.

This bird. I love this bird. I see him when riding between work and downtown.

And this? This is my tag. “So what,” you say, but it’s the perfect example of something I never noticed in my car—and it’s my tag! A friend who rides his bike to work every day pointed it out to me, and not until my pedal-pushing friend told me about it, did I see it. Now I pass by and take such pride in the quick handiwork that someone else did, but which I can jokingly claim as my own. Here’s to you, T.B.

This drawing reminds me of Edward Gorey’s work, which I think is fantastic! This sticker decorates one hip person’s mailbox.

Speaking of Gorey, I’ve learned to be OK with cemeteries, at least Oakwood Cemetery, which I ride by on my way home. I used to be really scared of cemeteries when I was a kid but now I love to pass by and look at the names on the tombstones, put them together and make up characters who I think would be perfect for William Faulkner novels. My absolute favorite at Oakwood is a headstone inscribed with the last name of “Numbers.” Can’t you see it? A tragic Faulkner character: Mr. Numbers. (Or I guess a potential nemesis of James Bond.) The first name I have chosen from another headstone goes especially well with Mr. Numbers’ last name but you should ride by there yourself and pick your own first name for Mr. Numbers.

But the absolute best thing about riding a bike is the people. People are a zillion times nicer when you’re on a bike. In a car, you’re just a big, ol’ anonymous hunk of steel that makes noise and stinks. Friendly people are a huge perk, like this gentleman who’s always on his porch and who always waves at me and all the bike-riders, as if he’s known us all for years. He has the friendliest smile and I always enjoy going home that way. (When I stopped and chatted with him one day, and asked to take his photo for this blog, I learned that his 93rd (!) birthday is next week so I’ll have to take that route home then to say happy birthday.)

Well, here are the last few treasures that I’ve found on my way home that I’ll share. (The Shoe Shine mural is the only image for which I can acknowledge the artist, who is the obviously talented Tonya Engel. The somewhat illegible phrase on the plywood reads, “Wavy Days,” which I feel like I have a lot of.)

Even appreciating these little things makes me more able to appreciate everything else in my life. So I encourage you to hop on your bike, or just take a really leisurely stroll, and make a point to look for things that you might not otherwise ever see or pay much attention to. I guarantee it will make your day a much better one.

Good News for MetroRapid

Last week, Capital Metro learned that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has recommended $17.39 million in funding for MetroRapid. The funding is a part of President Barack Obama’s FY2010 budget, which must still be approved by Congress.

MetroRapid was one out of 10 new or expanding transit projects that the FTA recommended for funding. This announcement was a welcomed surprise. We submitted the project just nine months ago; and we were not anticipating possible funding this early in the process.

Initial service will operate on two of the busiest corridors: North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar. The project cost for these first two routes is an estimated $47 million. Capital Metro is still pursuing more federal funding, up to $37 million.

Capital Metro plans to start the procurement process for MetroRapid buses later this year. Staff is considering a combination of 40-foot and 60-foot vehicles. The buses will be equipped with signal priority technology to keep traffic lights green as they approach major intersections.

For more on the MetroRapid system, visit our web site.

On the Busy Number 1 Route

Don’t call me Ishmael.

In his adventurous novel, “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s protagonist Ishmael tells us why he feels the need to go to sea. He says in part, “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper-hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”

How ghastly. I have never felt an urge, not even an iota of one, to assault people, even when my hypos have had me in a sturdy headlock. And certainly I have never felt a “damp, drizzly November” in any part of my soul. When I do I’ll make sure to buy more life insurance.

Poor Ishmael. He would not have made a good bus operator. It would stress him out easily. Especially if he had to work the number 1 route, which I do every weekday after I finish the Leander Express.

The number 1 is our busiest line. I drive the 1L, which goes from Tech Ridge Park & Ride at Howard Lane to Southpark Meadows, at the new shopping center at Slaughter and I-35. On the map in the schedule booklet it looks almost like the Mississippi River.

Because it is so busy and taxing on operators, I had to look at it from another angle and see what it affords me. I found a prize. It is ripe with opportunity to help others. Like assisting a visually-impaired man cross a busy downtown street so he can hop on another bus; helping an elderly lady unload her groceries; helping a young mom carry the stroller on board; helping confused out-of-towners with information; or, helping all my passengers by staying on time so they won’t miss their connecting route. These opportunities, as they pop-up, I hit out of the park like a slugger. Because I know if I allow one opportunity to help someone go without my aid, I will never get it back.