Welcome to March Madness

For the many Austinites who have been around for a while we all know March is a busy time for the city. Thousands of people will be coming and going this month so you might want to avoid the traffic and parking headaches by taking the bus when you can.

Let the fun begin:

UIL State Basketball Tournaments – March 5-7 and March 12-14 at the Erwin Center. Catch routes 10, 20, 37, 137 and the UT shuttles.

Texas Independence Day Parade – March 7 along Congress Avenue. Catch most local routes that go downtown to see the parade.

South by Southwest Interactive, Music and Film Festival – March 13-22. Taking place all over town. You can catch almost any of our routes to see a show. We’re also extending the ‘Dillos until 11 p.m.

Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo – March 13-28 at the Travis County Expo Center. Take route 37 or 137.

Spring Break – March 16-20. At least some people are leaving town this month.

St. Patrick’s Day – March 17 on 6th and in the Warehouse District. Don’t drink and drive. Ride the Night Owls.

MetroRail Grand Opening – March 28. Parties at all nine stations and free rides throughout the day. More details to come soon.

And, if you have the energy….

Capital 10K – March 29, between Congress and Mopac. There are a handful of routes that will get you to the starting line.

Did I miss anything? If so, let me know because I think my schedule is already full!!

Join the Capital Metro Team

Capital Metro is hosting a career fair on Saturday, Feb. 21 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The fair will be at Capital Metro Headquarters, located at 2910 E. 5th Street in Austin.

Currently, Capital Metro is seeking diesel fleet mechanics. If you are interested in other positions, you are also welcome to attend. The fair will provide potential employees the chance to learn about career opportunities and the benefits of working at Capital Metro.

Applications are available on capmetro.org and at the fair. For more information you may call (512) 389-7473 or (512) 389-7521.

Come one, come all…

I hear the train a comin’, It’s rollin’ ’round the bend…….

Well not quite yet but we are preparing our community for MetroRail service starting March 30th by hosting five educational MetroRail Station open house events in February.

We are approaching very exciting times in our community with the ushering in of MetroRail service for our region. In anticipation, we are hosting community wide MetroRail Station open houses during February. At each open house event there will be a Capital MetroRail train for people to tour. We will help people understand the new ticket vending machines that will dispense rail and bus passes at each station. Capital Metro staff will be on hand to answer all of your questions about riding the train, including schedules, connector routes, riding the train with bicycles, and rail safety.

The open houses are free and open to everyone in our community. Stop by anytime during the event. Except for the Leander Open House, parking will be limited. Riding the bus or carpooling is encouraged.

Capital MetroRail Open Houses:

Leander Station – Saturday, Feb. 7
10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
800 N. US 183

Plaza Saltillo Station – Saturday, Feb. 14
10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
412 Comal Street
Bus routes: 4, 320

Crestview Station – Saturday, Feb. 21
10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
6920 North Lamar Blvd.
Bus routes: 1L/1M, 101, 300, 320, 350
Access St. Johns for limited parking at adjacent development

MLK, Jr. Station – Saturday, Feb. 21
10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
1719 Alexander Ave.
Bus routes: 18
Limited parking next to station

Downtown Station – Friday, Feb. 27
2 p.m. – 7 p.m.
401 E. 4th Street
Bus routes: All local and ‘Dillo routes

Capital MetroRail Update

The Capital MetroRail system will begin service on March 30, 2009. Here’s the latest rail update from Capital Metro President/CEO Fred Gilliam.

Happy New Year. Capital Metro looks forward to beginning a prosperous new year with the opening of Capital MetroRail service. From the 2004 creation of All Systems Go to the 2006 Rail Design Open Houses and now to the preparation of launching Capital MetroRail, we have come a long way in preparing to open the first passenger rail system in central Texas. Of course, we could not have gotten this far without successful community collaboration and support.

We expect to begin service on our 32-mile passenger rail line between downtown Austin and Leander on March 30, 2009. We are working diligently to deliver on our promise to build and operate a safe, reliable and high quality rail system for central Texas.

Below you will find updates on Capital MetroRail.

Station Construction

The ticket vending machines, security cameras and station signage installation has begun for the Downtown, Plaza Saltillo, Highland, Crestview, Lakeline and Leander Stations.

The MLK, Jr. platform is complete; however, the Bus Plaza is still under construction and expected to be complete in February. The Kramer Station west platform should be completed in February and the east platform will be completed in March. Howard Station is progressing as the station platform is nearly complete and the Park & Ride will be finished before the start of service in March.

Signal System and Track Work

The installation of the Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) signal system is complete and testing is now underway. The CTC system will allow dispatchers to see where every train is on the line at all times and manage all signals and switches.

There will be three new sections of track siding that are necessary for the trains to pass each other. The Leander siding is complete and the Kramer and Manor track sidings will be finished in February.

Freight Switch and MetroRail Testing

On February 7, Capital Metro plans to switch freight rail operations overnight between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. Between two to four trains will be traveling during this time.

For safety and noise reduction near residential areas, Capital Metro has installed quad gates at many railroad crossings between Leander and downtown Austin. These safety upgrades allow local municipalities to request quiet zones from the Federal Railroad Administration to permit trains to pass crossings without blowing their horns. This investment is part of Capital Metro’s commitment to safety and quality of life near the tracks.

Once freight has shifted to night, Capital Metro will begin an intensive 45-day testing period in which MetroRail trains will run during weekdays along the entire 32-mile line between Leander and downtown Austin. These “practice runs” will allow us to test the new signal system, finalize the rail schedule and train the MetroRail engineers. This testing is critically important to a successful opening as it allows us to identify and resolve any issues before we have passengers on board.

Open Houses and Grand Opening

We are planning some events in the coming months leading up to the opening in March. In February, Capital Metro will host five open houses at some of the stations to educate future customers on how to ride the MetroRail system. The grand opening celebration is currently being planned for the weekend prior to March 30. See the stories in the ASG Newsletter for more details about these events.

Thank you for your interest in Capital MetroRail. I always appreciate your feedback.

Fred Gilliam
Capital Metro

i-Ride Winners Roaming Around Town

The i-Ride campaign has come and gone but the winners will live on a little while longer. Seven buses are now roaming around Austin with the faces our i-Ride winners. The new bus wraps display the winners along with their reason for riding the bus. These wraps will be on the buses until March.

For those of you unfamiliar with the campaign, Capital Metro launched i-Ride last year with the intent to use current riders’ stories to encourage others to try transit. We called for customers to share their reasons for riding through stories, videos, songs, artwork, poems, etc. We received over 300 entries with many cool, amusing and heart-warming stories.

So if you happen to see any of these people riding you
r bus, say hello and maybe they will tell you more about why they ride Capital Metro.

Hello, Legislature!

Cheers to the first day of the State’s 81st legislative session that began today, because Capital Metro’s got a lot on our plate! We’re simply trying to keep up with ways to provide the modern-day necessity of transit in an urban area. What’s on our wish list, you ask? A lot. OK, it’s not that much but it’s a fair amount so I’ll just write about some of our more interesting initiatives.

Read on for more information and background about each issue, but for ease of reading, here’s a short list of some of our priorities:
– Civilian fare enforcement abilities on MetroRail.
– Enhanced security abilities throughout our service area.
– The ability for buses to drive on highway shoulders during massive congestion.
– New community funding sources for transit.

And while not part of the legislative program that our Board asked us to advance, I’ll touch upon one more issue that could come up in the session: the referendum required of our agency in order to build, or even operate, passenger rail.

Our Red Line between Leander and Austin opens this March. Seems pretty standard, or at least not unusual, for a transit agency to operate passenger rail—even in Texas—but we still need some changes to state law so that we can more effectively operate a regional rail system. Like Dallas and Houston for example, we won’t have barriers or turnstiles to board MetroRail so we’re looking for the ability, also like that of Dallas and Houston, to hire civilian employees who can enforce fares by requesting proof of payment and issuing tickets if necessary. We also need to make sure that the peace officers with whom we contract to serve as some of our security (currently APD) are able to use their law enforcement abilities if there is a crime occurring on Cap Metro property outside of their jurisdiction so this too is on our agenda.

We’re also working on a couple of efforts from last session and I’m especially optimistic about one of them this time: the ability for our buses to drive on highway shoulders when roadways become congested, of course only where safe and if approved by TxDOT. We’re very fortunate to work with Senator Jeff Wentworth and his hardworking staff again. They were able to get this passed in the Senate last time but unfortunately we just ran out of time in the House. (New House Speaker Joe Straus led on that side of the Legislature.) This practice is used all over America and in effect creates extra highway capacity, but only for buses, for very little money–an easy way for public transportation to achieve a travel-time advantage. Per TxDOT, the estimated cost per mile is only $2,000 for sections that are already structurally sound. (Compare that to their estimate of $8 million per mile for a new lane on an existing highway.) Other good news is that this past December, the House Transportation Committee already recommended this legislation.

There are two other big issues that I also want to mention. One item is part of our agency’s legislative agenda and the other isn’t, but was recommended as part of a recent CAMPO study of our agency.

The first item deals with, frankly, money. Capital Metro doesn’t have enough funds to create a truly regional transit system and, further, we are limited in our ability to do this. As a result of how communities are allowed to join Capital Metro under State law, our current service area does not reflect the residency and work patterns of Central Texas. If you are geeky enough to read this Capital Metro blog, you probably know that communities like Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Pflugerville are not in our service area. To join Capital Metro, an entity must dedicate a penny of their community’s sales tax to our agency’s funding. This is what Austin, Leander, Manor, Lago Vista, Precinct 2 of Travis County, and 5 more communities do. People all over Travis and Williamson Counties want and need public transit. Remember when gas was $4 a gallon and our ridership went through the roof? To me, one Statesman story said it all. If I recall correctly, something like four of the five people in the photos on our Express buses did not live in our service area. And in 2030, more than half of our metro area population will live outside of the Capital Metro service area. Clearly, Capital Metro’s service area needs to be larger.

But the problem is that these communities, which so desperately need transit, have committed all of the local sales tax the State allows them to their community’s other priorities like economic development, property tax relief, or roadways. So we have to think of other ways that people can pay for transit other than sales tax.

One of the ideas that is being kicked around in this region, and all over other major metro areas in the state, has emanated from North Central Texas. For the past two sessions, prompted by a desire to expand their regional rail system, the North Central Texas area has asked the Legislature for permission to let communities‘bust’ the local sales tax cap but only for transit. The Legislature wasn’t quite comfortable with this and suggested they come back with other creative suggestions that could be applied statewide. While there are still a number of details to be worked out, they are now proposing that local communities be allowed to levy a limited number of taxes and fees, from a Legislature-approved list of options, for local transportation projects. These monies could only be raised if approved by the voters. Capital Metro’s also supportive of this idea but we’re trying to figure out the best way to address issues such as governance and equity—some very tough issues to tackle but definitely worth tackling.

Lastly, I want to mention the State’s requirement that our agency secure voter approval in order to build or operate passenger rail, even if we do so within existing funds, like we did for the Red Line. Removal of the requirement isn’t part of our Capital Metro’s legislative program but the study that CAMPO just wrapped up of our agency recommended that this be removed. No other transit agency in the state has this requirement and, to our knowledge, no other agency in the country does either. While passenger rail is a fairly typical function of many urban mass transit agencies, most agencies still have to go to referendum to have the actual funding approved. That’s totally understandable and realistically, this would be the same for our area. I don’t know of any way that more passenger rail could be built in Central Texas without going to the voters for funding approval. Even though Capital Metro has been this region’s public transportation provider for over 20 years, this requirement can unfortunately cause other entities to be hesitant to work with us if they already have to go to referendum once for funding.

Capital Metro’s got a lot to chew off, and there’s still a little bit more, but I won’t continue droning on. No one can guess what will happen at the Legislature but I’m optimistic that they’ll see fit to grant us these abilities so that we can continue improving upon the service that we provide, and that Central Texans need. Traffic is a mess and there is so much support for public transportation right now. It’s an opportune time for the State to make these changes. My little slogan is that we simply need 21st century tools to do a 21st century job. Here’s hoping for a *happy* happy hour in 140 days.

Take the Bus to First Night

If you plan on enjoying New Year’s Eve at First Night Austin, try taking the bus to the festivities. In addition to the many regular routes that travel downtown, we’re extending four routes (4, 101, 171 and 982) until 1 a.m.

And don’t forget about the Night Owls that start running after midnight until about 3:30 a.m.

We encourage you to buy a Day Pass good for unlimited rides for 24 hours. Children under six ride free.

For more details, check out the handy pocket map that will help you plan your trip.

Have a safe and happy New Year!

Floridians check out Capital Metro!

Last Thursday, Capital Metro was honored with a visit by some guests from Lakeland, Florida. Sixteen of their community’s leaders, including their mayor and city manager, came to learn about many of the projects and places that have made the world-class city it is, including our favorite of all their stops–Capital Metro’s North Operations Facility. Like Central Texas, Central Florida, where Lakeland is located, has some pretty serious population issues to deal with. Lakeland is smack dab in between Orlanda and Tampa so there are about 9 million people living within 100 miles of Lakeland. Think about that. San Antonio is about 80 miles from Austin, and the population of San Antonio’s metro area is about 2 million people and the population of Austin’s metro area is about 1.6 million people. We have some 3.6 million people versus their 9 million. That is a LOT of people, which means a LOT of moving around, which means a BIG transportation question.

Suffice to say, when they visited Capital Metro, they asked a lot of questions. Their communities are also considering passenger rail. Orlando is working on a 61-mile commuter rail project and Tampa is planning for light rail. Right in the middle, Lakeland is wondering how to connect those two systems because today, Lakeland’s only mass transit is their 38-bus “Citrus Connection.” (By comparison, Capital Metro has about 400 buses.) (They should give out oranges on their buses. I learned from my coworker Adam, who used to live there, that their county, Polk, produces more citrus than the entire state of California.) So they were very interested in our ENTIRE system and how it all worked together. Their community is also a freight rail hub so our experience in owning and operating our own freight rail line, and figuring out what to do with that when passenger rail starts next spring, prompted a lot of questions. And of course, they asked about the cost of the Red Line. The director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council who organized the trip, Steve Scruggs, had done his homework in advance and reminded his team how inexpensive our system is compared to others across the country, including the systems that are being considered in Central Florida right now.

I gotta say that made me proud. And it made me proud to see how impressed they genuinely were with our entire network. I think we forget that we do have a pretty darn good system. Sure, we could use improvement but who can’t? With these kinds of trips, you realize that you do have something to be proud of and you realize that you do have stories and lessons to share. And surely they have lessons to share with us; we just didn’t have enough time to talk unfortunately. So I am prompted to do more Googling and talk to Steve more. And maybe one day I’ll visit Lakeland and see what they’ve done to move around 9 million people. And besides, I love Frank Lloyd Wright and I hear that they have the largest single collection of buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright anywhere. Pretty impressive for a 38-bus town that’ll one day serve millions of riders who may one day converge upon their fair city by passenger rail.

Weird Art…sounds like Austin

Happy Friday. Thought I’d share something amusing that caught my eye yesterday.

TriMet, the public transit agency in Portland, has invested in public art at several of their commuter rail stations. That sounds like something we might be interested in, especially in Austin. Well, the art has left a creepy impression on a local reporter. And it creeped me out too. Check out his blog posting and judge for yourself.

Downtown Station Almost Complete

We’re excited to announce the Capital MetroRail Downtown Station is expected to be complete this week. The new station is located next to the Austin Convention Center on 4th Street between Neches and Trinity. It’s one of nine stations that will serve Capital Metro’s Red Line between Austin and Leander. MetroRail will open March 30, 2009.

The station features steel canopies, lighting, and accessible ramps. Information display units, digital signs with real-time train arrival information and ticket vending machines will be installed closer to the start of service.

Construction began in August and in addition to the station, Capital Metro improved railroad tracks in the area, made considerable improvements to the sidewalk next to the Austin Convention Center and the Brush Square streetscape and built a portion of the new Lance Armstrong Bikeway.

Once rail service begins, dedicated connector buses will offer quick transfers to their final destinations. Many other local bus routes are within walking distance of the station.

Plans are underway to bring the MetroRail train to the Downtown Station in December for public viewing. Stay tuned for more details.