Capital Metro: ‘low density’ the reason for route removal

November 21, 2016  

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Councilmember Ann Kitchens, who sits on the Capital Metro Board,  and MRNA president Pam Rogers.

by Ann Fowler

OAK HILL –  More than 50 people attended a meeting on Nov. 5 about the proposed removal of bus service to Oak Hill. Capital Metro proposed stopping local Route 333 short of Oak Hill. That east/west route serves local neighborhoods, as well as Covington Middle School, the ACC Pinnacle campus, and Precinct 3 offices. It travels east, largely along William Cannon, to stops just behind I-35.

According to the agency’s Connections 2025 proposal, Route 333 is not being cancelled, but its route is being shortened. It will travel west no further than the WalMart on Ben White. Service to the neighborhood along Brodie Lane, into local neighborhoods including Maple Run, and to Covington Middle School, ACC and Precinct 3 offices will be eliminated if the Capital Metro board approves the plan.

The meeting at the Oak Hill/Will Hampton Library branch was hosted by the Maple Run Neighborhood Association (MRNA), but Route 333 riders from West Branch, Sendera, Deer Park, Western Oaks, Legend Oaks, Beckett Meadows and other neighborhoods were in attendance. Councilmember Ann Kitchens, who sits on the Capital Metro Board, and Michael Searle, chief of staff for Councilmember Ellen Troxclair, also attended the presentation.

MRNA president Pam Rogers announced survey responses taken by 51 residents. She said 57 percent of the respondents rode the 333, 96 percent did not support eliminating Route 333, and only 12 percent—6 people—attended Capital Metro’s in-person discussion groups about the new plan.

Explaining the proposed cancellation, Lawrence Deeter, project manager for Connections 2025, told the group that southwest Austin does not meet the transit agency’s density requirements for service.

Searle told the Gazette, “The density argument is part of the frustration. We have been told that Southwest Austin does not currently, nor will it in the future, have the density to support mass transit. This is primarily due to the S.O.S land development regulations. And if those regulations are going to limit Southwest Austin’s access to mass transit, we would encourage Capital Metro to include other factors besides development density when determining mass transit services over environmentally sensitive areas. Especially looking at the ‘Y’ and south MoPac, there is clearly the concentration of commuters that would support transit.”

Christopher MacKechnie, a Los Angeles writer specializing in mass transit, believes connectivity is more important to the success of mass transit than density. He told the Gazette, “In general, more density means it is more likely to be transit supportive, but I don’t believe there is a magic number. Routes going through low density areas can be productive if they connect two or more major regional destinations, such as downtown (Austin, in this case), the university, or major malls.”

He added, “I Googled Oak Hill and looked at the street view for Escarpment Blvd. and Convict Hill Road, and the landscape didn’t look all that different from other similar neighborhoods in Southern California, Las Vegas, Phoenix, etc. that have normal bus service. It looks like Route 333 has service every 30 minutes, which is what you would expect in an area like that.”

For more than a decade Oak Hill bus riders have requested increased frequency to grow the ridership and help ease traffic congestion. Although the South Mopac Flyer was added in 2010, other Oak Hill routes have seen less frequency at neighborhood stops rather than more.

Capital Metro says its new plan will provide “a more frequent, more reliable and more connected transit system.” Asked why Oak Hill is not getting the added frequency the agency is advertising, transportation planner Caitlin White D’Alton said, “Frequent service is very expensive to provide. We have a constrained budget, and lots of demands and many different needs.”

MRNA secretary David Holmes said he had taken the bus one day, and had to wait 45 minutes to connect to a second bus on South Lamar. When he attempted to come home he found he could not complete the trip by bus because one route’s service hours had ended. To him, the bus service seemed unreliable.

Others complained that the connections don’t appear to be synchronized, causing long delays to get connecting buses.

Long-time riders of Route 333 are confused and angry with the proposal. Katherine Utz did not attend Saturday’s meeting but said, “I do not understand how these neighborhoods have qualified for mass transit for the 18 years I’ve lived in this area and suddenly we don’t qualify. How can we suddenly lack ‘density’ of population? I haven’t noticed an exodus from the area.”

The two options to the current 333 service offered by Capital Metro at the meeting were:

• Allow every other bus on the route to continue through Oak Hill, so the current 30-minute service would be hourly

•  Start an on-call service, although “on-call” is not defined

Deeter said with new technology, “on-call” could mean a 5- or 10-minute wait but was not sure. A former Capital Metro employee told the Gazette that in the past, “on-call” meant one of two things—either giving the agency 24-hour notice, or a experiencing a wait time of about 2 hours.

Utz believes the first option will lead to problems. Several years ago the Oak Hill Flyer slashed service to the neighborhoods so that only about half of the buses serve the neighborhoods; the remainder start from the park-and-ride and go directly onto MoPac. To this day drivers get confused and miss stops, occasionally bypassing neighborhoods altogether in their confusion.

Meeting attendees preferred the on-call option over the reduced frequency, but even more voted on Deeter’s final offer—to send Capital Metro “back to the drawing board.”

Maple Run is not the only neighborhood that will lose service under this proposal. Virtually all Oak Hill neighborhood stops would be eliminated. The popular local Route 5, a north/south local route that ends near Small Middle School, would no longer travel south of downtown.

And the two routes that take commuters downtown, the Oak Hill Flyer (171) and the South Mopac Flyer (111), would no longer include neighborhood stops under the new proposal, instead serving only designated park-and-ride facilities. That would not work for long-time rider of the 111, Jennifer Padden, who currently boards the South Mopac Flyer at Dick Nichols Park to go downtown. She said, “I’ve written a couple of emails to Capital Metro and received canned responses inviting me to attend public meetings at very inconvenient times at out-of-the-way places.”

MacKechnie understands Padden’s reluctance to drive to a park-and-ride. He said, “Since Austin is not really big in area, I can’t imagine people would drive out of their way to take a bus from a park-and-ride lot, especially if there is going to be limited service (a few trips in peak hours only).”

MacKechnie does not believe the transit agency currently provides adequate service to Oak Hill. He said, “Looking at the system map, it doesn’t seem like bus routes in Oak Hill connect very well. Routes 5 and 333 should connect, for example. And if you want to have a park and ride, you should have more bus routes go to it.”

Frequent bus rider Tom Thayer said, “The bottom line is that Oak Hill pays Capital Metro taxes and should get mass transit service on some level with more frequent service during rush hour, less frequent at other times. Actual ridership patterns should be used to some extent, but providing service to all areas of the city should also be considered. It is great that Capital Metro wants to increase the frequency of some popular routes, but that shouldn’t mean the elimination or degradation of other routes that may not be as popular but are needed by local residents.”

Searle said Councilmember Troxclair appreciated that the transit agency brought options to the meeting. “It is a clear display that CapMetro has been listening to the concerns of the community. However, [the Councilmember] would prefer, first and foremost, that the 333 maintain the same service it currently has. This is one of Southwest Austin’s only access to public transit and serves a lot of residents and neighborhoods. It is also the only route that connects South Austin from East to West. Given the proposed extension of the 803 south to Slaughter, maintaining the 333 would also provide Oak Hill and the neighborhoods along the 333 with access to Rapid Transit going North/South. The on-call area is conceptual at this point and there remain a lot of questions and concerns from the community about how it would work.”

One man who attended the Maple Run/333 meeting said he was representing a friend who relies on the 333 bus to get to the Precinct 3 offices on Highway 71. Capital Metro’s proposal would eliminate that stop.

Contacted by the Gazette, Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Susan Steeg shared a letter she had sent to Capital Metro Board chair Wade Cooper, which said in part, “Since Precinct 3 and ACC are tax-supported institutions of government and education, I believe that continued services are imperative. These routes should not be judged on revenue generation, but on the needs of those in our community who can only access our services by public transportation.”

MacKechnie concluded, “I am far from an expert in Austin. but I will tell you that Austin is considered to have one of the better transit systems in Texas, and I hope that they don’t continue to build more rail lines at the expense of the bus system.”

 


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