Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 23 at 9:20 a.m. to reflect that Capital Metro receives 1 percent of the sales tax revenue generated within Leander.
Capital Metro has plans to bring on-demand pickup and more rail services to Leander.
The transit agency shared these plans with Leander City Council during a workshop Aug. 22. The workshop was scheduled after council hinted it was considering beginning the process to withdraw from the transit authority in July.
During the Aug. 22 discussion, council members shared their concerns about Capital Metro’s cost structure and ridership in Leander and expressed interest in future partnership opportunities.
Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said he thinks the meeting went well.
“I appreciate [Leander council members’] points of view on many things,” Clarke said. “I think today they got a good understanding of the opportunities that we get by working together. I think we need to do this probably on a lot more regular basis than was done in the past.”
Currently, Capital Metro provides MetroExpress bus service and MetroRail service to the city of Leander. The city and Capital Metro each receive one percent of the sales tax revenue generated within Leander. In fiscal year 2017-18, Capital Metro received around $5.1 million from Leander, and Capital Metro spent about $9.3 million to service Leander, according to numbers provided by Capital Metro.
An app-based service called Pickup is planned to launch in Leander in November, Capital Metro’s Acting Chief Operating Officer Dottie Watkins told council during the workshop. The service enables residents to use an app or make a phone call to request a vehicle that delivers customers from one point to another in a designated geographic zone.
“We recognize that large fixed route service isn’t the right answer for every community,” Watkins said. “With today’s technology, we’re excited to be able to offer Pickup as part of our portfolio of services.”
Watkins said the service would likely stay within the city limits but could connect people to the Leander Station so they can get to Austin.
Council Member Kathryn Pantalion-Parker said during the workshop she thinks this will serve a need that has not yet been met in Leander. She said so far, Capital Metro has helped people get to Austin but not to various points within Leander.
“This will serve a community that has not been served,” Pantalion-Parker said.
Clarke said the transit agency will likely begin with two vehicles and is seeking feedback from Leander about what parts of the city would most benefit from this service. He said Capital Metro plans to work with the city to set up community meetings where residents can provide feedback.
Capital Metro’s MetroRail Red Line launched in 2010 and runs 20 trips daily Monday through Thursday and 32 trips on Fridays, according to Watkins. The two MetroExpress bus routes that service Leander offer 62 weekday trips and 30 Saturday trips.
Pantalion-Parker said she is concerned about getting enough return on Leander’s investment in Capital Metro.
“I know we have a lot of comments that we need more service not less, but we know that we do have empty trains,” Pantalion-Parker said. “There’s a cost related to that. Is it a situation that we just need more planned service or how do we come up with a better return on investment?”
Watkins said Capital Metro does not experience empty trains.
In spring 2019, the Leander Station saw 472 average weekday boardings for MetroExpress buses and the MetroRail, according to data from Capital Metro.
Clarke said the ultimate way to improve the return on investment is increased ridership.
“Our business is people driven,” Clarke said. “We are the only service that the more people use it, it becomes more efficient, versus a road that actually becomes less efficient.”
Watkins said several improvements are in the works for the MetroRail. Starting in January 2020, she said Capital Metro will be offering Saturday rail service to Leander starting at 4 p.m., enabling people to go downtown and back to enjoy Austin entertainment.
The transit agency also has plans to expand midday and evening rail service to Leander. Watkins said offering more midday trips during the week will help support access Leander destinations such as Austin Community College’s San Gabriel Campus. Clarke said Capital Metro is working on running a train possibly 45 minutes to an hour later than it currently runs in Leander Monday through Thursday.
Capital Metro is also in the process of completing a federally mandated rail safety project that has cost $59 million to date, according to Watkins. While completing this project, Capital Metro is also investing in double tracking projects, which allow trains to pass one another.
“That allows us in the future to be able to operate more frequent service,” Watkins said. “Once trains can pass one another, it gives you more options to run trains more frequently.”
Mayor Troy Hill said during the workshop he is concerned about Capital Metro’s cost structure. By state law, all members of the transit authority must pay the same rate.
Hill said he thinks a lower cost would encourage other cities to join Capital Metro, which would ideally increase ridership and revenues.
“I know from talking to mayors in other cities that the one cent for a lot of cities, especially a city of our size is a nonstarter,” Hill said. “Even if it was a quarter cent you’d have a better chance of getting a city like Cedar Park to get in.”
Clarke said altering the cost structure would be up to policy makers, and not something that can be done by Capital Metro staff. Member cities such as Leander voted to join Capital Metro; they do not have contracts with Capital Metro that can be renegotiated.
Leander resident Gabriel Mendoza, who attended the workshop, said afterwards he plans to use the Pickup service Capital Metro is planning. Mendoza said he moved to Leander because of access to Capital Metro, which he uses daily to get to work.
“I come from a household that has one vehicle, so now my wife takes me to the station,” Mendoza said. “If I can use the pickup service, I think it adds value to the whole service.”
Council Member Michelle Stephenson told Community Impact Newspaper she was impressed by Capital Metro’s planned services described during the meeting, particularly the Pickup service.
“That’s going to be the most appreciated service,” Stephenson said. “It’s going to be a game-changer for Leander.”
After the workshop, Hill told Community Impact Newspaper he said he believes the meeting was informative, but he still feels there are hurdles that need to be overcome.
“That’s the cost structure,” Hill said. “I want for them and for us to work together so we can get support from their allies in the legislature to change the law.”