One of the three Capital Metro bus routes that serves the Leander Station Park & Ride could be canceled in January if the public transit agency implements some changes that are proposed for its transportation services.


Cedar Park voted to opt out of Capital Metro in 1998 to instead use a dedicated half-cent sales tax for economic development within the city, but the transit authority has operated in Leander since 1985, according to Capital Metro representatives. Three MetroExpress bus routes currently serve Leander, and the MetroRail passenger rail line has operated in the city since 2010.


A possible change would discontinue a MetroExpress bus route that travels into Leander, and another change will soon require MetroRail riders to use cash, the Capital Metro website or their smart phone to purchase train fare.


The cancellation of the Leander bus route is one of several changes Capital Metro officials proposed as part of a yearlong study of its transit network. Officials are seeking feedback on the proposed adjustments, and if the agency’s board of directors approves the proposed changes during meetings this fall, some changes could be implemented in January.


Local route changes
In September 2015, Capital Metro’s board of directors approved hiring transportation consultant Transportation Management & Design Inc. to develop a 10-year service improvement plan. Capital Metro announced a draft plan of its redesigned transit network, called Connections 2025, in August.


Todd Hemingson, the agency’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said Capital Metro’s services need to become more convenient in order to increase ridership. Officials plan to increase convenience on MetroExpress bus routes by having some buses utilize the new express toll lanes on MoPac.


Although the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority planned to open the first section of the MoPac toll project by the end of August, on Aug. 26 it announced that phase of the project still had several weeks of work remaining.


If Capital Metro’s board of directors approves the Connections 2025 plan, three MetroExpress bus routes will begin using the MoPac express lanes in January. Two of those routes—985 and 987—serve Leander. In January the agency would also discontinue the third bus route that services the Leander Station Park & Ride, Route 983, due to redundancy of service, according to a news release.


Capital Metro spokesperson Melissa Ayala said other MetroExpress bus routes would increase in frequency to ensure coverage to the riders of Route 983.


“We will be shifting things around with other routes to compensate for the riders that are using that service currently, so folks would still have other options,” she said. 


Ayala said Capital Metro plans to expand service to the 982, 985 and 987 bus routes in order to accommodate the 983 route riders. The 982 route that runs from downtown Austin to the Pavilion Park & Ride at US 183 and Oak Knoll Drive in Northwest Austin would gain additional trips and service hours. Routes 985 and 987, which run from Riverside Drive in Southeast Austin to the Leander Station Park & Ride, would also gain additional trips, she said.


MetroRail ticket machines
Starting Oct. 9, ticket vending machines at MetroRail stations will no longer accept debit or credit cards; the machines will only accept cash. Riders will otherwise have to purchase a ticket on the Capital Metro website or smart phone application. The changes will be phased in at all nine MetroRail stations during a three-week time period starting in October.


MetroRail riders can still use debit or credit cards to buy ride fare on the phone app, online or at the transit store at 209 W. Ninth St., Austin, according to Capital Metro. Customers will also be able to buy train passes at retail outlets including many H-E-B and Randall’s locations, with a debit card.


The ticket vending machines at all nine MetroRail stations will accept cash and store value cards, which are similar to gift cards, for commuter day passes and commuter single-ride tickets, according to a Capital Metro news release.


The transit authority is implementing the change because Capital Metro would have to spend nearly $5 million over the next five years to upgrade and maintain the ticket vending machines, Communications Manager Francine Pares said. The  machines would need new chip technology to process credit and debit cards, and Capital Metro would have to pay for re-certification of the machines to remain compliant with national credit security regulations, she said.


By making ticket vending machines cash-only, Capital Metro plans to invest more funds into its transit services, according to the news release.


Dan Dawson, Capital Metro vice president of marketing and communications, said the app makes purchasing a ticket faster since customers enter their card number only once while setting up the app account. Dawson said credit card customers  using the phone app or the website will no longer have to wait in line at ticket vending machines on the platform, which can be busy during rush hours and special events.


The move could provide obstacles for some riders, such as Georgetown resident Josh Frankel. Among the ticket-purchasing options that will be available, he said he is more likely to use the phone app than cash to ride the train.


“It’s kind of an inconvenience; I rarely ever carry cash,” Frankel said.


The change may have little effect on other riders. Leander resident Sandi Carlton, who rides a MetroExpress bus and MetroRail to work, said her employer usually buys her ticket fare, but when she purchases a ticket herself she makes the transaction on Capital Metro’s website. 


“I’ll still just [buy a ticket] online,” Carlton said.


Capital Metro launched the phone app in January 2014, according to the news release. As of mid-August, the app had been downloaded by more than a quarter-million people and had sold nearly $5 million in tickets, Pares said.


Other proposed changes
If Capital Metro’s board of directors approves the proposed service changes outlined in the Connections 2025 plan in November, more intended improvements would be phased in over the next 10 years.


As part of the 2025 plan, Hemingson said the agency is also considering a consolidated fare structure to allow passengers to more easily transfer between types of service, such as Capital Metro’s limited-stop bus service, MetroRapid, and local bus routes. Currently, passengers pay $1.75 for a MetroRapid ride compared with $1.25 for a ride on a local bus.


Hemingson said MetroRapid is more expensive in part due to the larger bus size and faster service. He said the transit authority should be able to maximize ridership on the MetroRapid service by charging the local bus route fare, which could net a better return for the agency.


“We’re really trying to focus on the network aspect of it so that all of the different pieces work as a system and that it’s easy and convenient for people to make connections between routes,” he said. “Whereas before, we heard from customers that was a hindrance to working MetroRapid and the local [buses] as one system because they had different fares.”


In 2018, Capital Metro will upgrade MetroRail’s frequency to every 15 minutes because of a $50 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation to purchase four new rail cars and upgrade the Downtown Station in Austin. Another $11.3 million from the federal government would add tracks and provide some track improvements.


The agency held outreach events Sept. 6-16 to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed changes. Residents may provide input by phone at 512-369-6000 or email [email protected] 


A Capital Metro spokesperson said the board of directors is expected to vote on the proposed MetroExpress bus routes Sept. 26. Staffers will update the board on any changes to the 2025 plan stemming from public outreach during an Oct. 24 meeting, and the board is scheduled to vote on the rest of the plan Nov. 16.