After Leander’s vote secures transit service, Cap Metro seeks to ‘win over’ doubters

Photo by Gabriel C. Perez/KUT

Tuesday, May 10, 2022 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

Now that Capital Metro service in Leander is secure for at least five years after Saturday’s election, the regional transit agency wants to convince opponents to spend a 1% sales tax on public transport.

Proposition A asked voters in Leander if they should cancel transit service and stop paying the tax to Capital Metro. The 1% sales tax generated nearly $10 million last year, and revenue is expected to rise 28% this year.

Some 59% of voters supported keeping Capital Metro service and the accompanying sales tax. More than 2 in 5 voters opposed the arrangement.

“We still have to convince them,” Capital Metro’s Sam Sargent said of Leander residents who wanted to end the 37-year partnership.

How should Capital Metro do this?

“I think providing good service day in and day out, but also just making sure we’re presenting our case,” Sargent said. “You just have to go out there and say very honestly, here’s what we’re doing. Here is where we are.

But Capital Metro faces great challenges.

Transit ridership in Leander remains stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels, with one big exception: the on-demand transit service Pickup.

Pickup, which allows people to order a minibus in about 15 minutes with an app or a phone call, had 1,861 passengers in the Leander service area in February, according to data provided by Capital Metro. That’s about triple the number a year earlier.

Commuter rail and commuter bus ridership, on the other hand, has not recovered since many Leanderites were offered the option to work from home because of Covid-19.

Weekday boardings on MetroRail this year averaged 145 through February, about half of pre-pandemic levels. However, traffic is more than double what it was a year earlier.

MetroExpress is even lower. Weekday boardings averaged 31 through February, about a tenth of the ridership just before the pandemic. So few people take the Leander commuter bus that Capital Metro suspended one of the two routes in January.

But Capital Metro hopes ongoing rail projects will make rail more attractive to Leanderites.

A pair of new stations will provide easier access to the Austin FC grounds and stadium. On days with football games, boardings at Leander MetroRail station can be double or more than the average weekday ridership.

Capital Metro is also working on adding a second set of tracks along the Red Line between Leander and Lakeline. The double track project would allow trains to run more frequently to and from Leander.

“We’re getting closer and closer to reducing our frequencies so we can really rely on us in the same way as a good 15 to 20 minute bus service,” Sargent said.

The dual-track project is expected to be completed this fall, but the plan to increase service frequency is more advanced, more of a “medium to long term plan,” Sargent said.

Residents of Leander can also expect millions of dollars in infrastructure funding to start flowing in the coming months.

The city is eligible for $7.4 million from a one-time infrastructure fund created by Capital Metro’s board of directors. Leander can also begin receiving sales tax rebates on what it costs Capital Metro to provide transit service. This year, the amount is estimated at just under $2 million.

With both funds, Leander must identify projects and submit them to Capital Metro for approval. Work could include things like sidewalks, road resurfacing, lighting, intersection improvements – as long as it benefits transit customers.

If Capital Metro is serious about gaining the support of more Leander residents, the agency should expand its services to more areas of the city, said Leander Mayor Christine DeLisle.

“Cap Metro should have heard the calls for more equitable services, transportation for people with disabilities in our community, and transparency in the costs of services provided to our residents,” DeLisle said in a statement Monday.

Leander cannot hold a similar election on Capital Metro membership for at least five years, the city and Capital Metro said.

This timing has left opponents of joining Capital Metro doubtful that Leander’s service levels or ridership will see much improvement.

“You’d have to be stoned to think that,” said Mike Sanders, a Leander resident who used money from an unsuccessful council bid to campaign against Proposition A.

“They just got the chance to get the best deal they could want,” he said. “They don’t have to change anything they’re currently doing, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

This story was produced as part of the austin monitorreporting partnership with KUT.

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