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City program aimed at boosting transit use delayed again

File image of a Capital Metro bus. (CBS Austin)
File image of a Capital Metro bus. (CBS Austin)
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The City of Austin is working on launching a new program encouraging people to get out of their cars and on CapMetro trains and buses. The proposed plan would cost about $700,000 but after a year of work it still isn't moving forward.

Michelle Blalack started riding CapMetro buses two months ago. She's still getting the hang of it. "What bus comes where and when... that was the hardest part," said Blalack.

Despite the learning curve she says it's been worth it. "Oh, that I don't have to sit in traffic and honk the horn and all of that kind of stuff... that's the part I like about it the best," said Blalack.

New data shows CapMetro ridership was up about 7.6 percent in February -- marking the 17th straight month the agency reported growing ridership.

Now the City of Austin is looking to give free transit passes to some commuters as a motivator to get people on buses and rail lines.

"I obviously support people getting out of their cars. We need that. I don't know if this is the best way to do that," said mayor pro tem Delia Garza.

Council members questioning the program and its cost postponed the vote. "I just don't feel like this plan right now has been fleshed out enough to show that it will in fact work and we still don't know what success means," Garza said.

Under the proposed plan the non-profit group Movability would dole out bus and rail cards to people whose employers are Movability members. The group would track usage and provide support for new transit users.

"It's a little bit more complicated than just handing somebody a transit pass and expecting them to use it," said Lisa Kay Pfannenstiel, Movability's executive director.

Pfannenstiel explained converting drivers to riders takes work. "You know... it's behavior change. They're going to have to really think about this. How do I get to the bus? How do I get off the bus? What am I going to do if I put my bike on the bus? What do I do if I need to get home in an emergency? They need to be taught all of this stuff," Pfannenstiel said.

Last year the Austin Transportation Department spent months studying ways Austin could incentivize transit over driving. The push to create a program like this started in December 2018.

"Why do you think it has taken 15 months to develop a six-month program?" CBS Austin asked Garza. "On one hand I think it's good that they did the work. I understand there were focus groups done," answerd Garza.

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Fourteen other ideas were initially on the table before free transit passes picked up steam. Some included utility bill credits, retail discount cards and unbundling parking from lease agreements so drivers would pay for parking separately. For now, the program is on hold with council set to talk about it again on March 26. Council was expected to vote on moving forward with the program in February, but the item was postponed then and again at a meeting on March 12.

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