April/May Cover Story: How Values Drive Transit’s Path Forward at CapMetro

April 19, 2022
CapMetro’s values - and the resources it puts into those values - are guiding how it evolves as an organization, a transit provider and a community asset.

Discussions surrounding mobility in Austin, Texas, often center around answering a series of questions steeped in ‘how.’ How can the fastest growing metropolitan city in the U.S.1 continue to absorb, on average, 184 new residents per day? How can the city and its transit provider enhance and improve mobility in a region whose residents lost an average of 32 hours in 2021 due to congestion2? How can a regional transit system grow by serving the people who rely on it most and limit the risk of these communities getting pushed to the margins?

CapMetro, the Austin region’s public transportation authority, is answering these questions by being involved in nearly every hot topic within the transit industry. Its flexible on-demand service, Pickup, is operating in 11 neighborhoods; the authority recently integrated a micromobility bike share option; it awarded one of the largest single contracts for electric buses in the U.S.; a newly branded smart fare card and payment system is being polished for a launch this fall; the agency is pursuing a new approach to public safety; it has re-invented community engagement and then there is Project Connect – an estimated $7.1-billion expansion program, funded through a voter-approved property tax, that will transform the mobility landscape in the Austin region. 

“I think that this has been a cultural experience here for Austin,” said CapMetro President and CEO Randy Clarke. “We’re changing not just transit in Austin, but we’ve also changed the culture of a region.”

Clarke was hired by the CapMetro Board of Directors in 2018 and tasked with a complex list of directives including developing the authority’s long-term strategic vision; enhancing community engagement; forging partnerships along multiple fronts and ensuring the authority’s financial viability. 

Now in his fifth year leading the agency, Clarke and the team he has developed have made great progress on the initial directives. But the answer to ‘how’ this has been accomplished goes deeper than programs and projects and can be found in the authority’s five values: Safety, equity, sustainability, innovation and transparency.

“These values are the lens of how we do everything,” explained Clarke. “Values effectuate change, not projects, and we’re grounded in this.”

Brian Carter, executive vice president, chief experience and engagement officer, adds that communicating the agency’s values throughout the organization provides a more enriching experience for CapMetro employees. 

“It develops decision filters by which we test everything,” said Carter. “Are these things that we think we want to do supporting those values? And if they’re not, then we don’t pursue them or we weigh them differently.”


CapMetro has set a new benchmark for community engagement; an approach that was realized as plans for Project Connect were coming together. 

“Public transit for many people who live around the poverty line is the family car,” said CapMetro Board Chair Jeffrey W. Travillion. “We tried to make sure that we were speaking to communities that historically had not been spoken to, that were underrepresented [and] were underserved.”

CapMetro’s proactive approach involved team members hired from communities around Austin, many were bilingual and the message they helped communicate wasn’t heavy on industry jargon, but the impact Project Connect could have on day-to-day lives. CapMetro’s actions to engage the community go beyond the proverbial offering-a-seat-at-the-table-to-all scenario. What CapMetro has done and continues to do is move the table and seats into the community. More than 85,000 people were engaged prior to the passage of Project Connect with Travillion saying much of that engagement happened in PTA meetings, neighborhood association meetings, churches and anywhere else the community gathered. 

“Public transit for many people who live around the poverty line is the family car,” said CapMetro Board Chair Jeffrey W. Travillion.

“We always think about the end-users of the information that we send out,” said Carter. “We have to take a step back and realize that we understand all these things more closely because we live it, breathe it, day after day. It can't be, ‘do we understand it?’, but ‘does our customer understand it?’”

The result is improved trust among the community and among other municipal stakeholders. 

“We have to have a culture of trust,” said Travillion. “We have got a number of different stakeholders, all which have advocates, all which have interests and we have to understand what those interests are and understand how those communities are trained and socialized. And we have to make sure that we’re all on the same page.”


Keeping everyone on the same page takes accountability and transparency, which Clarke and the CapMetro team work to support every day.

“We have more credibility and favorability than at any time in CapMetro’s recent history,” said Clarke.

But this too has taken intentional effort to develop. At the beginning of Clarke’s tenure, CapMetro’s favorability rating was around 38 percent. Just prior to Project Connect’s success with voters, the agency had a favorability rating above 60 percent. The change stems from CapMetro’s willingness to be vocal about its success, as well as topics it continues to improve upon.

“Being transparent when you’re not good, that’s when the public give you more runway and credibility,” explained Clarke. 

Leading up to Project Connect, the agency published community engagement dashboards with details about where CapMetro was engaging the community and summaries of meetings to illustrate the input received. 

Transparency is also supported by a series of Performance Dashboards on the agency’s website that share data and help a user visualize information related to finances, ridership, route performance, safety and reliability. CapMetro credits these dashboards with building relationships and trust within the community, as well as strengthening its brand.

“Ultimately, the agency is using the public's money, so we feel an obligation to show the public how we're investing the resources that are entrusted to us. These Performance Dashboards keep us accountable as we pursue operational excellence,” said Deputy CEO Dottie Watkins.


Clarke shares his pride in CapMetro’s holistic approach to public and operational safety because “it’s a fundamentally different way of doing things.” CapMetro’s safety division has nearly doubled in size and it has added key leaders, such as the agency’s first chief safety officer and director of systemwide accessibility. 

The agency takes a three-pronged approach to public safety with staff consisting of public safety ambassadors, intervention specialists and the board-approved transit police

Clarke explains public safety ambassadors are civilians who provide intervention, customer care and de-escalation efforts. Intervention specialists are social workers who are out in the system engaging with individuals experiencing homelessness or mental illness. Law enforcement involvement is reserved for the most safety-critical situations and Clarke notes CapMetro’s transit police force will handle “true threats” such as explosive detection. 

“Our public safety approach looks at how we are integrated to the community,” said Clarke. “We are working very hard with community partners and doing this in a community-focused way. We purposely established a public safety committee made up of community members to provide [a level of] oversight and guidance to our public safety program. That's [CapMetro] giving up a lot of control, but it's the right thing to do.”

The approach is paying measurable results with Clarke sharing that in the two months since the public ambassadors have been on the system, there have been 10 to 12 situations where, previously, law enforcement would have been called, but these situations were solved by ambassadors through a de-escalation process.


An initiative being planned that hits on the agency’s values of innovation and equity is the pending launch of the CapMetro “Amp” account-based ticketing system and a new fare structure that incorporates progressive fare capping and support for an equitable means-based fare structure. 

Carter explains Amp made sense for CapMetro’s smart card brand because it ties in with Austin’s music scene, is a term of excitement and can help promote enthusiasm for the value of transit in the city. The term also speaks to CapMetro’s electric vehicle investment. However, the real change comes from the technology behind the system that will allow the authority to pursue a fare structure that addresses transit affordability. 

“It's more about how we can think about our fare structure in a way that benefits the people who need it the most. And what does the fare structure look like in the future as it's enabled by technology that we have that's available to us,” said Carter. 

This technology is not only enabling fare capping for the first time in Austin, but the agency’s board is considering a recommendation from staff to approval a new fare type called Equifare, which will deliver reduced fares on a need basis. Equifare will be for residents with household incomes less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or who are already enrolled in federal or state support programs such as Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), among others.

“If someone lives in affordable housing, there’s a higher chance they’re part of SNAP, so with our community engagement roots, we’ll go to affordable housing facilities and work with management to sign people up for this Equifare program,” said Clarke. “They don’t have to come to us. We’ll go to them, set them up with a new card and account and they will be good to go.”


In 2021, not only did the CapMetro Board approve one of the largest electric bus procurements in the U.S., but the agency also announced it was powering its facilities, electric vehicles and MetroBike ebikes with Texas wind energy. While Clarke believes these are worthy accomplishments, he is unapologetically blunt when it comes to the importance of financial sustainability.

“Nothing matters if you’re not financially stable. Fiscal responsibility is sustainability,” said Clarke. “CapMetro has concentrated on proper fiscal management for the future, and we are fortunate to have a financial plan that no one in the industry has.”

This wasn’t always the case with Clarke describing the agency as “fundamentally underwater” in the not-so-distant past with the work to rectify the situation beginning with his predecessor. Clarke says financial stability has been achieved through transparency, not accruing debt and even efforts such as not having a State of Good Repair backlog. 

“We prioritize budgets to make sure all our assets are [maintained]. We have a reserve account that is statutorily required, a board-driven reserve account and a sustainability capital fund for all our agency green initiatives. We have a sustainability reserve account, a special facility reserve account for non-Project Connect facility expansions and we have a long range plan for staffing and staff adjustments – all these things are covered,” said Clarke. 

The estimated $7.1-billion Project Connect expansion program is also funded sustainably with the voter-approved tax financing the program’s capital, operational and maintenance needs. Clarke noted there was some level of pushback from some stakeholders who wanted a bond measure that only covered capital costs, but he said CapMetro leadership held firm against this option by offering a simple but direct response, “don’t build a house you can’t heat.”

“One of the most important things you do at an institution is leave someone's long-term finances better and their infrastructure assets better,” added Clarke. “And I am confident to say we have one of the best financial models of any transit agency in America.”

Eye to the Future

CapMetro has developed a strong foundation upon which to grow its organization, network and services for decades to come. When asked what the measure of a successful future will be, Travillion identified three situations he wants to see made possible with CapMetro’s system: For the community’s aging population to have access to the healthcare facilities they need; for a child who wants to attend a magnet school, the ability to travel to that school no matter where it is located and for an individual who wants to work, the ability to travel to any job in the community.

“We have built a team of people who understand mobility, who understand transit, but who also understand this community, love it, and want to make sure it works well for all of us. CapMetro has this in its current team, led by Randy,” explained Travillion.

And that leads back to the topic of values and how the commitment of the agency and its staff to equity, safety, sustainability, innovation and transparency are driving the organization and the community toward a better-connected future. 

“We have a little bit of Athenian Code,” said Clarke. 

The reference is to the civic oath taken by citizens of Athens two millennia ago, but which remains relevant to modern public servants. The oath ends with the following words, “…we will transmit this city not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

“You have to leave this place better than how you found it,” added Clarke. “And better isn’t about ribbon-cutting events - the institution must be better. Initiatives come and go; programs, projects and people come and go, but values create and enable culture to grow; culture to sustain and evolve. It’s why we do what we do.” 



1. U.S. Census Bureau

2. 2021 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Editor in Chief

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the magazine’s editorial direction and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.