AUSTIN (KXAN) — Despite high gas prices and community engagement efforts, passenger totals for Austin’s transportation agency CapMetro are still well below pre-pandemic levels.

Monthly ridership totals, for all bus, rail and paratransit services, are still about a million below where they were in late 2019 and early 2020. In February 2020 — right before the first COVID cases were reported in Texas — the transit agency carried more than 2.6 million passengers.

In May 2022, the most recent data available, passenger totals were around 1.7 million.

While ridership totals have increased by 42% from May 2020 to May 2022, CapMetro is still yet to top 2 million passengers in a single month. Passenger totals have been below that threshold for 27 consecutive months.

Blythe Nebeker, a communications specialist for CapMetro, said it’s a trend transit leaders are seeing nationally.

“CapMetro saw ridership levels fall during the pandemic and even encouraged limited usage for safety reasons when a lot of people were avoiding public spaces and working from home,” Nebeker said. “Since the pandemic, habits have changed for a lot of people, and some of them are continuing to work from home or in a hybrid situation.”

Fewer people trying to get to work means fewer people on the roads and fewer people taking public transit. Still, Nebeker said CapMetro leadership is encouraged by the riders who are already returning.

“Just like other transit agencies across the country, CapMetro’s ridership levels have not yet returned to where they were prior to the pandemic, but that does not mean the service isn’t meeting the needs of the community,” Nebeker said.

Lower demand, as well as bus driver and mechanic shortages, did lead the agency to change the frequency of some of its bus routes in September 2021. At the time, CapMetro said the new schedule was “designed to use current staffing levels for consistent service across the transit network.”

CapMetro adjusts service schedules every January, June and August to make sure its service is “optimal and convenient” for riders. As of now, those schedule changes made in September are still in place today.

“Due to commuter habits changing since the pandemic, the agency will maintain its current service levels to ensure service reliability as we work to hire more bus operators and mechanics,” Nebeker said.

Since September, more than 250 bus operators have been hired, but the agency is still looking to hire more, as well as more mechanics. Wages start at $22 an hour for drivers and $31 an hour for mechanics. The agency also offers a $5,000 signing bonus for some qualified candidates.

Nebeker said CapMetro has been trying to increase ridership through awareness, engagement and education. For example, the agency has been using social media to encourage people to take public transit to events such as Austin FC games and the Austin City Limits music festival.

Meanwhile, gas prices hit all-time highs last month. The average price for a gallon of unleaded in the Austin metro hit a peak of $4.70 on June 14, according to AAA. Prices have come down since then to a current average of $3.97, but that’s still $1.15 more than a year ago.

CapMetro said it’s difficult to track how those high prices have impacted passenger totals — because ridership is typically lower in the summer months — but the agency is trying to highlight the cost savings of using public transit while gas prices remain high.

“A lot of people are adjusting their budgets,” Nebeker said. “We would strongly encourage commuters to use CapMetro’s services to save money, stay cool in this heat, and help the environment.”

The highs and lows of gas prices have less of an influence on CapMetro itself. The agency participates in a diesel hedging program where fuel prices don’t fluctuate with the market.

Under the program, CapMetro was paying between $1.80 and $1.90 for a gallon of diesel in June, compared to the national average of $5.80.