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AUSTIN (KXAN) — For more seasoned or native Austinites, The ‘Dillo might serve as a blast from the past of an Austin bygone. But for those newer to the Texas capital, it might surprise you to know that once upon a time, The ‘Dillo shuttle served as a trolley system running through Austin.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Armadillo Express transported passengers throughout downtown, traveling as far north as the University of Texas at Austin neighborhood down south of Lady Bird Lake.

For most of its tenure, The ‘Dillo operated as a free trolley service; in the midst of recession confines, it tacked on a minor fare and reduced from five routes down to two, per Austin Towers reporting.

Come 2009, CapMetro bid adieu to the trolley system, based on archived reporting from the Austin Business Journal.

End of The ‘Dillo in Austin

A Sept. 25, 2009, CapMetro press release announced the retirement of The ‘Dillo, citing the trolley system’s routes represented roughly 3% of CapMetro bus services and fewer than 1% of total ridership. It came after CapMetro initially proposed an indefinite suspension of the route in July 2009.

“A reduction of service is never taken lightly and it was not an easy decision to eliminate the ‘Dillo routes,” former CapMetro President and CEO Fred Gilliam said in the September 2009 release. “However, in these difficult economic times Capital Metro must take necessary steps to provide public transit in a fiscally responsible manner. Fortunately, there are many other local routes that riders can use to travel around Downtown Austin.”

However, that hasn’t stopped some Austinites from seeking a slice of classic Austin nostalgia, or floating attempts to revive the system.

A February 2019 ABJ article reported a member of Austin’s former ‘Dillo fleet sold to the tune of nearly $30,000 on eBay. The vehicle was described as “a four-door Chance Trolly with more than 85,000 miles with a potential future as a food truck or custom RV,” per ABJ.

Under a 2020 Downtown Austin Alliance circulator study, the DAA determined “the truncated ‘Dillo route network, 2008/2009 economic crisis, and updated fare policy caused ridership to plummet.”

The report analyzed case studies from circulators in major urban networks nationwide, including Washington, D.C., Houston, Portland and Denver.

The case for a circulator

The DAA study aimed to determine whether Austin could support a downtown transit circulator as a means of addressing downtown mobility issues.

Report findings determined simple, frequent routes and free services are “most enticing to riders,” while circulators are most effective when coordinated with “the needs of hotels, visitors bureaus, large employers, and convention centers.”

A February 2021 DAA recommendations report suggested two possible downtown circulator routes for a ‘Dillo-esque revitalization. Route A would connect the Market and Rainey Street districts while traveling through the Central Business District, primarily operating off Fourth Street.

Route B’s project scope would cross Lady Bird Lake and Interstate 35 and connect South Congress, South Central Waterfront, the Central Business District, Sixth Street, Red River Street and the Plaza Saltillo districts. It would primarily run along Congress Avenue as well as Sixth and Seventh streets.

Annual operating costs for both routes were estimated at a sticker price of $5.26 million. The February 2021 report identified possible public-private partnerships between the DAA, City of Austin, CapMetro and other area transportation entities.

However, no further discussion on a circulator or ‘Dillo-like route has been floated since.