On the Rails

Bungling Bureaucrats, or Best Hope?

Capital Metro just can't seem to stay out of the negative headlines," began a recent editorial in the Austin American-Statesman. Local transit advocate David Dobbs would change that to "The Statesman just can't seem to stop laying negative headlines on Capital Metro." Dobbs complains that editors of the local daily have been dogging the transit authority for years, but that attacks have become vendetta-like in harshness and pettiness since Capital Metro's board of directors voted last June to raise transit's sales tax from 3/4 cent to a full penny. He cites, as an example, news coverage of the April 15 decision by the Capital Metro board to implement a major new Transit System Plan and hold a public referendum on commuter rail. Instead of reporting on the new transit plan, says Dobbs, the Statesman story focused on a technicality that would make the proposed rail referendum illegal. Though the technicality could be easily fixed, the story became "Capital Metro bungles again."

Statesman editors may have surprised even themselves with the force of their criticism when Michael Bolton, Capital Metro's widely respected director, resigned a week later, on April 24, citing negative media coverage as one of his reasons for leaving. The daily has since allowed its reporters to provide more informative coverage of the transit authority's mobility plans. Apparently Statesman editors have just noticed that in 1994, the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) gave Capital Metro responsibility for half of the $7.4 billion in transportation spending over the next 25 years needed to avoid overwhelming traffic congestion. Still, the paper's editorials continue to grumble that Capital Metro has to overcome its "negative public image" before it can help solve our traffic mess. The questions remain: How negative is the public's perception of Capital Metro? Is that negativity generated by Statesman slams? And how much of it is deserved?

There's little question that Capital Metro is taking heat; all four candidates in the recent run-off for the Austin City Council -- including the more liberal Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher -- were unanimously opposed to Capital Metro's 1/4 cent sales tax increase. "I think they should roll back the tax, tighten their operation, and try to win back the faith of the voters," says Slusher, citing top-heavy bureaucracy and inefficient bus service as major problems at the transit authority. Capital Metro board member Paul Drummond, who voted against the tax increase, echoes Slusher's criticisms. "I hear complaints on a daily basis that buses are inefficient and aren't running on time," says Drummond. "I felt it would be a public relations disaster if we discussed raising the sales tax before solving these problems."

While most of the candidates' objections to the tax increase centered around sympathy for the beleagured taxpayer, the agency's plans for what to do with some of the extra revenue -- light rail -- were also attacked. Ironically, the conservative candidates -- Jeff Hart in Place 1, Rick Wheeler in Place 4, and Becky Motal in Place 3 -- ran on a popular, but contradictory platform: against Capital Metro, against light rail, and against traffic problems. And not surprisingly, none of the candidates ever presented any alternatives to the bus system, or to light rail.

Yet another irony is that the Austin City Council has no authority over Capital Metro's tax rate since the agency adheres to state laws, and there's little, beyond stumping for a repeal of the tax increase, that anyone on the council can do. Councilmembers can, however, affect the seven-member board by appointing people of like mind on the tax issue, and there's movement afoot on the council to appoint only those who will help repeal the tax increase. Whether this will turn the tide remains to be seen.

The strongest criticism of Capital Metro comes from a group called Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars (ROAD), which has a petition drive aimed at cutting Capital Metro's sales tax from one cent all the way back to 1/4 cent. The group's founder, Gerald Daugherty, notes that Capital Metro's sales tax revenue increased from $35 million in 1985 to over $80 million this year. Give bureaucrats any amount of money and they'll figure out a way to spend it, says Daugherty, who views transit as a public subsidy for people who don't own cars rather than a potential solution to traffic problems. In fact, transit causes more traffic problems than it solves, says Daugherty, since most Texans will never abandon their cars, and buses only get in the way of motorists. In his mind, there's little doubt where Capital Metro's negative image comes from. He estimates that "empty" buses infuriate an average of 4,000 Austin motorists a day by delaying them in traffic.

Transit defenders reply that buses have to delay motorists when they stop to take on or let off passengers, and an increased frequency of stops is actually an indicator of a higher bus ridership. Meanwhile, Capital Metro is beginning to replace its fleet with smaller buses, and plans to build more bus stop pull-off lanes so that traffic can flow by more smoothly. Jim Robertson, Capital Metro's Manager for Long Range Development, says that bus efficiency should improve when the current radial system which requires downtown transfers on most routes is reinforced by a grid system providing more cross-town corridors that bypass downtown. New transit centers will be located throughout the city to link the grid network with the downtown wheel-and-spoke pattern. The transit centers will be located off-street so that several buses can pull over simultaneously to transfer passengers without interfering with traffic. Suburban express buses will distribute commuters to local routes at the transit centers, and some centers will have parking lots so that commuters can transfer directly from car to bus.

Even with improved service, however, some transit advocates say that buses can never compete very well timewise, and will always be perceived as an obstruction on a roadway system designed primarily for cars. To provide a serious alternative to cars -- in the view of Dobbs and many others -- Austin needs a fixed-guideway system like light rail fed by bus traffic. Yet the very mention of light rail sets off shock waves of skepticism among Capital Metro critics.

If Capital Metro appears to be caught in the midst of conflicting demands (improve the bus system, but stay out of the way of cars; spend less money, but help solve traffic congestion) it may reflect the community's ambivalence about the purpose of transit. Capital Metro board member Scott Polikov believes that much of the confusion stems from a slow evolution in Austin's attitude: away from the traditional Texas belief that transit functions only as the transportation of last resort, to a new recognition that it may be our only hope for slowing urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and air pollution. "Everyone benefits from transit, even if you never ride the bus," says Polikov. "Without transit, the central city will eventually begin to seriously decline because people won't want to live in automobile gridlock; they'll only want to live in the suburbs. The only way Austin can share in the region's growth and maintain its tax base is to complement new growth with a mix of transportation options."

It was to that end that Capital Metro's board passed its Transit System Plan on April 15. The plan calls for commuter rail, increased suburban express bus service, and more funding of bicycle and pedestrian improvements. It also commits the transit authority to increased spending on the roadway system, including street repair, traffic light synchronization, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and high-tech systems for traffic management. Alan Pegg, Capital Metro's Chief Financial Officer, notes that the transit agency already contributes $8 million per year for street repair and sidewalks. Add to this the fact that 80% of the 11-year-old bus fleet needs to be replaced, that bus service has to be expanded to rapidly growing suburban subdivisions, that federal transit revenues are declining, and the 1/4 cent sales tax increase is justified, says Pegg.

Perhaps it is on the subject of Capital Metro's potential role in serving Austin's suburban growth that transit advocates and transit critics disagree the most. Transit supporters accuse critics of hiding their heads in the sand when they assume that continued road expansion can meet future mobility needs without destroying Austin's quality of life. For their part, the critics seem to have a much higher tolerance for sprawl, noise, and the air pollution associated with an automobile-dominated system. They say that Austin still has a lot of roadways to build before it reaches the asphalt excesses of Dallas and Houston.

Michael Aulick, head planner of the Austin Transportation Study, says the numbers show serious gridlock in Austin's future without a major new role for transit. While population is projected to double by 2020, roadway construction will only increase by 30%. Vehicle miles travelled per day would nearly triple -- from 18 million to 45 million -- while road lane miles increase only from 3,400 to 4,500. That is the reason that the ATS based much of its 25-year transportation plan on a commuter rail system.

Capital Metro unveiled its latest proposal for a rail system at the ATS meeting of May 13. The starter line would use 29 miles of existing railroad right-of-way, running from Cedar Park to downtown via East Austin. Capital Metro says that the $150 million needed to upgrade the line for commuter rail would cost only one-sixth as much per mile as a previous plan that would have required laying new track on North Lamar and Guadalupe. Express buses would connect North Austin rail stations directly to UT and downtown. Other advantages include service to the fast-growing northwest area and to a redeveloped Mueller Airport.

"I don't believe that people in the community understand that we have made the shift here and are talking about something completely different," says Capital Metro board member Drummond. He notes that the newly proposed line would use self-propelled diesel trains instead of overhead electric wires, and would not run on the same streets with cars, as many motorists fear. Nor would construction cause disruption of traffic.

There are other potential rail corridors, as well, including a line between downtown and Bergstrom, and a commuter service in the MoPac corridor running from Round Rock to San Marcos. The ATS will hold a public hearing on Capital Metro's rail plan at its July 8 meeting.

Whether or not commuter rail will become the cure for inner city gridlock generated by suburban sprawl, one thing appears to be clear: Capital Metro has already been taking a lot of heat for tax increases which are in fact being used to subsidize sprawl. While the city has concentrated financial resources on building new roads to the suburbs, inner city streets have accumulated a maintenance backlog conservatively estimated at $70 million, and growing annually. Financial consultants told the ATS in 1994, "It is amazing that the largest contributor to maintaining our roads is Capital Metro." In addition, as the city sprawls, the cost of providing bus service to low- density development increases geometrically. While taxpayers subsidize each passenger on inner-city core bus service by $1.87 per ride, the subsidy for suburban services like teleride, express buses, and vanpools is $8.85 per passenger. (Critics of mass transit -- who say that it can only survive by means of such subsidies -- often fail to consider the enormous hidden infrastructure, environmental, and health costs generated by an automobile-dominated system. A 1995 Canadian study estimates that North American taxpayers pay from 34 to 61 cents per mile to subsidize urban and suburban motorists, or $13.62 for the average 22-mile roundtrip peak hour suburban commute.)

The perception that Cap- ital Metro is more bloated and inefficient than other bureaucracies could derive from its paradoxical situation. In 1985, voters gave Capital Metro substantial taxing authority, but the city's leaders continued to promote low-density suburban development with freeway construction, while the transit authority was discouraged from implementing any strategy that would provide a serious alternative to the automobile. In its struggles to define its mission in a city where freeway-loving suburban real estate developers are accustomed to getting their way, the transit authority came to be seen as an agency that spends millions and gets nowhere. This frustrating role made it a convenient scapegoat for those unwilling to confront the ills generated by the automobile dependence that they helped to create. Prior to this year's city council election, the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) mailed out flyers endorsing its candidates. The cover of the flyer displayed a full page photo of congested rush hour traffic on I-35 with the caption, "It's time we solve our traffic problems and fix our streets." Though the three candidates endorsed by RECA on the flip side of the flyer all favored rolling back Capital Metro's sales tax, the best remedies they had to offer for the asphalt hell depicted on the cover were traffic light synchronization and more east-west thoroughfares.

"Capital Metro was set up to serve two roles that it cannot serve simultaneously: to be both the advocate for and the implementer of a mixed transportation system," says Scott Polikov. "Politically that's a flawed approach. Capital Metro can't be the only advocate of transit." Polikov acknowledges that Capital Metro "got too far ahead of the community" in raising the sales tax, and he sees building community consensus for transit as the main goal at this point. Whether such consensus can be built without getting the city's leaders behind transit is another question, but Polikov is optimistic that warnings from the Austin Transportation Study about the coming gridlock are gradually sinking in. "Business leaders are beginning to understand the relationship between transportation infrastructure investment and tax base preservation," says Polikov.

The next test for transit comes this month, when three of the seven Capital Metro board member positions are up for reappointment. Travis County Commissioners will decide whether or not to reappoint board member Harry Jones, while the other two selections will be determined by the city council (board member Audley Blackburn is seeking reappointment by the council, while Polikov is resigning from the board). Newly elected councilmember Daryl Slusher said before the run-off election that he would make agreement to roll back Capital Metro's sales tax a test for selection of new board members. But as the new anchors for the environmental majority on the council, Slusher and Beverly Griffith are faced with the fact that Capital Metro's sales tax is practically the only dedicated source of transportation funding that can be directed to the inner city in a town where the state highway department controls hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for freeways and suburban arterials.

In the meantime, as we wait for our leaders to define the role of transit in Austin, the next time you're stuck in traffic, heat waves rising, tempers flaring, and exhaust fuming, console yourself with this thought: We've still got Capital Metro to kick around. n

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