Magical Mystery Tour

If you could change places with anyone in the world right now, you likely wouldn't be itchin' to switch shoes with Justin Augustine, the general manager of Capital Metro. Then again, he's pretty satisfied where he is. "We're a transportation company -- that's our responsibility to the public we serve," he said in a recent interview. "And we perform that service well. So I'm happy so far." Or, in the more stylized language of the Cap Met press release, "We are pleased with the positive results of our recent programs and efforts."

After the carnage of the last six months, it's comforting to know that at least one Austinite is satisfied with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA). Of course, most who have been swinging at the Cap Met piñata since January, hoping to find a tasty treat inside -- like, say, a city council seat -- don't actually ride the bus and probably never will. Witness the August 1 Statesman package, with a dozen-plus feature writers taking the bus to work just to see what it's like. Most were not impressed, sometimes for legitimate faux pas on Cap Met's part, mostly because it took too long, because they don't have good service to their neighborhoods, because people like them don't ride the bus. One writer -- a college intern -- actually put two and two together, noting that it simply wasn't cool to ride the bus, and if it were, the buses would run everywhere, all the time, and no one would complain about the cost. (This was right after the Statesman led the front page with the headline "Audit: Capital Metro is too expensive.")

Of course, none of these folks have an obligation to ride the bus, but the Statesman has been treating Capital Metro as Public Enemy No. 1 for months now, apparently without any firsthand knowledge of Austin's public-transit status quo. According to the most recent numbers, released with great pride during Cap Met's recent PR blitz but nonetheless defensible, the people who actually ride the bus regularly have never been happier. That is to say, ridership is up, on-time performance is up, and customer complaints are down. "The services are there when they're supposed to be," says Augustine, "and people are riding them."

Yeah, and so what? Certainly, Capital Metro has worked hard to give itself a bad name: raising its sales tax without public consent, botching contracts, cutting deals within the community that many observers find specious, feathering its executive nests with generous severance packages, and ringing its PR bells a little too loudly at a time when humility was in order. All of these missteps and misdeeds were lovingly pounced on by the local media, by the competitors (mostly by the losers) in the last city council races, and by the members of the Legislature.

As a result, we have a new and improved Capital Metro, to be governed by an all-star panel of local elected leaders and kept, one imagines, on a much shorter leash by its de facto masters -- the Austin Transportation Study (ATS)'s Policy Advisory Committee, the even larger all-star panel of local leaders that waves its wand over everything that moves in Central Texas. So it's now up to the ATS, and the still-to-be-named new CMTA board of directors, and perhaps even more so up to Augustine, to sort out the muddle and rubble left by the last six months of bloodletting.

Out With the Old Board

It's easy to say, if you're the Statesman or Rep. Terry Keel or former mayoral candidate Ronney Reynolds, that you have no problem with public transit, just with a mismanaged and arrogant Capital Metro. Of course, since we only have one transit authority, kicking the crap out of it daily, and thus obscuring the fact that it provides a useful and competent-if-not-inspiring service, required by thousands of taxpaying citizens, inevitably creates problems with public transit. So the more Capital Metro suffers, the less likely Austin is to realize the future its planners, at all levels, have envisioned -- one where realistic alternatives exist to the single-occupant vehicle, the parking lot, the new freeway, and the ozone action day.

For some of the anti-tax hawks who found a Legislative ally in former Travis County sheriff Keel, that's just fine -- they don't want their money spent on buses and trains that they don't ride, and if that screws other citizens or the metro area as a whole, that's just too damn bad. (These are the same people who demand a public vote on light rail, while barely blinking an eye at highway projects, costing much more, that get built without ever seeing the inside of a ballot box.) Beyond that, it's a lot easier, and a lot more fun, to pummel Capital Metro than to address mobility and accessibility in Austin, which sucks, and is getting worse, because of decades of irresponsible decisions made and supported, and warnings ignored, by the same vested interests who stuck it to Capital Metro.

In other words, there's a reason Capital Metro got spanked right after it rolled out its high-dollar light-rail transit plan, and right after traffic became Austin's No. 1 problem -- by flailing the transit authority, one could appear to be "dealing with" Austin's transportation woes without actually helping anybody or solving anything. In recent weeks, flailing on, or flogging for, the proposed SH 130, née MoKan, has served the same purpose, and now that the Council elections are over and the Lege has gone home, all's quiet on the transit front.

This should change as soon as the new-and-improved Capital Metro board is officially birthed, supposedly by month's end. The idea is that a new board of bona fide elected officials will be more sensitive to public opinion than the old reviled Capital Metro board, which was composed of citizens appointed largely by the Austin city council, and considered unaccountable from the moment it was instated. The current interim board of directors, chaired by former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, has been handling routine, or at least recurring, Cap Met decisions like the semi-annual review of schedule and service changes, and will remain in place until four of the seven new members are officially installed. After August 18, we'll be halfway there, when the two citizen members of the new panel are selected by the ATS Policy Advisory Committee.

As of press time, six contenders remain for these two slots, including former city Councilmember John Treviño, who sits with Delco on the interim board; businessman, academic, and progressive gadfly Lee Walker; Dallas Cowboys star turned East Austin entrepreneur Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Barbara Epstein with the Railroad Commission, former Capital Metro board member Bill Gaston, and Texas Perspectives publisher and Todos partner Jon Hockenyos. A total of 41 hardy citizens applied for these seats, which is about 41 more people than are interested in the other five seats, to be occupied by two Austin councilmembers, one Travis County commissioner, one rep from Travis County cities other than Austin, and one rep from the Williamson County portion of Cap Met's service area. Given the public lashings of the last Capital Metro board, this is not exactly considered a plum gig. When asked about likely volunteers among elected officials for the CMTA board slots, one council staffer simply replied, "See how they run."

Linking Fates

Capital Metro general manager Justin Augustine III at the wheel.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Though no one is supposed to serve on both the ATS Policy Advisory Committee and the CMTA Board of Directors, the ATS-PAC already includes majorities of both the city council and commissioners' court, making for a lot of overlap. From the city, Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia, Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Beverly Griffith, and (as of early August) Mayor Kirk Watson all sit on the ATS panel, joined from the county by Commissioners Karen Sonleitner, Valarie Bristol, and Margaret Gomez.

That leaves either Daryl Slusher, Bill Spelman, or Willie Lewis, and either Sam Biscoe or Bill Aleshire, to ride the pine on transportation -- the rest (two councilmembers and one county commissioner) have to serve on the Capital Metro board. (This may change, at least from the council side, since Watson may be leery of naming any of the rookie councilmembers to the CMTA post.) Further muddying the waters, since the eight state legislators on the ATS-PAC are prevented by law from making appointments to the new board, the Austin and Travis County delegations, who make up the majority of the remainder, will also have ultimate power over the two citizen appointees to the CMTA board -- one of whom will, likely, then turn around and serve as Capital Metro's representative to the ATS. Got that? We're talking a close relationship between the ATS and Capital Metro here.

This would all seem to leave little daylight between the decisions of the Capital Metro board and of the ATS, which makes perfect sense to many cynics, given that State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who chairs the ATS, authored and carried the legislation that created the new CMTA board. Specifically, the Barrientos plan -- which originally also included the transfer of one-fourth of Capital Metro's tax collection to ATS control -- was seen as an attempt to kill light rail, built by Capital Metro, in favor of a commuter rail system through the Austin-San Antonio corridor, whose interests Barrientos has long championed. (Barrientos also carried another bill that created a new regional commuter-rail district.) Even without the transfer of the infamous quarter-cent, light rail might still die, but even if it doesn't, the senator's Lone Ranger act -- filing his bill out of left field, late in the session, after the more draconian Keel bills had been killed by Rep. Glen Maxey in a parliamentary maneuver -- was not wholly unexpected by legislature observers.

All this backstairs stuff aside, only an idiot would aim to steer the Capital Metro board in a direction different from the now very involved ATS, whatever the latter turns out to be. In the past, Cap Met has received rather laissez-faire treatment from the policy committee; for example, the public-transportation section of the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan, the blueprint for all road and transit projects on the local horizon, was written by Capital Metro and accepted by ATS almost verbatim. Don't expect that to happen in the future, although it might not appear so publicly. "I think ATS will want to keep the distinction between itself and Capital Metro VERY clear," says Council Member Daryl Slusher. "They don't want to be blamed for Capital Metro's mistakes."

Richard Hamner, Barrientos' senior aide and liaison to the ATS, notes that "there didn't used to be very many debates about Capital Metro or transit, but our past experience with Capital Metro will lead to closer scrutiny from now on of items they bring to us. When they came to ATS for us to endorse the MIS (major investment study, the first step in a big transportation project) for the (light rail) Red Line, we put a bunch of conditions on it, just as we've done with the MIS for SH130, because we didn't think it went far enough. We even had a motion by Sen. (Jeff) Wentworth to not approve it at all. You'll see more of that in the future.

"I think that's healthy," Hamner continues, "because what ATS has tried to do is foster a more regional approach -- to get Travis County and Cedar Park, or Austin and Pflugerville, to work together on projects that affect them. The old Capital Metro board was very parochial -- they'd debate at length whether to fund studies on projects that went beyond their service area. And then they sent forth a light-rail proposal for lines that ran well beyond their service area. By having a board that works more closely with the ATS, you'll have a board that's more cognizant of regional needs."

This optimistic approach aside, not everyone is too convinced that the ATS will now pay greater attention to Capital Metro, and thus not too worried that a close linkage between them will ill-serve the public. "The requirements of the Capital Metro board will be very detailed and ongoing and time-consuming," says Benjamin Isgur, Rep. Maxey's ATS aide, "while with the ATS right now, people don't think about it until five minutes before the meeting starts. The ATS members' attention tends to fluctuate depending on what the hot issue is, which right now isn't Capital Metro -- it's SH130. If Capital Metro ends up back in the press, you might see more interest from the ATS, but on a day-to-day level, they're on their own."

For that matter, it's no sure thing that Capital Metro will receive much attention from its own board. Excepting -- perhaps -- the citizen members, the new-and-improved board will be made up of busy people with no desire to suffer for their service. "We've already met with mayors and council members and asked that their first charge as Capital Metro board members be finding a new way to choose Capital Metro board members," says Isgur. "Realistically, after a year, none of the elected officials will want to do it -- they all know it's a no-win situation. So we hope that, in the next (Legislative) session, the system will be put back the way it should be."

Barrientos' aide Hamner says the senator and his staff considered various drawbacks of a board dominated by folks doing double duty, but "came to the conclusion that ... their attentions will be divided, but not all that divided, because transportation is high on everyone's agenda, and they're taking some risk by serving on a Capital Metro board and be much more willing to question staff recommendations. They have more understanding of public perception. With the last board -- so what if people hated them when they left?"

At least one person whose chances of landing on the CMTA board are better than even -- Slusher -- notes that "there are interesting reasons to do it -- to make sure that Capital Metro's priorities are straight and that their plans work, (and) getting them to focus on East and Central Austin rather than on the Northwest. But it will take a huge amount of time that most of us don't have, and most of Austin seems to think it's the political equivalent of laying down in front of the bus."

A Driving Force

One of Capital Metro's new 30-foot low-floor buses
photograph by Jana Birchum

So, Hamner's optimism notwithstanding, it's just as conceivable that a distracted and gun-shy Capital Metro board will be more than happy to leave the driving to Augustine, who's been navigating on his own since May, when the Barrientos bill became law. "So far, the interim board has supported my role as a policymaker, since they're all public servants who know how policy is made," he says, "I expect working with the new board to be enjoyable, and we want to get them up to speed as fast as we can. The staff has to be more responsible for making sure the issues are well-understood and defined, because they won't have as much time to devote to it."

Light rail aside, most of Augustine's issues are fairly mundane -- and designedly so, coming under the rubric of "Back to Basics" -- and likely will provoke scant opposition or even interest from his new bosses. The sort of quality improvements Capital Metro has been pursuing ever since he took over last year, like retraining bus drivers in customer service, improving the regular maintenance of the bus fleet, or acquiring new buses better designed to handle Austin's narrow roads, are actually part of an ongoing multi-year process. But they sure came in handy when the transit authority needed to respond to the last six months of attack. "We have heard you," Augustine wrote in a letter sent far and wide through the community. Capital Metro was "entering a new era of accountability," one where the buck stopped with him, and the "Back to Basics" action items were presented as if they had just been conceived.

While symbolic measures, like removing the notorious security doors at CMTA headquarters, attracted some attention, the overall PR impact of the "Back to Basics" blitz has been muted by yet more salvos from the Statesman, this time built on KPMG/Peat Marwick's independent performance audit of Capital Metro, which says, to no one's surprise, that transit service in a city like Austin costs a lot of money, and that Capital Metro's meaty sales-tax collections are subsidizing costs borne elsewhere by riders themselves, or by the governments where the buses operate. "I think people expect transit should be a giveaway program, and it's a business that costs money," Augustine says. "We provide a host of services to the community, but it costs money. We want to make the organization as efficient as possible, but it will never be truly cheap.

"There's a lot of effort and energy going into the process of providing quality basic bus service," Augustine continues, "and no one pays attention to it, especially when you do it well. It's more acceptable and interesting to talk about long range plans compared with what you're doing today, but the basic foundation of your plans is that you can run your basic bus service. Right now, we're doing it well. It needs to become second nature, so that we'll always do it well."

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