Naked City

Bus' a Move

On the heels of the Electric Slide and the Solid Waste Slide comes Austin's newest dance craze, the Sales Tax Slide. Now that we're at war, earlier hopes that sales tax collections might pick up by early next year are pretty much inoperative. (Hotel bed tax collections are also fluttering away on the wings of war: Though football season is the busiest time of the year for hoteliers, the local lodging industry reports business is down more than a third so far this season.)

We know the city of Austin is feeling the pain, but what about Capital Metro, which depends far more on sales tax collections than does any other local government entity? Well, the transit authority just approved its 2001-02 budget, which projects $145.4 million in revenue -- reflecting "anticipated lower sales tax revenues due to economic conditions." (Fare box revenue only accounts for about one-eighth of Cap Met's income.) Capital Metro raises more money than it spends, and next year will be no different, with an operating budget of only $99.4 million. But that's more than $20 million above the FY 2001 operating budget, which reflects increased spending on the new bus services that are part of Cap Met's Five Year Plan, of which 2002 will be Year One. The plan involves more direct service and cross-town routes, as well as a network of park-and-ride hubs throughout the city that will enable many commuters to skip going downtown to change buses.

The FY 2002 budget funds a pay raise for unionized operators and mechanics and an increase of nearly 6% in regular bus service levels, which includes both greater frequencies and new routes. It also includes $25.6 million in new capital spending (not all of which comes from this year's appropriations), largely to pay for the new vehicles and park-and-rides required by the Five Year Plan.

"This is a catch-up year for the agency," says Cap Met Board Chair Lee Walker. "These are investments that will pay off for our customers for years and years to come."

And what about leftover funds? The budget shows a $24.9 million operating reserve, which Cap Met may need if the Sales Tax Slide becomes a dance marathon. Then there's the $91 million "mobility planning reserve," the $31 million set-aside of one-quarter-cent of Capital Metro's one-cent sales tax, and $10.8 million reserved for land acquisition and facility improvement. Those funds -- which, of course, have accrued from past years as well -- will help pay for Cap Met's share of HOV lanes if they're ever built, or light rail, if it's ever built, or transportation projects by Cap Met jurisdictions if light rail isn't built, and so on. For years, efforts to separate Cap Met from that money have been a cottage industry of local politics, and if the economy continues to tank, that probably won't change.

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Capital Metro, sales taxes, Lee Walker

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