Austin @ Large: Austin At Large: Backseat Driver

Capital Metro's Karen Rae gives up the helm -- but not the cause

Karen Rae
Karen Rae (Photo By John Anderson)

We've been told that a professional should give three weeks' notice when moving on. Any less, and the organization will still be in shock when you leave. Any more, and you'll have become indispensable.

Obviously, Jesus Garza disagrees, because Austin's departing city manager gave more than three months' notice, which has caused some awkwardness at City Hall (see "Naked City"). Karen Rae, on the other hand, announced her resignation three weeks to the day before her scheduled Feb. 15 exit. But the Capital Metro board may still believe their outgoing general manager is indispensable.

Witness Rae's commitment to a one-year term as a Cap Met consultant, focusing on getting the agency its share of federal transportation funding. This is part of her job now, but in return for giving up the day-to-day operations of Austin's public transportation system, Rae will earn more money -- nearly $200,000 -- than her current annual compensation.

Even Rae's detractors concede her skills and connections in the D.C. funding game, as evidenced by the Federal Transit Administration's giving a positive rating to Austin's light rail project before it had either a completed plan or the approval of the voters. In her consulting role, Rae says, she has "quite a bit of work to do. It's not really lobbying but technical assistance -- which committees do what, when do you need to talk to them, how do you best deploy your lobbyists both in Austin and in D.C."

There have been hints of change at Fifth and Pleasant Valley ever since Rae installed ex-Houston Metro manager Fred Gilliam (one of the runners-up for Rae's job when she was hired in 1998) as her deputy last fall. The board's postponement of Rae's annual performance review added fuel to these rumors, although if she'd done something that merited being sacked, surely the agency's implacable foes and the excitable local media would have noticed it.

Rather, it appears that Rae is leaving for reasons similar to Garza's. (Although Rae took pains to note at her news conference, "I'm not going to the LCRA." Nor is she going back to Buffalo.) "I love operations, but I've been doing it for quite a while, and I felt like I, for the first time, had permission to consider a different path," she says. "If not now, then when would be a better time? I couldn't see it coming."

It wouldn't be coming any time before November, when Capital Metro might (will?) hold its next light-rail referendum, this time with a completed plan in hand. "I wanted the agency to have a base on which it could possibly win a rail election in the future," Rae says. "But if a decision had been made by now" -- i.e., if rail had passed last time -- "I'm not sure I could have stepped away. Right now, it doesn't look like I'm running either toward or away from an election, and that's part of my timing decision."

The Wheels of Fortune

Just as the city will likely skip a national search and elevate Garza's deputy Toby Futrell to the top job, the Cap Met board has more reasons to promote Gilliam than to troll the transit waters for new big fish. (November is not that far off.) In any event, Rae will be around to facilitate a smooth transition. "Hopefully, I won't be totally out of the picture, but involved in a different role," she says. "The one thing I've promised myself is that I'll make sure everything here is on absolutely solid ground before moving on to something else."

We're not sure what constitutes "solid ground" in the world of transportation, where the rules change with every turn of the political wheel. Witness Gov. Rick Perry's announcement this week, after decades of state-level apathy about anything but asphalt, of a massive corridor initiative that would include both roads and rail. (That should take care of the running arguments about this Austin-San Antonio commuter-rail business, over which Rae has gotten nothing but grief during her tenure.) And the federal transportation bill (TEA-21), under which Cap Met already receives millions from D.C. -- and would receive hundreds of millions for a light rail system -- expires in 2003.

In addition, three of Capital Metro's seven board members -- City Council Members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith and Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez -- are up for re-election this year, and one or two changes in membership could swing the generally pro-transit, pro-Smart Growth board around. Especially if Cap Met's harshest critic, Gerald Daugherty, wins a seat on the Commissioners' Court and, in all likelihood, on the agency's board. (How would you stop him?)

Movement for Movement?

Meanwhile, up at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, arbiters of all local mobility planning, the election could reverse the current narrow advantage of road-skeptic, transit-friendly city folk. While Rae says Austin "needs to move away from the either/or mentality -- roads or transit -- that still grips this community," experience as recent as last November's Travis County bond election does not suggest that such movement is just around the corner.

These trends mean the fairly straightforward duties of Capital Metro's new general manager will likely remain unchanged. There will be absolutely no defects in your bus service and no lapses in management efficiency or ethics. You will give away as much of your money as humanly possible. And even though you're a manager and not a policymaker, you are personally responsible for selling the community on rail transit. If you fail on any of these measures, the Legislature will come and kill you and your agency.

"The first thing [a successor needs to do] is keep the commitment to solid ethics," Rae says, referring to the scandals and investigations plaguing the agency when she arrived. "It's so easy to slip back. And communication about our successes continues to be a challenge. We've made progress, but we can do more. We're seeing our customer service indicators improve after a very long haul, and you have to keep on top of that. Good things don't just happen."

Presumably, a Cap Met that continued the improvements it's seen under Rae would make Austin happy. But who knows? "This is a very complex community -- a wonderful one, but full of differing ideas about how to do business," she says. "That's a challenge for anyone."

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Capital Metro, Karen Rae, Jesus Garza, Federal Transit Administration, Fred Gilliam, LCRA, Toby Futrell, Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, Margaret Gomez, Gerald Daugherty

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