Point Austin: Double or Nothing
More Cap Metro follies
Whether it's bungling referendums on light-rail, trying to outsource local labor, needing the mayor to get its negotiating ox out of the ditch, or radically underestimating the real cost of commuter rail, the agency seems particularly gifted at shooting itself repeatedly in the foot and then reloading.
The latest fiasco surrounds the proposed "fare adjustment," which would double the basic bus fare from 50 cents to a dollar and, even more radically, double or triple (or more) ancillary fares that directly affect the transit system's most vulnerable and dependent customers, often on Special Transit Services: the elderly, the disabled, and those without any other affordable means of transportation.
Whatever the overall merits of some kind of increase – it's unarguable that fuel and related transit expenses have shot up in the last few years – the agency has handled the proposal with its characteristic clumsiness. Indeed, it took so long for the public process to begin, after a year of record ridership was followed by this year's decrease, that the agency has created for itself the worst sort of marketing nightmare: "Sales are down, so we're raising prices!"
Multiply by Two
Variations on that dismal theme were delivered loudly to the Cap Metro board during Monday evening's public hearing, as dozens of riders and advocates rose to complain that the proposed increases are too much, too fast, and will weigh too heavily on those least able to afford it yet who have no other choice for transportation. One common complaint was that the agency had done insufficient outreach to its ridership for a response to the proposed changes and, more broadly, for the likely effects of those changes. Staff members responded that they indeed had surveyed bus riders, especially online, and had held four public meetings on the proposal, concluding that a plurality agrees that the increases are necessary. But outreach by computer, for far too many regular bus riders, approaches pointlessness, and observers at the three Austin meetings say fewer than a couple dozen citizens were aware enough to attend.
Clearly, Monday's was the public hearing that mattered, and the public response was essentially unanimous that this was an overbroad, overbearing set of fee increases particularly inattentive to the most vulnerable riders. "What kind of planning possibly went into this proposal?" asked one speaker. "Somebody took out a calculator and said, 'Times two'?"
But it didn't take a public survey to determine that the Cap Metro staff had failed to reach out to the people it most urgently must persuade. The reaction of several board members made it clear that they felt blindsided by the extent of the rate proposal. The usually passive vice chair, Travis Co. Commissioner Margaret Gómez, skeptically questioned staff on the effectiveness of its outreach to the poorest riders. City Council Member Brewster McCracken noted with visible irritation that last year the board had authorized only the proposed change in the base fare (to $1) and that all the other changes, not to mention proposed "step-increases" to $1.35 over the next few years, had never been discussed, let alone approved. (Afterward, McCracken complained that staff had waited nearly a year to take action and then cobbled the proposal and outreach together in a couple of months.)
To all this opposition, the best Cap Metro President Fred Gilliam could offer in plaintive response was the agency's current mantra that, despite inflation, "We haven't raised rates since 1985." Unfortunately, after a while that began to translate as, "Our bad management today is an attempt to make up for 22 years of earlier bad management." Board member (and City Council Member) Mike Martinez had finally heard enough. "Please stop saying you haven't raised rates," said Martinez. "You're now charging for transfers [which at least doubles the cost of many rides], and there are no more free-ride [ozone-action] days, so you have raised rates."
Consider the Consequences
The Cap Metro board does not have the final say on the proposed increases, which are making their way to an ad hoc board on which the City Council and Commissioners Court hold a majority. Even the strongest critics Monday conceded that some incremental increases might be necessary, but other than Gilliam and Leander Mayor John Cowman, no board member expressed support for the proposed rate plan as it stands (others, including Chair Lee Walker, were withholding their cards).
Once again Cap Metro awkwardly has fumbled the ball and (rightly or wrongly) reinforced the common impression that the agency is focused on its grand plans for suburban commuter rail at the expense of its core public-transit riders – despite the overarching need for a broad, humanist vision of an effectively integrated, regional mobility system. The most pointed and distressing comment of the evening came from UT Shuttle bus driver Glenn Gaven, who told the board, "This board is not racist, but when you do something that takes money from poor people of color and gives it to wealthy whites, that's racism." One can only hope that when the final rate changes take effect, Cap Metro can persuade the public honestly that it has avoided that disastrous institutional outcome.