With a new budget, at least the buses will run
Capital Metro has a budget, but still doesn't have a train.
On Monday, the Capital Metro board of directors voted 4-1 (members John Treviño and Mike Martinez absent, the former ill and the latter out of town) to pass the $164.7 million operating budget but with clearly expressed displeasure over aspects of the document. After the vote, Cap Metro Executive Vice President Doug Allen informed the board that, at best, the long-delayed launch of the Leander-to-Downtown commuter rail (the MetroRail Red Line) may finally happen in the first quarter of 2010.
Board chair and Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez basically said she was holding her nose and voting for the budget, even though she disagreed with the proposal to divert $2.6 million in federal stimulus money from Red Line improvements to operational expenses. The diversion was originally pushed by Austin Mayor Pro Tem Martinez to prevent a planned August 2010 fare hike from being moved up to January.
"One of the things I can brag on at Travis County," said Gomez, "we have a practice where we do not use one-time money for ongoing expenses. It just simply is not wise at all to, number one, put off pain that's going to come in a very few months. And number two, it really puts you way behind on budget numbers." However, she said, "We can move forward as the budget is balanced to make sure the buses continue to run on Oct. 1."
As part of the budget vote, the board, at Gomez's request, approved a directive to staff to start a public input process on moving the August fare increase up to the proposed January date. Board member and Austin City Council Member Chris Riley opposed that idea, saying that the use of the stimulus money for operations was consistent with federal law and that the agency had made a commitment to the community to not raise fares until August. "We have obligations to those who are dependent on bus service and other types of transit," Riley said. He was the lone vote against the budget.
Martinez told the Chronicle that the move is within the board's prerogative, but he wouldn't support it. "We went through a public input process [on the August fare increase], and we made a commitment," he said. "I can't think of any compelling reason why we should raise fares in January for sidings on a rail line that's not even open. I don't think you're going to get public support."
If revenue estimates of $185 million come true, Chief Financial Officer Randy Hume said, Cap Metro should be able to boost its severely depleted reserves, currently at a paltry $3 million, up to a still-weak $10 million.
In his update on MetroRail, Allen said the agency is still working out computer programming and signaling issues and said the new target is early 2010 – nearly two years after the originally projected start date. Cap Metro CEO and President Fred Gilliam told the board that he knows the public is getting frustrated by the delays, but he'd rather be safe than sorry.
"Human error has been identified more than once as what caused [rail accidents]," Gilliam said. "I know the criticism we're receiving, but I can assure you we're doing everything possible so we will not cost somebody a life. Hopefully, everyone will understand the safety of this is much more important than a schedule. I regret we ever established a schedule."