Point Austin: Tell Us Something We Don't Know

Capital Metro report discovers the agency's been badly managed

Point Austin
I could feel more confident in the judgment of the Sunset Advisory Commission staff report on Capital Metro, issued last week, if I didn't have to consider the source: Texas state government. Take a look at only the most vexing "issues" it raises: Just what qualifies the folks at the Capitol to begin judging others on what is responsible financial management (has anybody looked at the public school budget lately?), sustainable expenditures (like, for example, prisons and highways?), safety practices (in a state teeming with toxic air and dead construction workers), or, last and least, public engagement ("You wanna vote? Show some ID."). Under the circumstances, it's entirely too tempting to respond with the headline, "Pot Calls Kettle Black!"

Nevertheless, the report was released with much fanfare last week, duly announced by its sponsor, Sen. Kirk Watson, and welcomed – more or less – by Cap Metro board Chair Mike Martinez and, later, interim President/CEO Doug Allen. Much of the local media trumpeted it with wide-eyed wonder, as if it were a revelation that the transit agency is in a money bind and that its management practices had been less than stellar over the past several years. A trifle out of date, the report primarily covers the shell-game practices of departed President/CEO Fred Gilliam (whom the authors mysteriously but sensibly retitle "General Manager" – the board should certainly take that hint), as well as the absentee-landlord era of Lee Walker, followed by the moribund tenure of Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez.

The (unintentionally) funniest passages concern Gilliam's undeservedly inflated pension and other retirement bennies, approved by the board on the sole basis of Gilliam's own self-evaluations. Now that meeting would have been something to see: Fred reports to Fred that Fred has done a great job, and Fred agrees with him – and the board concurs, to the tune of nearly a million agency dollars. And now these guys are supposed to rein in labor costs?

In recent months, under Allen and Martinez, the agency has started to show signs of life, but it's little wonder that the report argues forebodingly: "To address these longstanding problems, Capital Metro's new Board must rise to the challenge of conducting its business in a new way that embraces fiscal constraint and open accountability for its expenditure of public funds. The new Board faces many difficult but necessary decisions that will require effective engagement with all stakeholders, including the local transit union, the disability community, transit users, and the public."

What Goes Around

There's no quarreling with much of the report's analysis, since it has been a staple of Austin discussion for some time (with ongoing detail in the Statesman and the Chronicle for many months), and (as Allen and Martinez pointed out) some of the problems are already being addressed. Cap Metro spent its reserve funds down on commuter rail and related expenses to a dangerous level, and to the embarrassing point that it had to stiff the city on the sales tax stipend previously committed to urban mobility projects. That deadbeat problem has been worked out in principle, although it will take a sustained economic recovery to confirm the agency's payment plan. And the entire commuter rail project – essentially a demonstration line for a real suburban/city system yet to be executed – has made it impossible for Cap Metro to take on inner-city light rail, leaving Austin to scramble to fill the gap. That's a lot to pay for a few toy trains from Leander.

But despite all the official and media accolades for the report, its central financial recommendations come down to standard bureaucratic bromides: Slash wages and raise prices. The section on labor costs is confounding, as the authors have to explain away the disgraceful conflict between federal and state law: Federal law protects public employees' collective bargaining rights, while state law expressly forbids them. Subcon­tract­or StarTran is Cap Metro's fictional solution to this problem, yet the report recommends bidding out StarTran's contracts to lower labor costs – i.e., cutting wages.

Similarly, the report recommends better public engagement, particularly with the disabled community – while simultaneously advocating price increases for paratransit and other subsidized services. That sort of engagement – and price hikes may well be necessary – should go over real well. Of the same cloth is the recommendation that Cap Metro charge UT more for its shuttle bus service – just where do the authors suspect those additional university appropriations are supposed to originate?

Look Out Below

Allen and Martinez pushed back a bit on these unspoken assumptions, and their formal response is due next week. Then the whole matter goes to the legislative Sunset Advisory Commission itself, where it will be duly considered by such notable champions of public enterprise as chair Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, and vice chair Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, with Lubbock's Carl Isett and Irving's Linda Harper-Brown lurking in the underbrush. One supposes that Watson, Martinez, and others imagine that whatever comes out of the commission, the Lege can provide some political cover for whatever the agency has to do anyway. I suppose, with fingers crossed, we should wish them well.

I asked Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 President Jay Wyatt what he thought of the report, and he was celebratory; the union has been asking for an outside audit of Cap Metro so long and loudly that he couldn't help but welcome more egg on Fred Gilliam's disappearing face. And when I questioned the report's notion that the way to get costs under control is more subcontracting, he said: "We're not worried about that. We've got a contract with labor protections and collective bargaining rights." This in the face of a report that complains other Texas transit agencies keep labor costs down by subcontracting and allowing only "meet and confer" discussions, with no right to strike.

A city that brags how well its police and firefighters are paid shouldn't have to apologize for "overpaying" bus drivers and mechanics. We're not going to breathe easier on any of these financial matters until the national and local economies stabilize, but meanwhile, neither the state nor the board should expect Capital Metro to balance its books or pay for its suburban commuter rail bridges out of the pockets of its employees.

Also, see "State Report Slams Cap Metro." A copy of the Sunset Advisory Commission staff report on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is available here.

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Capital Metro, Sunset Advisory Commission, Fred Gilliam, Lee Walker, Margaret Gómez, Kirk Watson, Mike Martinez, Doug Allen, StarTran, Jay Wyatt

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