Cap Metro Promises To Be Good
Transit agency formally responds to Sunset findings
Capital Metro released a formal reply last week to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission's staff review of the transit agency. The response was straightforward – the agency agreed with all of the report's recommendations and even said it had anticipated some of the criticisms and was already working on implementing some of the proposed solutions.
Signed by Cap Metro board chair and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and interim president/CEO Doug Allen, the reply letter read: "Our agency has been working since January on a number of issues identified as areas for improvement that are reflected in the Staff Report's recommendations. We believe the recommendations are consistent with our efforts. Progress has already been made in several key areas such as implementing new procedures to budget and manage reserves effectively, and developing a Railroad Bridge Plan to prioritize replacement, repair and maintenance of our bridges."
This particular Sunset report was a bit unusual – normally the commission examines state agencies, which come up for review before the body every 12 years. A poor Sunset review can be fatal for an agency, as the Legislature may decide to abolish it. As Cap Metro is not a state agency, this review came as part of a legislative package to reform the agency passed last year by Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson, and it came with no abolition threat. Rather, it was in response to calls from agency critics for an independent audit.
The Sunset report had multiple criticisms, grouped into four general categories:
• Failure to responsibly manage finances
• Excessive and unsustainable in-house costs
• A need to enhance the safety of the existing commuter rail line before expanding the rail system further
• Failure to effectively engage stakeholders
The closest the agency came to quibbling with Sunset's recommendations was to argue that a few issues would be better handled by changes in management practice rather than through hard-and-fast changes in agency rules, and to assert that the commission relied on outdated data regarding the safety of several bridges on the MetroRail Red Line.
"Prior to opening the Red Line, all bridges in the commuter rail corridor passed rigorous safety inspections by the [Federal Railroad Administration]," read the reply letter. "The Sunset Report's findings were based upon a 2007 consultant's report. Since that report was issued (and prior to starting commuter rail service) Capital Metro made all necessary repairs on the three highest priority bridges. Currently, there are no bridges within the 32-mile corridor that need immediate replacement. Moving forward, Capital Metro, along with its rail contractor, will finalize priorities for additional bridge maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement."
Regarding a recommendation to scrap the agency's complicated labor arrangement, Cap Metro basically said, in so many words, "Yeah, yeah – we know." (State law forbids collective bargaining by government agency employees, but federal law requires it in order to receive federal funds. Thus, Cap Metro created a shell organization, StarTran, that technically is the true employer of most of Cap Metro's drivers and mechanics, and Cap Metro contracts with StarTran for the labor.)
"Capital Metro agrees that the current organizational structure between Capital Metro and StarTran is confusing and should be addressed," Cap Metro wrote. "Conversations about how to best resolve this issue have occurred for many years and the Board will consider different options and structures for providing transit-related services. There are significant legal and financial matters that must be fully evaluated in order to ensure that the proposed recommendation will not introduce additional challenges and risks."
As for the tin ear that the agency has been accused of having toward stakeholders, Cap Metro said that beginning this year (when a mostly new board was installed), it has stopped using a consent agenda, forcing discussion of issues before the public; board members are presented with an agenda 10 days before meeting (in the past, they sometimes didn't see the agenda until shortly before meeting); and Martinez has requested that committee chairs submit monthly reports a week before board meetings to better facilitate discussion of issues.
"My legislation to reform Capital Metro created a bias toward action," Sen. Watson wrote in a statement. "I am generally pleased to see that the agency is in agreement with the Sunset Commission and appears poised to move forward.
"But actions speak louder than words," he continued. "I, along with the rest of this region, will be watching to see that Capital Metro follows through on these changes. The agency, and the board, must be biased toward action."