Cap Metro: The Fewer the Merrier
Budget cuts target Cap Metro's most vulnerable riders
"Our fiscal year 2011 draft budget increases MetroBus and MetroRail service, increases our financial reserves and improves bus stop accessibility," writes Linda Watson, Capital Metro's brand-new president and CEO, in the preface to the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget. That sounds pretty good, but of course, the devil is always in the details. Left out of that statement: that increased service will actually be used by fewer people and the financial reserves will be attained partially by cuts in service to those who need it most.
Only a masochist would envy the job expectations of Watson and her staff in formulating the budget – after a combination of recession woes and unwise spending dug the agency into a financial hole, she must now simultaneously build up the transit agency's bank account, make the new rail line a success, take care of transit-dependent riders while convincing those with other choices to leave their cars at home, pay off funds owed to the city of Austin, and ultimately make Cap Metro financially sustainable.
And all this must be done while appeasing the political considerations of the Cap Metro board members and the public at large. Those political considerations include a demand by the board to hew closely to recommendations outlined in a report this spring from the Texas Legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission (see "Cap Metro Promises To Be Good," May 14).
Both constituencies get their say next week: The board will hold a public hearing on Monday, then it will deliberate and vote on the budget Friday, Sept. 24. "Important to me," board Vice Chair John Langmore told the Chronicle, "is that it be a very conservative budget, from the perspective of what our assumptions are on revenue generation and also conservative from the perspective of assuring that we get up to a responsible level of reserves."
We hit the highlights of the budget's numbers last week (see "Cap Metro FY 2011: The Highs and Lows," Sept. 10): Most of Cap Metro's revenue still comes from the 1-cent sales tax it receives from its service area, and the agency expects revenues from that source to go up 2.7%. In presentations to various board committees, Chief Financial Officer Randy Hume has said Langmore will get his wish on conservative assumptions, saying the 2.7% increase is actually less than the 3% the city of Austin expects.
But cutbacks and fare increases will also be among the tools used in making the numbers add up. Hume wants MetroAccess, the agency's service for customers whose disabilities prevent them from taking fixed-route service, to be cut back to the bare minimum required by the Americans With Disabilities Act – that is, making it available only within three-quarters of a mile of a regular bus or rail route and cutting the hours that the service's call center will take reservations. That will translate to 32,928 fewer hours of MetroAccess service in FY 2011 from FY 2010, a 10% cut. The agency does expect to actually have an 8% rise in service miles, but overall, disability activists say they're taking a hit.
Cap Metro has said these cuts are necessary because MetroAccess, though it accounts for only about 2% of trips, eats up about 17% of the budget. The Sunset Commission singled out MetroAccess as "extremely costly and may not be sustainable."
"What I find really discouraging about this budget is they want to cut the fares on the train from $2 to $1, [but] they want to raise the price for MetroAccess passengers," says activist and attorney Pat Bartel, who has visual impairments. A "fare simplification" proposal would reduce rail fares across the board, with slight cuts in two-zone trips and 50% or more reductions in one-zone trips, while raising MetroAccess fares from $1.20 up to $2 for a single trip and from $35 up to $45 for a monthly pass. "They're trying to make it look like more people are riding the train by cutting their fare in half, and what are they doing to the disabled? Raising our fares to compensate for that?" asks Bartel. "It's not acceptable at all."
The agency does expect to serve fewer people. Because of a fare hike last year and more proposed for this year – as well as a proposal that free riders (the elderly and those with disabilities) start chipping in 50 cents for local bus and "one-zone" rail service and $1.35 for MetroExpress and "two-zone" rail – the agency projects ridership will drop from 33.5 million in FY 2010 to 31 million in FY 2011. However, the changes should bring fare revenue up from $9 million to $11.6 million.
"Those are tough decisions but ones that I think are responsible," Langmore says, "creating a sustainable organization that passengers know is going to be sustainable over time, and we won't continue to yank them around [with] huge services in big years and then cut way back in lean years."
Don't expect that logic to fly with advocates for the most needy.
"MetroRail, that loud sucking sound, will bring in a whopping $120,000," wrote D'Ann Johnson of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which advocates for low-income Texans, in a posting on the Chronicle's online forum. "Where will the rest of the money come from? From the people who have to ride the bus to get to work, school, doctor's offices, and the grocery store. ... Does this board want to get the poor people off the bus so the choice riders will get on?"
The board will hold a public hearing Monday, Sept. 20, noon, at Cap Metro headquarters, 2910 E. Fifth. Additionally, an online public meeting will be held today (Thursday) at noon; register at www.capmetro.org. The board will reconvene at Cap Metro headquarters to deliberate and vote on the proposed budget Friday, Sept. 24, beginning at 10am.