Speakers give thumbs down to Cap Metro bus fare proposal

Agency survey had shown slight majority in favor of raising fares, but supporters are no-show at public hearing.

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Jennifer McPhail at Capital Metro BoD meeting, 9/17/07

The details of the message from the almost 30 people who spoke to the Capital Metro board Monday varied, but the theme was unanimous: The fare increase regime the transit agency proposes should be at the least retooled and at the most scrapped entirely.

Monday's two hours of "no" stood in contrast to the mixed message Capital Metro staff members said they have gotten in a month of public meetings, interviews on buses and at bus stops, and other attempts to query the public on the fare increases.

According to the agency's compilation of more than 1,300 responses, 44 percent agreed "that it is time for Capital Metro to consider adjusting fees." About 39 percent disagreed with that rather general query, which on survey cards was prefaced with the statement that "Capital Metro has never adjusted its rates."

The speakers at Monday's 5 p.m. hearing, almost all of them regular bus riders and several of them people with disabilities, took issue with that assertion, arguing that Capital Metro's relatively recent requirement that people who transfer to another bus pay another fare amounts to a fare increase. And what the agency contemplates now is not an "adjustment," they said.

Jennifer McPhail, an activist with ADAPT of Texas, which supports people with disabilities, said she had been for the fare increases until seeing an earlier presentation about Capital Metro's intentions to spend $1.8 million next year on "elite" bus stop signs meant to boost ridership.

Her voice rising, McPhail contrasted that with the less than $800,000 she said the agency has budgeted for improved access to bus stops.

"You don't deserve a fare increase," she said. "You don't know what to do with the money you have now. You should be ashamed of yourself."

Susana Almanza, co-director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, and four colleagues staged a protest in the agency lobby, labeling the proposal racist because so many of the Austinites dependent on bus transportation are minorities. She vowed to file a civil rights complaint if the increase is approved.

The agency contends that it needs to the money to stay above water, if not now, then shortly.

Capital Metro, whose $171.6 million operating budget next year would be supported mostly by its 1 percent sales tax in Austin and some surrounding communities, contends that by 2011, its annual operating costs will exceed its revenue. And the agency's "fare recovery rate" — the percentage of operating costs covered by fares — is about 10 percent and is at or near the bottom by that measure among U.S. transit agencies. Agency staff members have set a goal of getting that figure to 20 percent.

The proposed fare increases would not come close to accomplishing that, raising less than an extra $5 million a year and, by the agency's estimate, cutting ridership by a few percentage points. Capital Metro's staff had proposed a series of fare hikes through 2014 that would have increased the base rate by 340 percent. The agency board balked at that.

The agency now proposes to double most fares, taking the base one-way ride from 50 cents to a dollar. But some fares would actually go up more than 100 percent, including what amounts to a 300 percent jump for many people with disabilities who use the agency's door-to-door, by-appointment special transit services.

A book of 10 rides now costs $3, a 50 percent discount from the normal 60 cent-per-ride fare. Ten rides would cost $12 under the proposal, and some other discounted fares would also stop.

"If you're going to get out of the discount business, don't do it while you're doubling fares," said David Patterson, a retired IRS worker.

The board may act on this increase as early as Monday, but that wouldn't be the final answer.

By state law, the final decision on the fare increases is made not by the Capital Metro board but by an ad hoc committee of 11 local elected officials: five Austin City Council members, three Travis County commissioners and three small-city mayors whose towns are in Capital Metro's service area. That board could convene as early as October if the Capital Metro board approves the proposal next week.

Spokesman Adam Shaivitz said the agency scheduled Monday's hearing at 5 p.m., during rush hour, because that would allow people to come after work. And most Capital Metro routes run well into the evening, Shaivitz said, allowing people interested in speaking to attend the hearing.


Proposed fare changes

Fare type Proposed Current
Adult one-way $1 50 cents
Student one-way 50 cents 25 cents
STS* one-way $1.20 60 cents
Adult monthly pass
Nonexpress routes $20 $10
Express/all services $40 $17
STS* $30 $15
Student monthly pass
Nonexpress routes $10 $5
Express/all services $20 $8.50
Day pass
Nonexpress routes $2 $1
Express/all services $4 $2
Half-price rides pass Discontinued $5
STS* 10-ride ticket book $12 $3
* Special transit services, door-to-door service provided by appointment to qualifying people with disabilities.
** 20 one-way fares


bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

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