Shut­tle sub­sidy un­der scru­tiny

Ut pays cap­i­tal metro about half of the cost of run­ning the sys­tem

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear

Cap­i­tal Metro spent $108.1 mil­lion dur­ing the past decade run­ning its shut­tle bus sys­tem for Uni­ver­sity of Texas stu­dents, staffers and fac­ulty mem­bers. Dur­ing that span, the uni­ver­sity paid the tran­sit agency $52.8 mil­lion for the ser­vice, or about 49 per­cent of the cost.

And that doesn’t take into ac­count the ini­tial cost to Cap­i­tal Metro of buy­ing the shut­tle ser­vice’s 87 buses — up to $400,000 each, al­though fed­eral grants of­ten pay 80 per­cent — that carry those stu­dents and work­ers around.

As the tran­sit agency’s board this month con­sid­ers re­new­ing that con­tract, board mem­ber Norm Chafetz says that af­ter 21 years of sub­si­diz­ing UT buses, it might be time to con­sider putting more of the fi­nan­cial onus on the uni­ver­sity. For now, Chafetz has man­aged to per­suade Cap­i­tal Metro and UT of­fi­cials to shorten the pro­posed con­tract to two

‘I’m not con­vinced we can’t do bet­ter. There’s no rea­son you have to sub­si­dize all your ser­vices. If we can get full cost re­cov­ery, then we should.’

norm chafetz, mem­ber of Cap­i­tal Metro’s board, which is con­sid­er­ing re­new­ing its con­tract with UT

years from three years so that new agency chief Linda Wat­son can re­visit the is­sue sooner. The board prob­a­bly will ap­prove the shorter ver­sion July 26.

“I’m not con­vinced we can’t do bet­ter,” Chafetz said. “There’s no rea­son you have to sub­si­dize all your ser­vices. If we can get full cost re­cov­ery, then we should.”

But UT of­fi­cials say the math is not that sim­ple. They point out that UT stu­dents and staffers pay Cap­i­tal Metro’s 1 per­cent sales tax when they make pur­chases, just like ev­ery­one else in Austin. And they note that by pay­ing ap­prox­i­mately half of what it costs Cap­i­tal Metro to pro­vide buses, driv­ers and me­chan­ics for the 14

Con­tin­ued from A shut­tle routes to stu­dent hous­ing hot spots around town, the uni­ver­sity is car­ry­ing about five times the fis­cal freight of those who ride reg­u­lar Cap­i­tal Metro buses and trains.

Pas­sen­gers cover about 10 per­cent of the cost of reg­u­lar bus ser­vices — even less for Metro­Rail — with tax­pay­ers cov­er­ing the rest.

“UT stu­dents are sub­si­dized much less than Austin res­i­dents,” said Pat Clubb, UT’s vice pres­i­dent for uni­ver­sity op­er­a­tions. “The stu­dents are tax­pay­ers too; they pay sales tax on ev­ery­thing they buy. … Why shouldn’t they be sub­si­dized if ev­ery other cit­i­zen is sub­si­dized?”

Cap­i­tal Metro plan­ners, af­ter a route-by­route anal­y­sis of the shut­tle sys­tem and reg­u­lar bus runs across the city, say that if the shut­tle con­tract with UT were to dis­ap­pear to­mor­row, the agency would need to of­fer about 80 per­cent of the bus ser­vice now cov­ered un­der the UT con­tract to sat­isfy stu­dent de­mand for tran­sit. And per­haps take in less money than it gets now from UT.

“In a nut­shell, that’s why we think the part­ner­ship with UT is a win-win,” said Todd Hem­ing­son, Cap­i­tal Metro’s vice pres­i­dent for strate­gic plan­ning and devel­op­ment.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the uni­ver­sity and Cap­i­tal Metro dates to 1989, when the agency took over ser­vice that pri­vate bus com­pa­nies had pro­vided for 20 years. Cap­i­tal Metro of­fered snazz­ier buses with air con­di­tion­ing, but it im­me­di­ately length­ened the time be­tween some bus runs.

These days, Hem­ing­son said, the shut­tle runs dur­ing the school week are five to 15 min­utes apart. Aside from routes in and around the cam­pus, the sys­tem in­cludes runs to East River­side Drive, Lake Austin Boule­vard and Far West Boule­vard in North­west Hills, among oth­ers.

This is no doubt an im­prove­ment over the first dozen years of shut­tle ser­vices. Bobby Stone, UT’s di­rec­tor of park­ing and trans­porta­tion ser­vices, says that the shut­tles were launched in 1957 by the Phi Kappa Psi fra­ter­nity, which of­fered a few buses and charged stu­dents $6 a month to haul them to cam­pus. The pri­vate bus com­pa­nies took over in 1969.

For much of Cap­i­tal Metro’s shut­tle ten­ure, heav­ily sub­si­diz­ing the UT ser­vice was no prob­lem for the agency be­cause it was tak­ing in far more tax money than it took to run the agency. The UT ser­vice, in fact, helped Cap­i­tal Metro by in­creas­ing its over­all rid­er­ship num­bers and qual­i­fy­ing it for more fed­eral tran­sit fund­ing.

But Cap­i­tal Metro’s fi­nances have changed for the worse in the past three years, with in­ad­e­quate re­serves and lag­ging tax rev­enue that have forced the agency to trim ser­vices and cut staff through at­tri­tion. That in­cludes the UT shut­tle ser­vice.

Dur­ing the five fis­cal years that ended last Septem­ber, hours of shut­tle ser­vice de­clined by 16.3 per­cent and pas­sen­gers de­clined by 28 per­cent. Cap­i­tal Metro at­tributes some of that rid­er­ship loss to UT stu­dents and staffers mov­ing in greater num­bers to reg­u­lar Cap­i­tal Metro bus routes, where they ride for free. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, non­shut­tle rid­er­ship by UT stu­dents and staffers in­creased to 2.3 mil­lion from 1.6 mil­lion. Still, com­bined shut­tle and non­shut­tle UT rid­er­ship has de­clined.

The uni­ver­sity’s an­nual pay­ment to Cap­i­tal Metro would re­main about $6 mil­lion in the first year of the new con­tract, Hem­ing­son said. The pay­ment comes from part of uni­ver­sity tu­ition; in the past it came from a trans­porta­tion fee that stu­dents paid in ad­di­tion to tu­ition.

UT in the first year would pay Cap­i­tal Metro 40 cents for each stu­dent who rides a non­shut­tle bus, then 50 per­cent of the agency’s base fare af­ter that (the base bus fare is $1 cur­rently). UT’s 16,500 fac­ulty and staff mem­bers, cov­ered un­der a sep­a­rate con­tract that has not ex­pired and pays Cap­i­tal Metro just $100,000 this year, will con­tinue to ride for free on all Cap­i­tal Metro buses and Metro­Rail.

In ad­di­tion, the new con­tract stip­u­lates that the shut­tle buses, rather than be­ing painted orange and white, would be reg­u­lar Cap­i­tal Metro buses with min­i­mal sig­nage iden­ti­fy­ing them as UT shut­tles. That would give Cap­i­tal Metro more flex­i­bil­ity in mov­ing buses around to dif­fer­ent uses.

Jay Jan­ner pho­tos Amer­i­cAn-StAteS­mAn

Af­ter 21 years of sub­si­diz­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Texas shut­tle bus sys­tem, Cap­i­tal Metro is con­sid­er­ing putting more of the fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity on the uni­ver­sity. A new con­tract is ex­pected to be ap­proved July 26.

UT of­fi­cials point out that stu­dents and staffers pay Cap­i­tal Metro’s 1 per­cent sales tax when they make pur­chases in Austin. ‘Why shouldn’t they be sub­si­dized if ev­ery other cit­i­zen is sub­si­dized?’ one of­fi­cial asked.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.