Agency can no longer af­ford free rides

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

We’re glad Cap­i­tal Metro board mem­ber Norm Chafetz is ask­ing whether the tran­sit agency can — and should — re­cover more of its costs in pro­vid­ing ex­clu­sive bus ser­vice for the Uni­ver­sity of Texas. As it stands, UT pays nearly half of what it costs Cap­i­tal Metro to trans­port stu­dents and oth­ers around its Austin cam­pus.

The num­bers work out this way: Cap­i­tal Metro spent $108.1 mil­lion dur­ing the past decade run­ning its shut­tle bus sys­tem for UT stu­dents, staffers and fac­ulty mem­bers. UT paid the tran­sit agency $52.8 mil­lion for the ser­vice, or about 49 per­cent of the cost.

That ar­range­ment did not strain the agency back when it was flush with cash. But it is a con­tract that needs to be re­vis­ited in light of Cap­i­tal Metro’s trou­bled fi­nan­cial af­fairs be­cause of soar­ing costs the agency failed to plan for and lag­ging sales tax rev­enues. For now we agree with Chafetz, who is rec­om­mend­ing that the con­tract with UT be re­newed for two years (in­stead of three) so that Cap­i­tal Metro’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Linda Wat­son, can re­visit the con­tract sooner.

That is rea­son­able given that UT is pay- ing nearly half the cost for the spe­cial­ized shut­tle ser­vice on top of what stu­dents, staff and fac­ulty pay in sales taxes that fi­nance Cap­i­tal Metro’s op­er­at­ing bud­get. But there are other fare poli­cies that need to be ad­dressed sooner be­cause they have be­come huge fi­nan­cial li­a­bil­i­ties that are de­plet­ing Cap­i­tal Metro’s bud­get.

Given its fi­nan­cial predica­ment, Cap­i­tal Metro no longer can af­ford a fare pol­icy that awards free rides to se­niors and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. It is not a pol­icy based on need; all se­niors and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties — no mat­ter how wealthy — get that break.

And while no one is sug­gest­ing that those pas­sen­gers pay full fare, at­tempts to charge them 50 cents (half the reg­u­lar $1.00 fare) to ride the buses have trig­gered po­lit­i­cal storms.

Cap­i­tal Metro’s for­mer board chair­woman, Mar­garet Gómez, suc­cess­fully pushed the board to de­feat a pro­posal for a 25 cents fare for pas­sen­gers who now ride for free. That was last year, when Gómez was run­ning for re-elec­tion for Travis County Com­mis­sioner.

Free rides for se­niors and oth­ers were nice perks when the agency was flush with cash. But the agency, which has strug­gled to main­tain sol­vency, no longer can sus­tain free ser­vice.

With about 30 per­cent of its pas­sen­gers rid­ing for free, Cap­i­tal Metro is for­feit­ing nearly $1.7 mil­lion a year based on a 50 cent fare or about $850,000 a year based on 25 cents.

An­other fare pol­icy that the agency must re­vise pro­vides door-to-door ser­vice for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties who are un­able to ride reg­u­lar buses. Vans or sedans pick up and drop off pas­sen­gers for med­i­cal ap­point­ments, shop­ping and other ac­tiv­i­ties.

We are not sug­gest­ing that the agency elim­i­nate or scale back the ser­vice, which ex­ceeds re­quire­ments of the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act. The agency’s pol­icy should re­flect the val­ues of Cen­tral Texas, and we’re glad it does that. But the ser­vice in its present form is not fi­nan­cially sus­tain­able and must be made more eq­ui­table.

In fis­cal year 2009, Cap­i­tal Metro spent nearly $20 mil­lion — about 10 per­cent of its bud­get — to serve 7,000 clients who use the spe­cial­ized ser­vice. Rid­ers pay just $1.20 each for the door-to-door ser­vice in­stead of the full $2.00 per­mit­ted by fed­eral law. The agency could re­cover $460,000 more yearly by rais­ing the fee to $2.00.

Mis­man­age­ment and poor plan­ning have con­trib­uted to Cap­i­tal Metro’s fi­nan­cial woes. The agency would be in much bet­ter shape had it raised fares for the above-men­tioned ser­vices — as well as for reg­u­lar bus ser­vice — years ago dur­ing good eco­nomic times. The agency now is play­ing catch-up with its fi­nances.

Get­ting the agency’s fi­nances in or­der will re­quire in part re­vis­ing gen­er­ous tran­sit ser­vices that Cap­i­tal Metro no longer can af­ford.

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