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Board may look at Metro fares

Thursday, June 30, 2005 by

Cost of bus ride has not increased since 1985

With the lowest fares and the lowest fare recovery rate of transit agencies in the state, Capital Metro may be looking toward a fare increase, but don’t expect a jump in prices any time soon. And whatever the agency decides, as Lago Vista Mayor Pro Tem Fred Harless says, “It would be political suicide to walk in and say we’re going to double our fares.”

At Monday’s meeting of the agency’s Planning, Finance, and Audit Committee, Chief Financial Officer Cynthia Hernandez presented data comparing Capital Metro fare collection with other cities around the nation and reminding the board that the agency has not raised fares in the past 20 years.

According to Hernandez, only Corpus Christi matches Capital Metro’s 50-cent basic fare and one quarter student fare. Dallas and Fort Worth charge $1.25, Houston $1 and San Antonio 80 cents. Only Capital Metro gives free rides to senior citizens, but it’s not clear how many of those are provided on any given day. Agency spokesperson Libba Letton says Capital Metro provides an average of 130,000 total daily rides.

Hernandez showed the board data on collections and expenditures for the agency. The fares collected from riders amount to only 9 percent of the agency’s budget. This compares with nearly 21 percent in Phoenix, more than 27 percent in Houston, nearly 18 percent in San Antonio and 12.5 percent in Dallas, she said.

On the bright side, Hernandez said since new fare boxes were installed in August of last year, daily cash collections had risen from $6,600 to $9,000 per day. She said that a new pilot program for day passes implemented in May indicated that collections would rise from $9,000 to $10,000 per day when the program is fully operational. That program allows bus riders to buy a $1 pass for the entire day.

Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas remarked Wednesday, “As we were talking about it, it was shocking to me that we hadn’t increased fares since 1985.” But Thomas pointed out that Cap Metro gets 75 percent of its budget from sales tax, so other transit authorities may be operated differently.

Thomas said “I need to see how it’s going to hurt our ridership, our people,” if rates are raised. But he said if the bus system—not the rail system, which was excluded from Hernandez’ numbers—needs more funding, he might be convinced that a rate increase is in order.

On the other hand, Harless said he would be interested in “whatever kind of matrix indexing we could do,” that would automatically tell the board when it is time to raise rates. While Capital Metro raises only 9 percent of its revenue from fares—down from nearly 12 percent in 2000—most of the agencies use 20 percent as a benchmark, he said. Harless said the agency still needs to be looking at closing further loopholes in its collection system. One such loophole, already addressed, was illegal use of identification cards for Special Transit Services (STS) riders, he said. Capital Metro hopes that it has eliminated that problem through the use of the Smart Card, which includes the photo of the owner.

“They had a whole list of items they wanted to look at,” Harless said, “and they’ll come to us with a plan,” for increasing Capital Metro’s collection ratio, he said.

According to Hernandez, agency staff would like to reach the 20 percent ratio over a 10-year period. Of course, the board must agree to take steps that would lead to that improvement. Hernandez’ list includes tightening up eligibility for the STS program. STS, or mobility impaired, riders make up an average of 1.8 percent of daily ridership but the agency spends 20 percent of its budget on such services.

The rate of increase in STS costs has been a big factor on the expense side diminishing the fare recovery rate. Hernandez also cited increased labor and contractual costs, increase in costs of health care insurance and a board policy that Capital Metro will respond to community emergencies. Responding to emergencies includes providing buses to shelter people during gas outages and sending buses to evacuate people forced out of their homes by disaster, she said.

For example, Hernandez said when she came to the agency three years ago, health insurance costs went up 37 percent. That number is now closer to 15 percent, she said, about the same as the national average.

But fare revenues will probably be a major topic of discussion during late July and August, when the board works on its budget. Hernandez is hopeful that all the numbers will lead to increases in fare revenues over time, with “systematic and planned fare increases” that will eventually lead to an increased fare recovery ratio.

RMA OKs some help on toll study

Williamson, Travis County have yet to agree to share city's costs

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken has asked the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to participate in an upcoming city toll road study, promising Austin will pursue a professional objective evaluation of transportation options for the region.

Questions about the regional toll road plan, especially when they come from the Austin Toll Party, are often tinged with allegations of misconduct and mismanagement. While McCracken, a city representative to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), has sometimes joined the criticism of the CTRMA, he was quick to tell the transportation board that he was striving for an objective report that incorporated the full input of the RMA.

Chair Bob Tesch pointed out the CTRMA would be completing fairly extensive audits and studies to justify the toll roads it intends to build. Tesch asked whether it might not make more sense for the city to use the CTRMA’s own work. McCracken said it was important to keep an arm’s length relationship between the board and the study.

“This is an opportunity to build trust in the community,” McCracken said. “There is a burden to overcome with this board. I want to be an honest broker on it, fair and open, so we all can have a common set of facts.”

RMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein told the board he considered the tone of the recent CAMPO board meeting to be “very positive.” Heiligenstein said he wanted to make sure the board covered the item in detail because the city was embarking on an important process. McCracken admitted the city is looking for other entities – the CTRMA, Williamson County and Travis County – to kick in a portion of the additional $200,000 cost. The city already has approved $100,000 towards the city’s study.

The CTRMA board expressed some general support for the concept of the study. They also authorized Heiligenstein to consider providing some amount of funding support for the expanded study McCracken wants to pursue. The city’s consultant, Charles River Associates, likely will use traffic and revenue estimates of the CTRMA’s contractor, Vollmer Associates.

The first phase of the city’s proposed study will be a due diligence review of existing toll road projects to validate the current toll road plan. A second phase, which will be paid for solely by the city, will consider a broader variety of transportation options, including managed lanes and congestion pricing.

Dallas was McCracken’s model for the second phase of the toll road study. A study could show that a toll road or a combination of free and managed lanes or even a non-tolled alternative might be the best option. It would provide a cost-benefits analysis for the city, keeping in mind the greater mobility needs of the region. The city’s expanded scope also will take into account options for Interstate 35.

The two counties have yet to provide financial support and sign on to the study. McCracken said a committee would have oversight of the study. So far, the committee has six members – State Reps. Mike Krusee and Mark Strama, Council Members Betty Dunkerley and McCracken, plus two members from the CTRMA board. When the counties join – which would include financial assistance – they will be given equal representation on the committee to offer input into the study.

Board Member Henry Gilmore wanted to make sure the city task force used the resources of the Texas Department of Transportation. Board Member Bob Bennett wants to be certain the study was separate and apart from fears of suburbanization, mirroring the actual trends of development rather than what citizens may idealize as the best development patterns of the city.

Heiligenstein said the study should produce a lot of cross-pollination. He will provide an update to the CTRMA board on possible action next month. The newest traffic and revenue studies will not be available for another six months, but Heiligenstein said he expected Charles River Associates to use Vollmer Associates’ traffic reviews and origin of destination studies as part of their own assessment of the toll road system.

Council rejects condos on historic estate

Former owners, preservation community opposed appeal

After a lengthy, late-night presentation last week, City Council members unanimously denied an appeal by consultant Mike McHone to change the historic zoning on the grounds surrounding the historic Maverick Miller House in West University in order to build a four-story condominium complex.

The conflict came between those who see the proposed project as a way to preserve the house by developing the surrounding grounds, ands those who say the terraced gardens are an integral part of the historic nature of the home.

According to City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, the Maverick-Miller House was built by Edmund and Emily Miller in 1923 and the rock house and surrounding terraced landscape is considered a prime example of Mediterranean architecture from that period. It was designated as a City of Austin landmark in 1999 and a State of Texas landmark in 2000. The house, at 910 Poplar, sits on several acres overlooking a bluff above Shoal Creek and Lamar Boulevard.

In February, the Historic Landmark Commission unanimously rejected the owners’ request for a certificate of appropriateness to remove the historic zoning from the seven-tenths of an acre surrounding the home in order to develop the condominiums. City staff had recommended the change.

“It is our sole desire to preserve this historic house,” McHone said. “Building the condominiums will have the effect of preserving the Maverick Miller House in perpetuity. A fund from the condo association will be used to preserve this magnificent house.”

McHone added that he felt the Historic Landmark Commission had not gotten an accurate picture of what the owners had in mind.

“At the February meeting, both of our architects were unable to attend,” he said. “We feel that the commission was swayed by an emotional appeal from the former owners without looking at the merits of our plan. They also brought in a consultant who said that townhomes would not work on the site, which we disagree with.”

Several architects spoke to the Council to outline the home’s history and architectural significance, and their plans for integrating the semicircular building onto the tract. Lead architect Stan Haas told the Council he believed their plans were both “artfully and respectfully” designed to compliment the house. “There are many examples in Austin of historic structures where part of it has been altered to ensure that the historic nature of the structure is preserved,” he said. “One example is the Mansion at Judges Hill, but there are many others.”

However, several speakers spoke forcefully against overturning the ruling. Linda Barrett, a board member of the Heritage Society of Austin said by taking away the grounds, the historic character of the property would be lost.

“The Maverick Miller House is a thing of beauty surrounded by urban blight,” she said. “The house and grounds are a rare survivor of urban encroachment, an oasis in West Campus. I urge you to take action to preserve the entire estate intact.”

Heritage Society President Joe Pinelli said that any rollback of the historic zoning was a breach of confidence with the citizens.

“If the Council approves the certificate of appropriateness, it is dishonoring the process of historic zoning in the city,” he said. “Let’s not be busting up historic designations just so we can build new condos.”

Maverick Wells, grandson of the original owners, told Council members that the family did not sell the property with any changes in the historic zoning in mind.

“There was no misunderstanding as to the nature of any of the limitations placed on the property by the historic designation,” he said. “They were aware that any development on the property would have to be approved by the landmark commission.”

In the end, Council members agreed that the house and the surrounding grounds together formed an historic unit under the current zoning, and voted 7-0 to deny the owners’ appeal.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Adjusting . . . Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas has almost adjusted to his new title, but not quite, he said yesterday. Sometimes he hears someone call “Mayor Pro Tem,” Thomas said, and he doesn’t respond immediately . . . Thomas is also adjusting to his new office, which is down at the east end of the hall. Council Member Jennifer Kim is in the office Thomas previously occupied, on the west end of the Council office wing . . . Protest planned for tonight . . . Education Austin will hold a rally at 6:30pm tonight at 1111 W 6th St. to protest AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione’s recommendation that the district’s teachers and staff not receive a pay raise for this coming school year. The budget hearing begins at 7pm . . . No other meetings tonight, just a party . . . Friends of Daryl Slusher will gather at Threadgills World Headquarters, 301 W. Riverside Drive, beginning at 6:30pm tonight, to honor the retired Council member . . . Mayor’s Book Club features East Austin authors . . . The Mayor’s Book Club and East Austin Stories are teaming up for a celebration of Eastside storytellers at 7:30pm tonight at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina St. News 8’s Erica Riggins will host the event, which features authors Celeste Gonzales, J ohn Salazar, Judith Jenkins, Marissa Barrera and Jessy Bradford . . . City Concerts . . . The Plaza Concert Series at Austin City Hall, presented by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin, will continue with weekly concerts at noon each Friday through October 2005. The public may continue to enjoy live music in the plaza at Austin City Hall, 301 W. Second St., with a line up for the July concert series that includes: July 1 – Austin Symphonic Band, 50-60 piece band,; July 8 – Onion Creek Crawdaddies. Bluegrass,; July 15 – Aaron Hamre Band, Rock,; July 22 – Heybale, Country,; and July 29 – New Orleans Jazz Band of Austin, Dixieland.

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