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Legal Aid group takes aim at Cap Metro over fare hikes

Thursday, July 31, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Citing an adverse impact upon the poor, the non-profit group Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid plans to file a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency over Capital Metro’s proposed bus fare hike. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EPA can punish local agencies that receive federal funds if they discriminate against minorities. 

Capital Metro has already done one environmental impact study but TRLA wants an additional study.

 “Normally, when we think about the environment and the impact of something, we think about things like carbon emissions or wildlife,” said Cynthia Martinez with TRLA. “But an environmental impact study would also look into the impact that any policy would have on a particular community, especially low-income and minority communities. These fare hikes would unfairly hurt low-income communities.”

 The proposed fare hike, up for a vote next Monday by a group of elected officials known as the Local Government Approval Committee—including five members of the Austin City Council—would raise bus fares from 50 cents to 75 cents. The new fare schedule would include a second hike in 2010 from 75 cents to $1. Fares for the agency’s Special Transit Service would also go up. The agency also proposes setting different fares for a ticket on the commuter rail line depending upon where riders board the train.

 While some say the agency needs to raise fares to keep up with rising operational costs, there are some concerns about the details of the proposal, especially as it relates to the disabled.

 “Instead of offering a discount to those over 65, the disabled and the military, I think it should be free,” for those customers, said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. He also said he would support deeper discounts for the purchase of long- term multiple ride passes, “because I think what we’re trying to do is encourage people to ride the buses on a regular basis—something like half price.”

 He said he expects to support the increase in the other fares.” As for the proposed two-zone fare structure for tickets on the Red Line commuter rail service, Leffingwell said, “I thought the train fares were a little low–$1.50 in the far zone and $1 in the near zone. When I was on the Capital Metro Board, we were talking about something north of $3. They ought to, in some way, be related to the cost of operating the equipment.”

 On the other hand, Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken pointed out that Austin has the lowest fares of any public transit system in the state. “We criticize TxDOT and the State of Texas because they stopped indexing the gas tax to inflation in 1991 even though inflation did not stop in 1991,” he said. “This is a similar situation. Inflation did not stop in 1984 but we have never indexed the fare—there has been no fare change. (But) Capital Metro will effectively become bankrupt in the next couple of years if we don’t have some kind of fare increase.”

 Council Member Mike Martinez said members of the fare rate committee are “sensitive and mindful” of the fact that rate increases hit low income people the hardest.

 “We are trying to find other ways of funding a fare increase that provides us the revenue to allow us to fund operations and pay the high cost of fuel moving forward,” he said. Martinez said he had asked Capital Metro CEO Fred Gilliam to “help me understand why we can’t do a fare structure that is somehow tied to your income.”

 Council Member Sheryl Cole said that with the increase in the price of gasoline, there is an increase in the need for public transportation. “While I wish we could have more multi-modal transportation with no fare increase to the users, it simply doesn’t seem realistic at this point,” she said.

 Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid submitted a detailed questionnaire to Capital Metro on how the proposed fare hike for regular bus service would affect low-income and minority riders. “These aren’t new arguments,” TRLA’a Martinez said. “When the original fare hike was proposed (in 2007), we made these same arguments to Capital Metro back then.”

 In addition to dealing with the rising cost of fuel, Capital Metro officials have set a policy goal of having the bus service inch closer towards self-sufficiency. Currently, the fares collected from riders only cover about 9 percent of the operating costs, with Capital Metro’s sales tax revenues covering the rest

 Capital Metro Chief Financial Officer Randall Hume said the agency’s goal for the 2009-10 fiscal year is to boost that to 12 percent and their goal over the next three years is to raise $15 million more from fares than they are currently receiving.

 Beyond that, Leffingwell said, “I always understood their goal was to eventually recover 20 percent instead of the 8 to 10 percent they are recovering now.”

 McCracken also believes that Cap Metro should combine its fare increase with free rides for those genuinely disabled.

 “Since the vast bulk of the transit is our regular bus system, there is just not enough money,” he said. I think that could not be raised without some kind of general fare increase. I am very open to the opportunity to provide free bus fares for folks with disabilities. The county has a way to provide enhanced verification.”

If the Local Government Approval Committee approves the proposed fare hike on Monday, it would then return to the Capital Metro Board for a final vote on Aug. 27. Capital Metro officials have said the new fares could go into effect in October. The standard bus fare of 50 cents has been unchanged since Capital Metro was founded in 1985, with the exception of a period between 1989 and 1990 when the agency suspended all fares and provided service free. The 50-cent fare was re-established in 1991.

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