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Capital Metro studies fare hikes, scrapping Dillo service

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Citing budgetary constraints, the Capital Metro Board of Directors began taking public input Monday on a series of fare increases across the entire transit system. The board also heard from staff and citizens regarding the possible elimination or suspension of the downtown Dillo service. Although they took no action, the two items will need to be decided by the end of September.


Randall Hume, executive vice president for finance and administration at Capital Metro, laid out the proposed changes to the board. Due to contracting sales taxes, Cap Metro’s FY09 will likely see a $14 million decrease from last year, with another 5 percent decrease, $9.9 million, projected for FY10. The proposed fare changes could add $3.1 million to the Cap Metro budget.


The fare increases would essentially move forward the timetable for changes approved by the Local Government Approval Committee, originally intended to take place in August of 2010. The proposal envisions implementing the fare changes in January of 2010. A new law approved by the Legislature this session allows for the Cap Metro Board to set fare increases without the approval of an LGAC.


Of the 20 fare changes that would move forward, 17 would increase over the previously approved amount. Fixed Route single adult ride fares would stay the same and children would still ride free. Express Routes, MetroRail tickets and multi-ride passes would all increase. 


In his presentation, Hume pointed out that Cap Metro has the lowest base fares of any other city in the state, tied with Corpus Christi. Hume’s presentation noted that Austin also has the lowest price on passes, which have increased 22.5 percent since the most recent fare increase. Further bolstering the case for fare increases, Hume said the American Public Transit Association conducted a recent survey that found that 90 percent of transit systems in the country are increasing fares and reducing services. Several citizens spoke against the fare increases.


If the increases move forward, along with several other cost saving measures Hume told the board that Cap Metro would only face a service reduction of only 3 percent as opposed to 10 percent that would be necessary without any changes outside of a hiring freeze and halting merit increases.


That number does not include the proposed elimination of the Dillo service. Board Chair and Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez told In Fact Daily, the cuts weren’t a given. “We’re going to look at all the numbers, and we haven’t settled on anything. We’re looking at every possible way we can look at it.” Gomez said “probably about mid-September we’ll take an actual vote on where we stand.” The final step would be including the increases in the budget vote scheduled for Sept. 28.


Meredith Highsmith, a planner with Cap Metro, gave the board a presentation on the Dillo service, and a proposal to eliminate the venerable faux trolleys. The Dillo ridership has plummeted in the face of service reductions, route changes and the introduction of fares last year. Highsmith said ridership on the Dillo represented only .6 percent of total ridership across the system and that parallel service was available through existing routes. 


Board Member John Cowman wanted to know whether the absence of the Dillo would impact connections between the MetroRail station and was told that additional routes would come into service on the regular bus schedule that would fulfill that need.


Several citizens spoke in opposition to the elimination of the Dillo service. Thomas Butler spoke to the board on behalf of the Downtown Austin Association and said the organization did not oppose a “suspension” of the service but didn’t want to see its permanent shuttering. Others accused the board of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which the route changes and fares and service decrease were engineered in order to decrease ridership and eliminate the Dillo.


Council Member Chris Riley, the newest member of the Board, told In Fact Daily he was “unclear” how much discussion had taken place prior to the meeting yesterday but said, “I’m curious. Have we looked at different options for adjusting service, maybe increasing fares on the Dillo to make it more revenue neutral…”


“It seems like a response to economic conditions we’re in,” said Riley. “I know everybody is having a hard time dealing with budgetary pressures right now and at Cap Metro the way that’s manifested is proposals for cutting service and raising fares, which is unfortunate at a time like this.”

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