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Cap Metro approves early date for fare hike

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

On Monday afternoon, the Capital Metro Board of Directors approved a $164.7 million operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1. Despite an estimated 5 percent drop in sales tax revenue, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Cap Metro’s funding, the adopted budget does not include any “major service reductions.”


In order to keep 2010’s budget in balance, the board approved the use of $2.6 million in federal stimulus money for operating expenses, a controversial measure that several members of the board, including Chair Margaret Gomez, had hoped to avoid. “We have a practice where we don’t use one-time money for ongoing expenses,” Gomez said. “It really puts us way behind on budgets and numbers. The federal stimulus money is meant to help create jobs and help people meet their needs, and in this particular case, it’s not doing that at all.


“But I do believe that we must move forward as the budget is balanced in order to make sure that the buses continue to run on October 1.”


The use of federal stimulus funds has been a source of controversy, with groups like the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association opposing the move on the grounds that moving money away from city rail improvements will further delay the opening of the Capital MetroRail, the Downtown-to-Leander commuter train also known as the Red Line.


As a compromise, the board also agreed to move up the implementation of a previously approved fare increase on city buses, from October 2010 to January 2010. Fare for a single one-way trip will jump from 75 cents to one dollar.


“I believe,” Gomez said, “that the fare increase is necessary for us to have the proper revenue services to make this agency operate with strength that riders can depend on. And perhaps in the future we will have a directive that says that the board will not use one-time money for ongoing expenditures.”


Gomez and several other members of the board, including John Cowman, hope the jump in revenue resulting from the fare increase will mean that the federal stimulus funds won’t have to be used in the coming year. This new rate increase, combined with last-year’s 25-cent raise, will bring the city nearly $9 million in additional revenue next year.


Though the fare-hike proposal passed overwhelmingly, one Board Member, Council Member Chris Riley, voted against the measure. “Though it would certainly be my preference to not use one-time funds for ongoing expenses,” Riley said, “in this case we have commitments that we have to bear in mind. The first is the commitment we made that we wouldn’t be raising fares until August. The second is the commitment we made to this entire community that when we provide transportation, we’re not just providing transportation to people who are going to be riding the rail; we have obligations to those who are dependent on our bus service and other types of transit, and I feel that taking ten percent of that stimulus money to help with operations and help folks during this difficult time is appropriate.”


According to Cap Metro Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer Doug Allen, the city’s long wait for the opening of the Red Line may be coming to an end. In a presentation to the Board, Allen reported that Capital MetroRail, which was scheduled to begin providing commuter service in March 2009, will most likely be operational sometime in the first quarter of 2010.


In the six months since violations of federal safety regulations forced the agency to delay the launch of the Red Line, Allen said, Cap Metro has completed a “very thorough hazard analysis and risk assessment” of the commuter line “with the full participation of the Federal Railroad Administration.”


According to Allen’s presentation, Cap Metro has completed the design of the line’s primary and secondary communication and train-detection equipment relocation systems. In addition, engineers have begun making changes to the 30 centralized traffic-control devices that guarantee the fluidity and safety of the entire system, concentrating on the effectiveness of the train line’s “vital logic,” a term used to describe an automated system’s default mode of operation in the case of human error.


In addition to clarifying procedures related to emergency situations, worker protection, and signal operation, Allen said Cap Metro is also in the process of improving “gate down time” at three Central Austin intersections: Lamar Blvd., Braker Ln., and Kramer Ln.


Allen put the cost of these improvements at between $750,000 and $1 million.


Acknowledging Cap Metro’s recent federal woes, CEO Fred Gilliam told the board, “We are aware of the fact that everybody is anxious for this system to start, but I hope everyone understands that the safety of Capital MetroRail is much more important than a schedule.”

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