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Capital Metro board deals death to the long-suffering Dillo

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 by John Davidson

It’s official: The Dillos are done.


During a work session Monday afternoon, the Board of Directors of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved the indefinite suspension of the downtown Dillo.


The Dillos, famously uncomfortable rubber-tire replicas of trolleys that once ran downtown, were singled out for suspension because of steadily declining ridership, according to Capital Metro staff.


“We’re sad that we have to cancel any service, but in order to balance the budget we chose to do what would affect the least amount of riders,” said Meredith Highsmith, a senior planner for Capital Metro.


After a restructuring last year that included a 50-cent fare to ride the buses, only two Dillo routes remained: the Congress Dillo running north-south and the 6th Street Dillo running east-west, both through downtown.


Despite these measures, Dillo ridership has continued to decline, with an average of two passengers per trip and eight passengers per hour on weekdays, Highsmith told the board at Monday’s meeting.


Now, despite the objections of about 20 people that showed up Monday to object, the Dillos will stop running indefinitely on Friday, Oct. 2. The status of the bus routes, however, will be re-evaluated every year in light of the transit authority’s budget and current economic conditions, according to Highsmith.


But dissenters, including bus drivers, and riders, many of whom were physically disabled, packed the boardroom Monday afternoon.


“The Dillo is going on 80 years old… The Dillo is a Texas institution,” said Mary Steele, who was one of about a half dozen people in wheelchairs that showed up to voice their opposition to the service cuts.


“The Dillo does have a purpose in Austin,” said Carlo Saléman, who is blind. “Service cutbacks, you really need to think about it. There are a lot of us who really depend on the public transit. A lot of us don’t have any other choice.”


But Randy Hume, Capital Metro’s Chief Financial Officer, told the board Monday that in the face of falling sales tax revenues and a subsequent budget crisis, the transit authority did not have any other choice but to cut back on service by 3 percent–the Dillos.


During his budget presentation, Hume repeated what Capital Metro had said Friday: it could balance its FY 2010 budget without having to impose a fare increase, but it would need to use $2.6 million in federal stimulus dollars that had been set aside for capital improvements. Instead, the funds will go to fill a gap in the operating budget.


Hume said measures such as suspending the Dillos and using federal stimulus money for the operating budget have been proposed to avoid increasing fares beyond the two-step fare increase the Capital Metro board approved in August 2008 that will eventually double base bus fares. Without the federal dollars, fares could have gone up as early as January.


“Given the economic struggles people are having, a fare increase is a difficult thing to take right now,” Hume said.


Board Member John Cowman grilled Hume about using federal stimulus dollars to balance the $164 million budget, demanding how that hole will be filled in future budgets when no stimulus money is available. “What happens next year? We’re going to have to do something with our fares, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Next year, we don’t have this one-time fix.”


A public hearing on the proposed budget is set for Sept. 21, with a vote on Sept. 28.

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