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Arguments continue over impact of Cap Metro fare increases

Thursday, October 29, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

Advocates for the disabled and elderly argued heatedly over a Capital Metro proposal to speed up a scheduled fare increase at a public hearing Wednesday even though members of those groups would pay only 25 cents per ride.


Proponents of the fare increases, including the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Alliance, hope to get them approved as soon as possible. According to Cap Metro Community Involvement Team Coordinator John-Michael Cortez, increasing bus fares by the beginning of February would earn the cash-strapped agency an extra $700,000 in revenue in FY 2010. Over a full year, he said, fare increases would bring in $1 million dollars in added revenue.


The rate increase had been scheduled for August but now is proposed for late January of next year.


According to the proposal, the base rate for a single-ride ticket would rise from 75 cents to $1, while the fare for a 31-Day Metro Pass would increase from $18 to $20. All other fares would increase as well. The most controversial fare increase, however, would be for seniors, people with disabilities, and other people on Medicare, all of whom currently pay nothing. 


In a presentation before the board, Cortez aimed to ease concerns that the 25-cent rate hike would be debilitating for those three groups of riders. According to research, he said, a single person living on SSI disability generally receives a monthly check of $674. Under the proposed fare hike, that person would pay $10 for a 31-Day Pass, or about 1.5 percent of his/her income. “So, it’s an increase,” Cortez said. “But we think it’s still affordable.”


Pointing out that even with the proposed increases, Cap Metro would still be charging less for fares than many transit agencies across the country, Cortez said, “While we face a number of concerns in this community regarding affordable living, the cost of transit is really not contributing substantially to the affordability issue. More than likely, it’s housing that is causing the real affordability issues in this community.”


Cortez also pointed out that he and his staff have been working with nonprofit charitable agencies in the city to find a way to increase Cap Metro’s revenues while still providing services to those who would be unable to afford any fare hike. “We are working with a lot of nonprofit, social-service providers to create a safety net,” he said, “so that as Capital Metro moves forward with establishing a fare structure that allows this agency to be sustainable into the future and grow, we have the resources in place to ensure that those who cannot afford those fares have access to our services.”


Speakers representing disabled and elderly Cap Metro customers, however, remained unconvinced. After Cortez’s presentation, between 10 and 20 of them spoke out against the fare hikes, including representatives from the Austin chapter of the American Council of the Blind and ADAPT of Texas. They argued that charging the disabled and the elderly for bus services when Cap Metro’s own internal surveys show that many Cap Metro stops are inaccessible to the handicapped is inherently discriminatory. They also pointed out that $10 a month can be debilitating for people on fixed incomes.


With Medicare prices on the rise and social security payments including no cost-of-living increases for the first time in more than 30 years, protestors argued that the Cap Metro fare hikes would force the most vulnerable members of the Austin community to forgo medicine or even food in order to afford a bus ride.


According to John Meinkowsky, policy advocate for A Resource Center for Independent Living (ARCIL), “I got four calls today – that makes 10 this week – from people with disabilities who, as is, can’t pay their rent. I’m glad Mr. Cortez brought up the example of a person living on SSI because that person has no flexibility. The fixed cost of rent is going to be there, utilities are going to be there, food is going to be there. You can’t juggle that. That person doesn’t think about 1.5 percent of their income when they think about the ten dollars they’re going to be paying for the bus now; they think of it as ten dollars.


“In most cases, that’s probably two days of going hungry.”


Once the board approves the fare increases, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) board would have 60 days to overturn them under state law. If they do not, after those 60 days the increases would take effect. The board had hoped to vote on the fare hikes at a special meeting planned for Nov. 9, but at yesterday’s hearing, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez informed the rest of the board that he would be unable to attend that meeting and requested that they delay the vote until he could be in attendance. The rest of the board agreed but did not set a date for that meeting.


Meanwhile, in a press release sent out yesterday, Travis County Commissioner and Capital Metro Board Chair Margaret Gomez came out in favor of exempting seniors and disabled citizens from the proposed fare increases. Gomez, who will step down from the board at the end of this year but who is facing a tough Precinct 4 re-election fight against former City Council Member Raul Alvarez next year, remains in favor of increases in general.


Gomez wrote in the release that though the fare increase is an unpopular idea among voters, she believes “it is the only way Capital Metro can survive at this time. However, I do not believe that we should balance the agency’s budget on the backs of elderly and disabled citizens, which is why I will ask the board to exempt seniors and disabled citizens from any fare increase.”

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