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Cap Metro approves fare increases except for seniors, disabled

Thursday, November 5, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

On Wednesday the Cap Metro Board of Directors voted to approve a fare increase for bus and rail services but rejected a controversial staff proposal to begin charging seniors and riders with disabilities. The vote also moved the date the increase will go into effect from August to late January, pending a 60-day state-mandated review by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization  (CAMPO).


Though Cap Metro Executive Vice President Randy Hume defended the fare increase as the best way to offset declining revenue brought about, partially, by a decrease in city sales tax, the proposal was not without its critics, both on the board and off.


Mike Manor was the only board member to vote against the hike, claiming that any increase would disproportionately affect Austin’s poorer citizens, who are already struggling through the current recession. This was probably the last hurrah for Manor, who has been served on the board for about a year. Although CAMPO members appointed him in 2008, the CAMPO nominations committee did not choose him for next year’s board, which begins service in January.


Leander Mayor John Cowman, on the other hand, will continue his service and he expressed his disappointment with the decision not to raise fares for all classes of customers. Cowman told the board that it was imperative Cap Metro act responsibly and set its sights on trying to earn enough revenue from fares as it reasonably could. He bemoaned the fact that seniors and the disabled would continue to use Cap Metro services for free, saying that “in these tough economic times, no one should be exempt; we all need to pitch in.”


Manor, on the other hand, argued that the board had a moral obligation to put off fare increases as long as it could. “We’re in the people business,” Manor said. “We need to encourage a safety net, not just negotiate one” by haggling over details.


Manor told In Fact Daily that since the board recently passed a balanced budget for fiscal year 2010, the best thing to do would be to wait and see. “Our regressive fare system needs to be addressed as we continue to build the system,” he said. “Any fare increase is just perpetuating an unequal situation for the poorer people of Austin. I have a problem with a fare increase when we don’t have the rail running and we’re not getting any revenue from that. We need to bring together our business community with members of the persons-with-disabilities community and other stakeholders and work through some things so that we have system that’s more equitable.”


Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless, seconded Manor’s position. Troxell told In Fact Daily after the meeting, “I certainly understood what Manor was doing.  He thinks that we need to address the concerns of the working poor. And that’s not happening at this time. At a time when we’re in recession, do we really need to be passing a fare increase? I don’t think so. We’re pleased that the seniors and folks experiencing disabilities were excluded once again from the fare increase. But I think Mr. Manor made some critical points that this is a disproportionate increase against the poor and the working poor.”  


But Manor said he isn’t against fare hikes per se, just fare hikes in this economic climate. “Staying on schedule with the August 2010 fare increase would have been okay with me,” he told In Fact Daily. “Then we would have had our sunset review report, which would have given us a better sense of the organization and where we could save and where we could generate more revenue.”


The Sunset Commission, which was created by the state legislature “to evaluate the governance, management, and operations of Capital Metro” is scheduled to issue its first report in April 2010.  


After the meeting, Cowman told In Fact Daily, “I think 25 cents is fair and reasonable. We did get the fare increase, which was our objective; it just wasn’t as much as I had hoped. We’re not a social services company; we’re a transit company, and we have social service partners, one hundred-fold, that work toward finding those that cannot afford to pay. And they find them and make arrangements with them by giving them fare passes. The way we did things in the past, giving things away, we can’t do now; it’s not feasible. Instead of giving everything away, we have to be sustainable. We have to start being responsible.”


In the end, the board voted 4-1 in favor of the proposal – which included the fare increase, the exemption for seniors and the disabled, and the rescheduling of the increase to late January. Manor was the only “no” vote, with Board Member John Treviño Jr. absent. Treviño has experienced health problems in recent months.


According to the transit agency’s Hume, the fare increases – which include a rise in the base single-ride rate, from 75 cents to one dollar; the 31-Day Metro Pass, from $18 to 28; the Express Bus 31-Day Pass, from $36 to 63; and the MetroRail 31-Day Pass, from $36 to 70 – will generate an estimated $2.3 million over the next fiscal year. Had the institution of a 25-cent fare for seniors and the disabled been approved, it would have generated an estimated $600,000 more for the year.

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