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New Capital Metro board meets the public, outlines hopes for future

Monday, February 1, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The sign outside the Terrace Bar at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel said it was a “New Year, New Board, New Day.” Inside the bar, the eight members of the newly reconstituted Capital Metro Board of Directors took the stage last Wednesday to explain to the crowd of 50 how they plan to make this year better than the last.


2009 was a tough year for Capital Metro, with delays to the Metro Rail commuter train, depleted financial resources, the resignation of CEO Fred Gilliam, the termination of Veolia Transportation’s contract, and bad publicity over gaps in service for disabled bus passengers. So it makes sense that most of the new board members listed re-establishing public trust as one of their priorities for the coming year.


Board Member Chris Riley told the crowd, “The single most important thing we need to do really boils down to one thing, and that’s restoring the public confidence in this entity. Austinites are entitled to know that whenever they buy something at the store, that penny in their sales tax is going to be treated properly, that there is going to be a good end. And they need to know that when they need to get on the bus and go somewhere, the bus is going to be there. They need to know when they take the train from Leander, it will be there on time.”


New Board Member John Langmore echoed Riley’s sentiment, telling the crowd that the board is united in their intent to restore public confidence in the agency. “There are several ways to do that,” he said. “One, hiring a good CEO with a lot of public input. Two, getting the Red Line up and running on time and safely. Three, working out a good long-term relationship with the union. Four, restoring some level of financial stability to the organization by being good stewards of the public’s assets.”


“Cap Metro is your organization,” Langmore told the crowd. “Everyone on the board is totally committed to being really engaged with the community and being very open. I hope we’ll hear from you.”


Langmore believes transparency is the key to convincing the public that the board is working for them. It’s an idea he stressed at last week’s board meeting when he told the public that the board would be encouraging citizen feedback and participation.


“At the end of the day,” he told In Fact Daily, “it’s the people’s transit agency. Everyone who buys anything in Austin is paying for Cap Metro, so they have a right to know what is going on there. By pushing for more transparency, we’re being good stewards of the public’s money. And I’m really happy to see that transparency is the theme of the new board and the staff as well; it’s a great sign for Cap Metro.”


Board Member Beverly Silas agreed with Langmore on the importance of transparency. “I want to be sure that the entire area is aware of what we as a board are doing, what the agency is doing, the direction that we’re going,” she said, “and that it’s communicated in a Fun With Dick and Jane, Sesame Street-type level to the entire community.”


Frank Fernandez told the crowd that he believes community engagement will be the key to improving Cap Metro’s standing and effectiveness. “We have a bad rep in terms of community engagement,” he said. “I think tonight is an example of the board really trying to reach out to the different communities, not only the folks who use our system but also the business community and the different service areas throughout the whole region. We want to have an open-door policy. We want the board to be more engaged, hear what you have to say, and reach out to different constituencies.”


Meanwhile, Norm Chafetz, who has perhaps the most public transit experience of anyone on the board, said that first and foremost the board needs to “restore financial solvency to the organization and look for ways to improve operational efficiencies.” 


“And what’s really important to me is to work with the other communities,” he said, “like Round Rock, Cedar Park, Georgetown, cities that are emerging as large population centers that are going to have transit needs in the future, if not now. We need to find ways to work with them, even if they’re not in our service area, to help them meet their needs.”


Another financial issue facing the board is the matter of some $51 million in payments Capital Metro owes the City of Austin under an agreement made in 2003. Way back when, Capital Metro’s pockets were lined with cash and the agency said it would reimburse cities in its jurisdiction more than $200 million for road projects, with about 97 percent of that owed to Austin.


However, with the advent of the MetroRail project, the agency’s reserves have dropped to less than $10 million, and it has suspended payments. And depending on whom you ask, Capital Metro may or may not resume those payments anytime soon, if at all. City of Austin officials may be forced to take the transportation company to court to get the money. 


The last word came from Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, the new chair of the board, and he used his time to stress the point that just because board members were signaling the beginning of a new era doesn’t mean that the old era was entirely bad. “I don’t like using words like ‘change,’” he said. “It has a negative connotation. There’s a lot of good at Cap Metro; there’s a lot of good in Austin. But we need to evolve. That’s what this board reflects and represents in my mind, and hopefully that’s what we’ll represent as leaders of Cap Metro.”


That evolution can’t come too soon for Cap Metro, as its new board members know. The Terrace Bar may have been filled with applause and good wishes on Wednesday, but if 2010 is anything like 2009 – if Metro Rail doesn’t get up and running, say, or if the budget continues to shrink or service for disabled passengers continues to lag – the new board will be hearing it from the public just like the old board did.


Or, as Board Member Beverly Stafford put it: “I hope a year from now you’re all as nice and friendly as you are today.”

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