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Cap Metro responds to Sunset Advisory Commission audit

Friday, May 7, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

You could describe the Capital Metro situation with any number of easy proverbs.


The proof is in the pudding. The devil is in the details. Actions speak louder than words. Or, as Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) noted in a statement yesterday after Cap Metro released its rather agreeable response to a tough Sunset Advisory Commission audit, the transit agency must now be “biased toward action.”


Less catchy, of course, but it all implies the same thing: If you talk the talk, can you walk the walk? That’s especially true if you’re a transit agency that has had a rather beleaguered past when it comes to earning and deserving public trust.


“I, along with the rest of this region, will be watching to see that Capital Metro follows through on these changes,” Watson wrote in his statement. “The agency, and the board, must be biased toward action.”

The question now, it appears from talking to various parties both inside and outside the agency, is not whether something at Capital Metro is broken or if the time has come to fix it. Instead, 25 years into its history as Austin’s transit agency, the question is, “Is Capital Metro capable of fixing itself?”

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, president of Capital Metro’s new board, agreed that the question is fair. Anyone who has been in Austin for any length of time knows of the transit agency’s past transgressions: the ill-fated bus parade of 1986, the FBI investigation into questionable business practices in the late ‘90s, the failed rail pitch of 2000, the frequent turmoil over labor relations, and, of course, the recent evaporation of revenues that turned Cap Metro from flush to foul.


“We have to own where the agency is today,” Martinez said. “It is in disrepair, and the board intends to change that.”


Capital Metro is ready to change, and to change in ways that will restore trust with the public, Martinez said. The audit is a bellwether for the agency. It’s both acceptable and understandable that people approach the Capital Metro response as “same song, next verse,” he said, but the agency will respond.


“We view this not only as a comprehensive look into Capital Metro,” Martinez said of last month’s audit. “We look at this as a directive. We know we have issues at Capital Metro.”


While much needs to be addressed, both short and long term, the report does confirm some of the recent work of new committees, Martinez said. And although no formal action has been taken, Martinez has suggested monthly updates on meeting the audit’s benchmarks, plus expanded opportunities for public input. It is important, he agreed, that the public knows progress is being made.


The key concern of the audit is fiscal management controls. Cap Metro subsidizes too much service, according to the audit, whether that service is paratransit, UT shuttles, or even commuter rail.


In response, Martinez noted that new policies are in the works and that transit of almost any kind would be subsidized, shuttle or not. He also said that the agency is trying to reach a legal agreement on paratransit obligations, which is eating up 20 percent of the budget. Capital Metro does subsidize UT shuttles, but it also collects rates far superior to other transit agencies, he noted.


Capital Metro’s final decision on offering paratransit services in the community, for better or worse financially, could happen soon, after a new legal settlement on service obligations is hammered out between parties, said Martinez.


One of the agency’s biggest problems in recent years has been its relationship with the bus drivers’ and mechanics’ union. The labor issue has mired the agency in controversy and at least one bus driver strike. Jay Wyatt, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, remains skeptical. The directions from past administrations still dominate, he says.


“I still see (former CEO) Fred Gilliam’s agenda in play, because nothing has changed since he’s left. We would hope to see, are beginning to see, some glimmer of difference, but when it comes to being genuinely involved in things that matter to us, I still see the same program,” Wyatt said.


What is that program? “Bust the union,” said Wyatt, promptly.


So what are the perceptions on both sides? Those on the agency side say the ability to strike is the issue. Those on the union side, like Wyatt, say the issue has less to do with strikes and more to do with the ability to engage third-party mediation and to maintain federal employee negotiation protections.


Martinez has hinted at legislation next session to resolve issues. The obvious conclusion, given the Sunset audit, is the creation of meet-and-confer status for bus drivers at Capital Metro. Martinez has suggested as much before past sessions.


If StarTran were to be taken out of its role as middleman, bus drivers would be, finally, direct employees of the transit agency. However, that shift would conflict with the circa-1985 creation documents of Capital Metro and would require legislative action.


“We don’t have a gun. We’re not a police department or a fire department. We turn a wheel,” said Wyatt of giving bus drivers any type of pseudo-meet-and-confer status. “Meet and confer would be nothing for us. And what we give up is our federal protections under law. We don’t mind giving those up, but if we’re giving those things up, what are we getting in return?”

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