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Senate committee considering additional Cap Metro budget controls

Thursday, March 24, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Sen. Glen Hegar rolled out one more bill on reforming Capital Metro yesterday, a bill focused on additional budget controls, but even the agency’s toughest critic in the Senate had to admit that only a handful of significant issues remain.


Hegar, a Katy Republican, carried the bill because he chaired the Sunset Commission during Capital Metro’s sunset review two years ago, but it was former CAMPO Chair Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) who requested and drove that review. Asked to expand on what still needs to be fixed at Capital Metro, Watson said the transit agency is on the cusp of significant reforms.


Senate Bill 650, presented to the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday morning, would add some new steps to the budget process and require a two month cash reserve be in place before Capital Metro goes under sunset review again, in 2016.


“We think it’s important to put some of these things in statute so that people don’t forget what we’ve been working on,” said Watson, saying the bill is pending in committee while lawmakers work to craft new language. “We are still working on language, but I think we’ll vote it out of committee next week.”

Hegar said the agency had implemented many of the recommendations of the 2010 Sunset review report, and he noted that a new board and new CEO are now in charge. The brief discussion of the bill was so low key that neither the chair of Capital Metro’s Board of Directors, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, nor CEO Linda Watson were called to testify before the committee.


“We’re following the bill as it progresses through the early stages of the legislative process,” wrote Linda Watson in a statement released after the hearing. “Senator Hegar was pleased with the substantial progress that Capital Metro has made on the recommendations from the Sunset report, and we will continue to focus on the remaining items.”


Capital Metro spokesman Adam Shaivitz provided the most recent status report on the Sunset report recommendations. To date, 14 recommendations, including the creation of an ongoing five-year capital improvement plan, the prioritization of rail line repairs, and the creation of a contract-monitoring plan, have been completed. Four recommendations, including the reserve fund and outsourcing transit services, are still under consideration by the board.


The 55-page report called Capital Metro’s contracts that outsource transit services “financially unsustainable.” A suggestion to competitively bid the StarTran contract was the most controversial proposal in the report, though one that the Sunset Commission office suggested would save significant money. Senate Bill 650 was silent on that issue, and union leader Jay Wyatt, who was on hand for the hearing, signed up as neutral on the bill.


Martinez pointed to the steps the agency’s board had taken to correct the deficiencies cited in the report.


“Senate Bill 650 ensures the community that all recommendations from the Sunset staff will be implemented in a timely manner, and we look forward to meeting our commitment to implementing all 18 recommendations,” Martinez said.


The board’s mismanagement of a $200 million reserve fund was a major criticism in the Sunset report, released just under a year ago. Watson said SB 650 sets out a goal of putting aside two months of operating expenses for the agency in a separate account. According to the agency, this would be a reserve fund of about $28 million, but the bill also gives the agency a number of years to put aside that funding.

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