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Commissioners debate Capital Metro pass program

Thursday, October 16, 2014 by Mark Richardson

A relatively routine spending item at Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday turned into an extended discussion of the value of providing free Capital Metro transit passes to county employees.

The item, to approve a contract with Capital Metro for an initial $40,000 of an $80,000 expenditure, got the attention of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who is generally not a fan of mass transportation. The initial outlay would give county managers money to distribute passes to employees who want them. When the first $40,000 is spent, the Transportation and Natural Resources department would come back to Commissioners and ask for more, up to a limit of an additional $40,000.

“I’ve just got concerns about when we give passes out, when you are giving something away, there is no incentive to really make sure that people are using them,” Daugherty said. “And if we’re going to get a discount for people to use, I think that we ought to move toward some sort of payment from people that are willing to take a pass.”

He said local taxpayers would probably be upset if they knew the county was giving away Capital Metro passes at no cost.

Adele Noel, an environmental project manager for TNR, explained how the program works. She pointed out that over the initial eight months of the program, her office has issued about 900 passes to employees, about 300 of whom use them on a regular basis, a number she believes will grow considerably during the coming year. The passes are available for use on MetroRail, Express routes, Metro and local bus service.

Under the previous agreement with Capital Metro, the county paid 70 cents per one-way ride, regardless of the mode of transportation. Noel said prices for the current year, which began Oct. 1, will still cost 70 cents for local bus routes, $1.05 for MetroRapid routes and $1.90 for MetroRail and Express routes. The contract will run through Sept. 30, 2015.

Currently, the full fare for Capital Metro services is $1 per trip on local buses, $1.50 for MetroRapid routes, and $2.75 for MetroRail and Express routes. Fares double on trips taken both ways. After Jan. 1, the fares will increase to $1.25 on local buses, $1.75 for MetroRapid buses and $3.50 for MetroRail and Express routes. Users can significantly reduce those costs by purchasing a monthly pass.

Noel said the contract stipulates that the county only reimburse Capital Metro each time a pass is used.

“If someone takes a pass and doesn’t use it, it’s no cost to the county,” she said. “The City of Austin has a similar program. They have not received any complaints from the residents about this program being an abuse of taxpayer funds, and I have not received any (complaints) either.”

Commissioner Bruce Todd pointed out that the expense of providing a transit pass was considerably less than what it currently costs to provide each employee a parking space.

“This is all about … the dollars and cents, but it’s also about attitude and the way we do business,” he said. “And if one calculates the cost of the free benefit we give to employees right now of paid parking downtown — that’s a huge figure.”

Noel said the county pays about $100 a month to provide a parking space, while the most recent cost of providing a transit pass was just $66 over an eight-month period.

“It is not as if we’re doing a giveaway for people taking the bus alone,” Todd said. “What we’re doing is encouraging a behavior change with, hopefully, the anticipated benefits to follow.”

Despite those figures, Daugherty made one more try at diluting the program, floating the idea of employees paying half the county’s cost — 35 cents a ride — for use of the transit passes. However, he got no support for the idea.

In his motion, County Judge Sam Biscoe specified that TNR staff keep accurate records on the program and bring that report back to Commissioners when they return to get more money. He pointed out that by then (after Jan. 1), the court would have two new members.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve and preliminarily fund the contract, with Commissioner Ron Davis absent.

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