The Capital Metro board Monday will consider a $283.7 million operating and capital budget for 2013-14, about 4 percent higher than this year, which includes the transit agency's fourth fare increase since 2008. Among a menu of fare hikes proposed for this year and next, people with disabilities who use the agency's MetroAccess service would see a 25 percent to 33 percent increase in tickets and monthly passes.
"Since 2007, the price has gone up 500 percent for (MetroAccess) users," Carlos Alemon, a blind man who uses the door-to-door service, told the board at a public hearing last week. "It hits us too hard. Most of us are on low, fixed incomes. You need to reconsider this." A 10-ride booklet, which was $3 before the first fare increase in 2008, is now $15 and would go to $25 by 2015 under the proposal.
The spending plan accounts for the January startup of Capital Metro's long-in-the-works MetroRapid bus service, but also includes some cuts in hours of service for regular bus routes, express buses and University of Texas shuttles.
Under the proposed budget, Capital Metro would spend about $15 million of its financial reserves. But because of two years of robust revenue from the agency's 1 percent sales tax, Capital Metro estimates it would still have $60.3 million in savings at the end of the coming fiscal year. That would be well above a legislatively mandated target of about $30 million.
Board member Frank Fernandez said the cuts in some services and the fare increases are appropriate, coming at the same time as the agency adds two rapid bus routes and continues a program to rehabilitate facilities neglected during a lean period late last decade.
"We're still too new into being financially healthy to be really thinking aggressively about growing services," Fernandez said. "We want to be smart about maintaining our financial stability. But we need to grow with the city's needs, and we need to be mindful of the effect on low-income people."
Fernandez said the budget, and the fare increase regime, have been undergoing last-minute tinkering after advocates for people with disabilities and UT students complained about some of the changes. He said that he and other board members have asked for details on how many people would be affected by the MetroAccess fare increases, and how much revenue the suggested hikes would generate, and they will consider changes Monday.
The fare increase proposal -- aside from a $3 increase in the monthly pass cost for regular bus service and a $13 increase in the monthly MetroRail/express bus pass -- would increase several MetroAccess ticket and pass prices. Donna Simmons, the agency's interim chief financial officer, said those changes would raise $5,000 to $10,000.
That amounts to small change in a proposed $207.3 million operating budget.
The fare proposal includes a second round of increases in the 2014-15 fiscal year, with hikes across the board. At that point, the base fare for regular buses would increase to $1.25, MetroRapid bus fares would go to $1.75 and a one-way ticket on MetroRail or an express bus would cost $3.50.
Fernandez said the board likely will back away from or amend a proposal to eliminate the Cameron Road UT shuttle route, at least through the end of the academic year, after students complained that it would force many of them to make long walks through what they called a dangerous neighborhood to catch a regular Capital Metro bus.
Capital Metro, created by public votes in Austin and several surrounding smaller cities in 1985, has always depended heavily on its sales tax revenue while keeping fares generally lower than in comparable cities. That sales tax would raise about $182.2 million in the coming fiscal year, according to the budget, 3.5 percent over this year. Fares, even with the increases, would generate $19.2 million, under 11 percent of what it costs to operate the agency's buses and MetroRail train service. Capital Metro also expects almost $60 million in federal transit grants next year, and it would take in about $4.8 million from its freight rail operation. The agency also expects a small amount in reimbursements from the Texas Department of Transportation and other small investment revenue.