TX: A Flush Cap Metro Raises Spending, but Ridership Expected to Dip

Sept. 04-- Capital Metro is cashing in -- but the buses aren't seeing quite as many riders.

The formerly strapped transit agency is sitting on a $102 million savings account and plans to boost spending next year by more than $38 million, an increase of about 13.5 percent.

At the same time, Capital Metro expects to lose almost 3 percent of its ridership this year. Its proposed budget for next year predicts another 1.2 percent drop, bringing ridership to 32.8 million. After seeing boardings go up for three years to a high of 34.2 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year, Capital Metro will dip back next year to roughly the same number of rides it had in 2000.

The rising revenues and declining ridership may go hand in hand, said Dan Dawson, the agency's vice president of marketing and communications. Capital Metro imposed one fare increase this year and has another scheduled for January. Historically in the transit industry, Dawson said, ticket hikes cause about a 4 percent ridership decrease. Recovering from such a "deflection," he said, can take two years or more.

Capital Metro has seen an uptick in riders on its door-to-door paratransit service, a program for people with qualifying disabilities that has expanded in recent years. Over the past decade, the miles of paratransit service provided by Capital Metro have increased by a third. Given the added time that traffic congestion means for such trips, the hours of paratransit service have increased 75 percent over the past 10 years.

Dawson and agency Chief Financial Officer Leslie Browder, asked about the increase in paratransit miles and hours, couldn't pinpoint a specific reason. But Sandy Seekamp, a retired teacher who has used the service since losing a leg and badly injuring the other in a car wreck 18 years ago, said the change likely has to do with the agency limiting a program that let people with disabilities use Capital Metro vouchers for taxis.

Capital Metro began scaling back the taxi vouchers several years ago, amid concerns that not all taxis were wheelchair accessible, and moved more of those clients to the agency's own paratransit service.

Seekamp, who serves on Capital Metro's advisory committee for services for people with disabilities, says records shared with the committee show "that things haven't changed. From what I can tell, there are not more people taking rides. They're just doing it now on the bus as opposed to the taxis."

However, paratransit spending, according to Capital Metro budget documents, will be about $28 million next year, almost triple what it was in 2005-06.

Capital Metro's finances have been buoyed by five straight years of strong growth in its 1 percent sales tax, as well as the revenue from a couple of fare increases since 2010.

Next year, the agency plans to spend a total of $222.8 million on operations, almost $82 million on capital projects, $4.6 million on debt payments (principally for its MetroRail cars) and $12.8 million to Austin and other local governments, in the process lowering its reserves to $59 million. That will allow the agency to boost bus and rail service by 5 percent, replace almost 50 regular buses and more than 80 vehicles for its door-to-door service for people with disabilities, and pay for a two-page list of other projects.

MetroRail operations will cost about $14.3 million next year, according to the proposed budget, with a slightly lower ridership of 771,000 on the commuter trains between downtown and Leander.

Overall, Capital Metro expects to have $22.8 million of fare revenue next year, about 10.3 percent of its anticipated operating cost.

Copyright 2014 - Austin American-Statesman

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