Spend money where it counts

This commentary was printed in the Austin American-Statesman, editorial page

Friday, November 23, 2007

Capital Metro ridership continues to decline as costs increase and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization announces roadway funding shortfalls, which portend dire consequences for greater Austin transportation. However, there is some good news and some possible solutions.

Capital Metro ridership of 33 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 was down 6.2 percent from 2006. Its 2008 projections were recently revised from another decline to a small increase because a proposed fare increase was canceled. These projections and Cap Metro ridership reports to the federal government through 2005 reflect a 10-year decline though its ridership area’s population growth exceeded 17 percent.

Declining ridership has been accompanied by rapidly increasing costs. Cap Metro projects that it will spend almost 90 percent more (inflation adjusted) for operations in 2008 than in 1999 while serving fewer riders.

Cap Metro estimates that its expenses will exceed revenues in about four years based on approved projects. A situation like that would result in bankruptcy in the private sector. Cap Metro has spent more than $1.6 billion tax dollars since its 1986 founding and is projected to spend another $6 billion through the 2030 CAMPO Plan. However, projections show no increase in the percentage of people using transit. Trends indicate fewer riders partially because of dramatic increases in people working at home and declines in UT ridership.

Capital Metro and CAMPO data indicate the Austin area will spend more than 30 percent of its transportation funds through 2030 on “alternative transportation modes,” predominately transit. This lopsided percentage of funds allocated to transit serves less than 1 percent of the miles traveled by area residents.

Despite declining transit ridership and record increases in spending, Cap Metro is implementing high-cost, inefficient commuter rail and is spending millions planning and promoting high-cost, ineffective downtown rail trolleys. Commuter rail is projected to cost several hundred million dollars more than promised to voters in the 2004 election, and it initially will serve just 1 percent of the ridership while being well over 10 percent of the budget.

With bright red, warning lights flashing in many areas, Mayor Will Wynn has suggested another light rail election next year for a system which seems to be counter to Cap Metro’s proposed downtown trolley. This light rail would cost more than $1 billion and serve few riders.

Capital Metro’s deteriorating financial condition, worsened by overruns on rail projects, inefficient operations and declining ridership will result in higher fares and reduced service.

The lopsided allocation of limited transportation tax dollars wastes money on ineffective programs and limits projects that will decrease roadway congestion.

Trolleys and light rail on major downtown streets are a wasteful expenditure of tax dollars and will cause severe congestion, create safety hazards and destroy capital views from Congress Avenue.

The Cap Metro board must redirect the agency to a sustainable plan to serve the true transit needs of the community. CAMPO must allocate our transportation funds to priorities addressing citizens’ needs. More than 99 percent of the area’s travelers arrive at destinations by roadway whether by transit, school bus, bicycle or private and business vehicles. The only way to improve mobility and quality of life substantially is to improve roadways.

Mobility and home ownership are two of the most important economic engines providing U.S. citizens the highest standard of living in the world. The Austin area recently completed a few modest roadway improvements that enhanced the quality of life for hundreds of thousands and improved the operations of hundreds of businesses. Let’s continue.

Capital Metro’s board must take steps to operate a sustainable agency or citizens should act promptly to reconstitute the board with professional members, directly elected, who will have the capability and courage to take responsible actions and represent the community’s best interests.

Skaggs, who lives in Austin, is chairman of the Coalition on Sustainable Transportation (COST).

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation