Cap Metro’s hearing at the Sunset Advisory Commission on Tuesday wasn’t the public flogging many might have expected, given the mass transit authority’s myriad problems over the past several years. It came as a shock to no one as Sunset staff delivered testimony that centered on the financial crisis the transit authority faces. Several commissioners, however, none of whom represent Austin, were surprisingly engaged and cognizant of recent reforms at Cap Metro and gave them credit for their responsiveness to the Sunset Commission’s Staff Report which recommended several changes ranging from financial management to labor contracts to rail safety.
For those who have not followed the story from the beginning (include me in that), Cap Metro’s Sunset review began with the passage last session of Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) SB 2015. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). In addition to calling for the review “as if the authority were scheduled to be abolished”, it changed the structure of the Cap Metro board and called for another review in 2016.
Testimony was brief in comparison to the marathon PUC/ERCOT/OPUC hearing preceding it (good stuff there too), and the TDI-Division of Worker’s Compensation hearing that followed it. Here are some Cap Metro hearing highlights:
- Rep. Bonnen (R-Angleton) probed into the StarTran issue (StarTran is a private non-profit shell corporation that provides about 2/3 of CM’s services; it was created by Cap Metro as a way to preserve collective bargaining rights… long story), and wondered what would prevent Cap Metro to put a performance contract (to improve cost-effectiveness) out to bid sooner rather than later. Answer: the StarTran contract doesn’t expire until June 2011 and to break it before then could entail significant costs.
- Sen. Whitmire (D-Houston) praised the Sunset process, noting that this is an example of Sunset working well.
- Watson, who is not on the Sunset Commission, highlighted how his bill got the ball rolling on many of the reforms Cap Metro has undergone or is in the process of making (eg. changing the board composition and requiring minimum experience levels).
- Cap Metro Board chair Mike Martinez highlighted more changes occurring at the authority, including the replenishing of cash reserves.
- Jim Skaggs, representing the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation, was the only member of the public to provide oral testimony (Dominic Chavez, of Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s Austinites for Action, had signed up but wasn’t around when his name was called). Skaggs lambasted Cap Metro on its selection process for the Board, claiming it appoints unqualified members. However, when probed on what he thought would be a better selection process by Whitmire, Skaggs had difficulty explaining his solution, which consists of an expert panel pre-selecting a slate of candidates that those in the Cap Metro service territory would vote for.
- Watson noted that Cap Metro will appear at the capital again to give a progress report in September, exactly midway between now and the first date to file bills for the next session. Sunshine–>spotlight.
Our Take: This has a Pedernales Electric Cooperative-esque style reform theme to it. Previously unresponsive management and lavish compensation of outgoing leadership (pg. 10 Sunset staff report). Now it has new leadership that appears to be committed to reform. We think Cap Metro can take a few more pages from PEC’s story, notably their commitment to a set of aggressive and cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy goals.
Once they are financially stable again, and after they incorporate the lessons learned from the Red Line, developing rail could improve air quality significantly by taking more mobile source polluters (cars) off the road. This is a crucial component to the Austin metro area remaining in attainment with the Clean Air Act, as the Feds will soon ratchet down the acceptable ground-level ozone standard.
There are many other ways to reduce inefficiency and cost, like replacing its sedan fleet with hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Paratransit service costs are unsustainable according to Sunset staff, but fuel consumption was not targeted as a potential cost containment area. There could be an opportunity to work with Austin Energy, which is fresh off a successful Plug-In Partners program to promote electric vehicles.
As was stated frequently yesterday afternoon, this is just the beginning.
By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.