As Mayor Annise Parker awaits reports from transition committees studying the Metropolitan Transit Authority, fundamental questions loom about how the agency should deliver and pay for services and its role in shaping regional growth and development.
Parker has signaled that she is not wedded to conventional wisdom about Metro, even suggesting eliminating fares to increase lagging ridership. While acknowledging that Metro would have to cope with the loss of fare revenues — $66 million in 2009, about 20 percent of its expenses — she said it is a discussion the agency needs to have.
The mayor, who appoints five of the nine members of Metro’s board, said she envisions a seamless network of transportation services that move people efficiently throughout the eight-county Houston region.
“The goal should be, wherever you get on our ultimate mass transit system, from commuter rail, to light rail, to bus, you get one ticket, you go anywhere in the region,” Parker said.
The mayor said she expects reports from the five committees reviewing Metro by the end of this month. Their finding will inform her choices on a number of difficult policy questions:
• • What share of the population in a sprawling, car-dependent city can reasonably be expected to use public transportation?
• • Should Metro gradually reclaim the 25 percent of its 1-cent sales tax it now pays to cities for road and bridge improvements?
• • What should the city and Metro do to encourage dense, walkable development along rail lines that could absorb growth and spare prairies and fields from being paved over with subdivisions and shopping centers?
Madeline Lewis, a 71-year old public housing tenant, has a basic problem: She needs a ride to church every Sunday, but Metro eliminated weekend service on the bus route she used because it failed the agency’s cost-effectiveness test.
“It’s a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood and a lot of us people that’s on fixed income, we can’t afford cars,” Lewis said, pleading with the Metro board last month to reinstate weekend service on the 48 West Dallas route. “We’re at your mercy, and we feel you’re going to do the right thing. With us having a new mayor, we know it’s going to get better.”
Those who depend on public transportation should receive priority in Metro’s planning, Parker said.
“I’ve been concerned that Metro has been drawing the line in the wrong place,” Parker said. “They’re too concerned with the bottom line and not concerned enough that their job is to provide transit to people who really don’t have any other option.”
Metro says its operating ratio — the share of its costs covered by fare collections — has increased from 17 percent in 2005 to an estimated 21 percent this year, still well below the national average of 33 percent.
Eliminating fares, of course, would make cost-benefit analysis meaningless, since every route would be fully subsidized. But allowing passengers to ride for free might attract enough riders to reduce congestion for drivers and produce other benefits, Parker said.
“I don’t really care so much what they collect at the fare box,” the mayor said. “I’m not going to tell them to do this, but I am personally interested in exploring — unless we’re leveraging those dollars in some ways for other kinds of matches — dropping the fares to get more people on board.”
Metro spokesman George Smalley said the agency offered free rides on its downtown trolley service from 1998 to 2004, but use of the service never exceeded more than about 11,000 daily boardings. Metro later discontinued the service.
Metro has opened its books to members of Parker’s transition committees, to ensure that she has the information she needs to decide whether dropping fares is a good idea.