Eliminating fares on Metro buses and trains, as Mayor Annise Parker recently suggested, would cripple the agency’s light-rail expansion plans and force reductions in service to people who depend on public transportation, board chairman David Wolff said on Thursday.
At the close of the monthly board meeting, Wolff read aloud his Feb. 11 letter to Parker responding to her comments in a Houston Chronicle article published three days earlier. Parker’s suggestion that the Metropolitan Transit Authority should explore the idea of eliminating fares to increase ridership, Wolff said, was “not thoroughly thought out.”
Parker responded that Wolff seems to have missed her point that Metro should “think outside the box” and refocus on its mission of serving the public rather than on boosting the share of its revenues that come from fares. Wolff, she said, has presided over an agency “that in my opinion, has been stuck in neutral for six years.”
The mayor said she expects to get reports in the next few weeks from committees she appointed to study Metro, and she intends to replace Wolff and perhaps other board members soon after that. The mayor appoints Metro’s chairman and four other members of its nine-member board.
Wolff said he was concerned that Parker’s comments might be perceived by federal transit officials as a lack of support for the rail program, although Parker has said she wants the rail lines built as soon as possible.
Parker’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans, said members of Parker’s transition team will meet with Federal Transportation Administration officials in Washington next week to reinforce the administration’s support for the rail plan. The mayor will make the trip in March, Evans said.
In the Chronicle article, Parker said she was “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.”
In his letter, Wolff said the agency needs the fare revenue to support revenue bonds, which in turn are needed to generate a local match required to receive $1.6 billion for light rail construction from the Federal Transit Administration.
“I understand what revenue bonds are,” Parker responded. “Mr. Wolff does not need to point that out to me.”
In addition, Wolff wrote, the loss of $70 million in fare revenue Metro has budgeted this year would force it to reduce bus service by a third, a “catastrophe” for residents who depend on public transit.
Metro expects the Transportation Administration in the next few weeks to finalize its agreement to provide $900 million for Metro’s North and Southeast rail lines. The agency plans to use local funds for the Uptown and East End lines, and will seek additional federal money for the University line.
The board on Thursday approved a recommendation by Metro CEO Frank Wilson to revise the contract with the team of companies designing and building four of the rail lines.
The $97 million increase in the contract amount, from $1.28 billion to $1.377 billion, will be offset by increasing the fixed costs from 75 percent to 98 percent, reducing Metro’s exposure to risk, officials said.
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