After I posted some questions of Capital Metro regarding their fare restructuring proposal, I was invited to come speak with representatives of Capital Metro and their fare change consultant today to seek further answers and clarity. What follows is a dump of my memory of the highlights of the meeting:
- It was confirmed that the consultant was not tasked with assessing whether or not to raise fares. That decision had already been made by Capital Metro as part of its long-term budget assessment, driven by the board’s (completely unrealistic, absolutely ridiculous) goal of a 20% Fare Recovery Ratio.
- The consultant never seriously considered a local base fare other than $1.25. The fare had to increase (per Capital Metro’s instructions), it couldn’t increase in increments of less than a quarter due to simplicity constraints, and it couldn’t increase by $.50 due to political constraints. $1.25 was the only option. The revenue and ridership impact table was calculated for completeness after the fares were set, not as an input into the decision-making process. This truly was a red herring for me.
- I emphasized that the point of Capital Metro releasing its materials should be to inform the ultimate decision-makers (both the board and the public) and help them make a decision. As such, the chain of reasoning behind the decisions made should be presented. Capital Metro employees countered that: a) 1-1 meetings such as the one I was in were part of the public input process; b) I was the only one who had asked these sorts of detailed questions. For those of us who want to see a data-driven revolution in municipal decisionmaking, this shows how important it is to make our voice heard at every turn. As long as there is a belief that nobody out there cares, nobody in the decision-making apparatus will go the extra mile to release good documentation.
- When I discussed why I don’t like FRR as a metric, the only defense offered was a political one: transit is under constant attack, so it needs to prove its efficiency. I think this is a very bad misreading of the politics of transit. Recovering 8-10% of operating costs as fares is not impressive to anybody; nor would 20% be. Transit opponents will not be mollified by hearing that fares are only subsidized 4-1, an FRR goal that would render Austin transit completely ineffective. There was no defense offered of FRR as a useful metric for making efficient transit decisions. I think it is telling that FRR is seen as a political metric and yet it is the only metric that filters all the way down to the most technical decisionmaking documents. This is a true triumph of anti-transit advocacy.
- Many of the same discussions that are had in twitterlands (e.g. should passenger subsidy be displayed next to FRR) are had within Capital Metro itself. It would be wonderful to see the technical employees of the agency engage with outsiders at a technical level, rather than hold their own parallel conversations.
- My general proposal to use models other than transit agencies for governing the running of Capital Metro seemed like a foreign language at times. For example, I expressed the idea that most organizations decide whether to raise revenue at the margin based on its projections for what it will do with the revenue and whether it’s worth the cost. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that this step had been done in setting the long-term budget, rather than in setting the fare increases (although this idea was never clearly expressed in the fare restructuring proposal documents). Or, similarly, asking what the FRR of a fire department or zoning office is, and why do transit agencies use this odd metric no other government agency would. I’m not one to think mindlessly that government should be “run like a business,” but “because our peer agencies do it that way” doesn’t sound much better to me. This is not something unique to Capital Metro, but no less the annoying for it.
I was impressed at the friendliness and expertise of the Capital Metro staff, but my main critique remains the exact same as it was at the outset: the chain of reasoning from principles to outcomes was never presented, let alone justified, in the public documentation on this proposal. (FWIW, I don’t blame the consultant for this; it’s capital metro’s responsibility to communicate with the public. If the consultant’s document is inadequate for that purpose, they should present another staff commentary.) Having heard the actual reasoning only reinforces my belief in the necessity for this transparency. Not because the reasons were bad; on the contrary, because many of the reasons were good! If Capital Metro can’t even justify the decisions it makes for the right reasons, it will never get in the habit of justifying the hard decisions.