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Wolff: METRO shouldn’t eliminate fares

Rejects Parker’s suggestion

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Outgoing METRO chairman David Wolff, responding to comments made by Mayor Annise Parker, says that Houston’s METRO should not get rid of its bus and light rail fares, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Earlier this month, Parker told the Chronicle, “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.”

Parker said that METRO needs to talk about other options to better serve its riders, including the possibility of eliminating fares altogether, although she acknowledged it would have cost the agency $66 million - about 20 percent of its expense budget - in 2009.

But Wolff, whom Parker publicly criticized during the mayoral campaign, said that the new mayor’s ideas “were not thoroughly thought out.” Wolff said that her comments could be perceived by federal officials as a lack of support for transit, which could hurt the light rail expansion. Even if METRO were not going to expand its light rail system, Wolff said that eliminating fares would force the transit agency to cut back one-third of its bus service, further hurting its riders. The Chronicle reports:

In his letter [to Parker], 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.
...
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 decisions Parker is referring to date back to 2004, when METRO cut back its bus service in an effort to save money. In an interview with Houston Tomorrow, METRO President & CEO Frank Wilson explained the decision:

In 2004, as a result of spending any money and all money at any cost just to carry the last rider, our operating ratio was 13 percent. And that means you made 13 cents for every dollar you spent. Pretty dismal. An industry standard, to see whether or not you’re running a good system – just for buses alone, I wouldn’t count the seven miles we have as saying we’re a rail system – would be 30 percent.
...
So what was happening, we were running more and more and more service, and then we cut all the unproductive routes.

Wilson noted that the agency’s operating ratio has since risen from 13 percent to 21 percent, and that as a result the agency has started expanding its bus service again at a time when most transit agencies nationwide are cutting service due to large budget shortfalls.

Parker will appoint five board members in coming weeks, giving her appointees a majority on the nine-person board. It is not known whether any of the existing Houston members will be reappointed. The Chronicle has also posted the full letter that Wolff wrote to Parker.

Transportation for America report on service cuts: Stranded at the Station

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