What I learned from meeting with Capital Metro on fare changes

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

9 thoughts on “What I learned from meeting with Capital Metro on fare changes

  1. Thanks for posting this; very interesting. What did they say about alternative metrics such as daily ridership as % of population, $ passenger subsidy per trip, number of TRANSFERS per day (gives some info on how good frequency/timing/network/stops/tech is), avg trip time on popular routes vs same trip+parking time in car, est positive impact of trips on reduced congestion.

    As you’ve states previously, it is too easy to make FRR high: cut frequency of lower-popularity routes. What CM ignores here is that this destroys any positive network effects they may have (basically makes their “network” worthless when edge routes are on a useless 30-45 minute frequency).

  2. They discussed two metrics: FRR and subsidy per passenger (i.e. subsidy per trip). They saw FRR as a taxpayer accountability metric and subsidy per passenger as another interesting metric, perhaps representing fairness. Again, I think FRR is a poor taxpayer accountability metric. They were of the idea that no one metric is good enough and you want to use a portfolio. I think this is a bad idea as it allows you to find a measure to justify whatever decision you already want intuitively. I don’t disagree with the idea that you might go with your intuition over your metric, but I think that if you do, you should turn around and figure out what’s wrong with your metric and improve it, not just find a different one for this one situation. I have a draft post on that subject I should complete.

    Again, the metrics themselves played virtually no role in the decision, except to the extent that they saw the Board’s 20% FRR goal as a mandate to increase FRR (without believing they would actually achieve a 20% FRR). Therefore, we didn’t spend a long time on that discussion.

  3. The reason they have parallel conversations is that any SERIOUS conversation with them (where it’s not just you blindly accepting what they give you) will result in you, sooner rather than later, being relegated with me on Troll Island.

  4. >> the board’s (completely unrealistic, absolutely ridiculous) goal of a 20% Fare Recovery Ratio.

    Why is this completely unrealistic? Don’t you think Austin (with a large student population and liberal/environmental leanings) can do at least as well as Orlando or Tucson?

    1. I don’t know enough about Orlando or Tucson public transit and researching is more than I can do for a single blog comment (though I welcome any contribution you or others can make). However, as I linked above, I don’t believe that FRR is a good measure of “how well” Capital Metro is doing. UT shuttles have an FRR of 43%. If we cut all the other services from Capital Metro, I don’t believe this is likely to decrease, and Capital Metro could be a model of high FRR. But a worthless model, of course! Another way of raising FRR would be eliminating low-FRR suburban service. Many of my readers would probably agree with this move, but whether it’s a positive or not doesn’t just depend on those routes’ FRR; it also depends on how much of the subsidy for those routes is coming from suburban taxing jurisdictions that would drop out of CapMetro.

      So I don’t know enough about Tucson or Orlando to make the comparison, but it’s not a comparison I think should be made anyway.

      1. >>I don’t know enough about Orlando or Tucson public transit
        Neither do I. I was going by CapMetro’s review document
        That called out those cities (among others) as peers for comparison. I mentioned those cities in particular, as they are both Sun Belt peers, and presumably similarly sprawling and low-density (as compared to looking at Minneapolis or Portland).

        FRR may or may not be an appropriate measure, but that’s a completely different issue from it being completely unattainable or ridiculous.

        You seem to be assuming a priori that FRR increases will come from service cuts
        “an FRR goal that would render Austin transit completely ineffective.”
        Which seems very strange considering the subject under discussion involves fare increases (the other side of the lever).

        >>it also depends on how much of the subsidy for those routes is coming from suburban taxing jurisdictions that would drop out of CapMetro.

        Most of the suburban service is in CoA proper. Round Rock, Pflugerville, and Cedar Park are already out. Leander seems unlikely to leave, as they’re getting good service from the train.

  5. perhaps a different approach to costs and efficiency of public transit is to compare the cost for running individual transit routes i.e. subsidies per $1 recovery at the fare box,l that would be per trip. can add to that per mile per trip.

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